From the Desk of Bruce F. Pauley: Why I Wrote Pioneering History on Two Continents

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BrucePauleyThe following is a post from Bruce F. Pauley, professor emeritus of history at the University of Central Florida and author of Pioneering History on Two Continents: An Autobiography (Potomac Books, 2014). 

Why I Wrote Pioneering History on Two Continents

When I began to set down a history of my life and that of my ancestors, I envisioned the usual unpublished memoir that would interest only a handful of relatives and perhaps a few close friends. The more my work progressed, however, the more I realized that my story ought to appeal to a much wider audience. There were, first of all, descendants of the so-called “Volga Germans,” who, like my paternal ancestors, answered a call from Empress Catherine the Great of Russia in the 1760s to pioneer thinly populated areas in southeastern Russia. Little more than a century later, repelled by the prospects of being drafted into the tsar’s army, and attracted by the prospect of cheap and plentiful farmland, my ancestors, along with thousands of other Volgers, immigrated again to the High Plains of North America.

I also came to realize that the phenomenal increase in the popularity of genealogy had created a reservoir of history buffs eager to learn how and why their ancestors came to the United States, and the challenges they faced in finding work and assimilating into American society. By discussing the careers of my grandfathers in the booming housing market of the early twentieth century and the rapid growth of the automobile industry during the same period, I was able to show how to put one’s ancestors into historical context.

My overall theme, declared on page one, is the importance of “dates, timing, and luck”—including bad luck—in examining one’s own life and the lives of one’s ancestors. These are ideas with which most readers can easily identify. On the other hand, I argue that luck alone is no substitute for hard work. But luck was certainly critical in 1878 for my great-great-grandfather who immigrated to this country at a time when farmland was half the price it had been five years earlier, and again in 1908 when my great-grandfather sold his farm after its value had tripled during the preceding two decades. On the other hand, my father was extraordinarily unlucky in joining his father’s lumber business in 1930 at the outset of the Great Depression. Good luck was of vital importance to me in entering the historical profession in 1963 when the demand for historians was at an all-time high and the supply was low.

How an individual chooses a career is certainly a topic of nearly universal interest. In turning to my own career, I discovered through reading numerous autobiographies by other historians that I was not unique in being influenced by a father with strong interests in history, along with foreign and domestic travel. I also recognized that balancing teaching with the increasing demands for research, discovering the convoluted process in getting articles and books published, and coping with tenure controversies and departmental factionalism, provides cautionary tales about a profession that offers little or no training for graduate students in how to prepare for such challenges. That my career did not involve an unbroken series of academic triumphs culminating in an appointment at an elite university makes it something with which many readers can easily identify. In short, the book provides an up-close look at the life of a college professor and historian, warts and all.

PauleyMy research frequently took me to Communist countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, and even Cuba. Beginning with a weekend trip to Stalinist Prague in 1957, I was able to demonstrate the benefits of combining archival research with on-the-spot observations. These experiences enabled me to examine the everyday lives of ordinary people and describe various forms of propaganda to which they were subjected, observations that should be of interest to both scholars and the general reader. The latter would likely also be interested in my other travels to nearly all the countries of Europe, along with many in the Middle and Far East, Africa, and South America among the more than seventy countries on six continents I have visited since 1945. These journeys not only demonstrate the close relationship between history and travel, but also illustrate the dramatic changes in the very nature of long-distance travel since the trains and transatlantic steamships of my youth. Travel can also open minds in a time like ours when there is tension between globalism and isolationism in our domestic and international politics.

In writing Pioneering History, I was fortunate in not relying on my memory alone. Instead, I consulted five hundred pages of letters written by my mother to her parents while she worked and traveled in Europe in 1930-31; the memoirs of my father; all of my report cards and college transcripts as well as those of my parents; numerous diaries written by myself, my wife, and my parents; and hundreds of letters to and from friends, colleagues, supervisors, and editors dating back to my teens. To this was added historical context derived from over 270 secondary sources.