Top Young Historians: 104 – Moshik Temkin

TOP YOUNG HISTORIANS

Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

104: Moshik Temkin, 5-24-10

Basic Facts

Teaching Position: Assistant Professor, Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government.
Area of Research: Modern transatlantic history, with an emphasis on 20th century political cultures in the US and Europe, the United States in the World
Education: Ph.D. History, Columbia University, 2007
Major Publications: Temkin is the author of The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial (Yale University Press, 2009), an international history of one of the major legal and political episodes of the twentieth century, selected for the long list of the 2009 Cundill International Prize in History at McGill University.
Moshik Temkin JPG Temkin is also the author of numerous scholarly journal articles, book chapters and reviews including among others:”Internationalism and the Limits of Political Tolerance: Malcolm X in Europe, 1964-1965″ (article manuscript in preparation);”Cold War Culture and the Lingering Myth of Sacco and Vanzetti”, in Duncan Bell and Joel Isaac, eds., The Cold War in Pieces: Explorations of a Model for Postwar American History (forthcoming, OUP);”Culture vs. Kultur: The First World War, American Intellectuals, and the Clash of Civilizations” (article under revision);”‘Avec un certain malaise’: The Paxtonian Trauma in France, 1973-74,” Journal of Contemporary History (April 2003). His current research interests include the death penalty in transatlantic perspective, Malcolm X’s career and politics in global context, and internationalism and border control in the twentieth century.”
Awards: Temkin is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Finalist, Cundill International Prize and Lecture in History, for The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial (2009);
Bernard and Irene Schwartz Postdoctoral Fellowship, the New School University and the New-York Historical Society, 2007-2008 (declined);
Finalist, Bancroft Dissertation Award, 2008-2009;
Visiting Fellow, Institute for Scholars at Reid Hall, Paris, 2006-2007;
Visiting Fellow, Centre d’Études Nord-Américains, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, Spring 2007; Visiting Fellow, Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, Paris, 2004-2005;
History Department Teaching Fellow, Columbia University, 2001-2003;
Gerson Cohen Memorial Fellow in History, Columbia University, 2003l;
Visiting Fellow, Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge, UK, Summer 2002;
Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies Fellow, Columbia University, 2000-2007.
Additional Info:
Affiliated with both the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Center for European Studies, Harvard University.
Temkin previously taught at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and at Columbia University.
With Alex Keyssar, convenes the Harvard Seminar on History and Policy at the Kennedy School of Government.
Temkin has written articles for The Nation, Haaretz, and the Journal of Contemporary History, and was a founder of The Israel Forum of New York, which organized public discussions of Middle East politics and history, particularly the role of the United States.

Personal Anecdote

When I read or hear other people’s accounts of how they wrote their dissertation or their first book-the sojourns in dusty but marvelous out-of-the-way archives, the fateful chance meetings with ousted despots in abandoned mineshafts, the luggage mistakenly switched with that of the shady foreign operative-I can’t help but think of the recurring Seinfeld joke about”Rochelle, Rochelle”, the film-turned-Broadway musical about”a young girl’s strange, erotic journey from Milan to Minsk.” In reality, at least in my experience, there’s very little glamour or romance involved in getting a PhD in history. Yes, there is often a lot of travel involved, and anyone who spends an inordinate amount of time in airports and hotels is bound to have more than her share of misadventures. I am no exception. But the process of the PhD is in some ways nasty, brutish, and long-sometimes strange, yes, but not necessarily in a good way, and in any case rarely erotic. Still, I like to think I’m not a masochist, so it’s reasonable to ask why I wound up walking that road. It wasn’t at all obvious, and I can’t claim to be following a calling I felt since I was a child. History was one of my worst subjects, my inability to memorize names and dates surpassed perhaps only by my inability to comprehend the most simple geometric axioms. I still recall the big day of the matriculation exam in history-as dictated by the high school curriculum in the frenetic Middle Eastern country where I spent most of my boyhood, we were tested on our knowledge of Second Temple-era Judea, and I bravely chose to answer the question about the differences in religious practices and beliefs between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. I wrote my response with some pride, pleased that I was actually able to remember all the priestly minutiae. It was only later that day that I realized in horror-though not with total surprise-that I had been absolutely correct about all the religious practices and beliefs, but had attributed those of the Pharisees to the Sadducees, and vice versa. I hoped against hope that the exam would be graded by an understanding soul who could appreciate that I had included all the relevant information, just the other way around, but no such luck was forthcoming.

In all the time that’s passed since then I’m still not sure I’ve mastered the elusive art of memorization, and I’ve certainly forgotten most of what I knew about Judea in 70AD. It wasn’t until over a decade later that I decided on an academic career (long story), and even after I embarked on the road to becoming a professional historian I was sorely tempted on a few occasions to opt for alternate paths: during one lull in graduate school I considered returning to my previous life as a journalist, and during another-this one more sustained, a probable side effect of the distractions of living in New York and then Paris-I seriously contemplated diving headlong into the world of music. What kept me going in the discipline is, I think, something that I first grasped in college, listening to a talk by wizened scholar of medieval France, and to which I have returned in such moments of doubt: that history should not, cannot, be treated as a”subject”, something separate from other domains of life, to be learned in isolation. Eric Hobsbawm was on to something (though maybe not for the right reasons) when he demanded that history not be treated as”merely one damned thing after another.” What I try to convey to students as they begin to delve into the past is that history, contrary to what they may have thought or heard, is not a body of knowledge to be absorbed, but”a way of thinking”, as Marc Bloch put it, about the world they live in. That may sound banal to those of us professionalized in the discipline, but I wish I realized that twenty years ago. I think that’s where I (and my teachers, for that matter) went wrong in high school. Armed with that insight, I might have enjoyed history much more even then, been somewhat more adept with names and dates (though probably still not with those geometric axioms) and maybe even remembered-correctly!-what it was exactly that those pesky Pharisees and Sadducees did differently from each other.

Quotes

By Moshik Temkin

  • “The Sacco-Vanzetti affair emerged as a major international concern at the height of one of the most sensitive and tumultuous periods in the history of America’s interaction with the world, and particularly Europe, a period that, in a number of ways, resembles our own. The affair was generated not only by the widespread notion that Sacco and Vanzetti were punished purely for their politics and ethnicity but also by the potent reaction to the post-World War I rise of American global supremacy and, concomitantly, American isolationism. The result of this protest, both national and foreign, was complex and paradoxical. It turned Sacco and Vanzetti into famous men, put tremendous pressure on American authorities, created a raucous controversy in the United States over the intervention of foreigners in American matters, and led to a backlash that sealed Sacco and Vanzetti’s fate: the two men were executed not despite the international campaign on their behalf but rather because of it.” — Moshik Temkin in The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial (Yale University Press, 2009)
  • “Sacco and Vanzetti left a number of odd legacies. A lot of people in the United States, Europe, and Latin America still recognize their names. I’ve seen or heard them mentioned in The Sopranos and Sports Illustrated, in novels by Kurt Vonnegut and Phillip Roth, in random conversations. The largest pencil-producing factory in Russia was named after them, and generations of Russian children associated the names Sacco and Vanzetti with the pencils and crayons they used. There was a film in Italy, a tango in Argentina, a song by Joan Baez and Ennio Morricone, a punk band in Germany, a brand of cigarettes in Uruguay. There are streets named after them in Italy and France. They often come up when people give examples of past injustices, or more facetiously, when people want to denote famous duos, as in Abbott and Costello, Jagger and Richards, Siegfried and Roy, Sacco and Vanzetti. The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair America on Trial JPGI think all this reflects an uncertainty in how they are remembered. Sacco and Vanzetti do not have a clear place in our civic life or historical record. Part of the reason for this has to do with the fact that we still don’t know-and never will know-whether they”did it.”But in many ways, the Sacco-Vanzetti affair is still with us. Certainly the issues that animated it are very much alive. Americans today still do battle over the issue of immigration, and intolerance toward foreigners is still widespread, sometimes virulent, especially when times are hard. Europeans, Latin Americans, and other non-Americans are still concerned over, and in some cases outright hostile to, America’s presence in the world, and the way Americans handle international politics. And then as now, Americans are still divided over what was called, in Sacco and Vanzetti’s day,”foreign interference” in American affairs.Whether it is the death penalty, or the health care system, or how to deal with terrorism suspects, or even who should be elected U.S. president, non-Americans have and will continue to have opinions, because the United States is so powerful and what it does domestically reverberates externally. Many Americans bristle at this but many others welcome this. It depends on whether they see the United States as an entity separated in principle from the rest of the world, or as a genuine part of the world-a world in which Americans have a stake in the lives of non-Americans, and vice versa.

    This issue divided Americans when Sacco and Vanzetti were what one magazine called”the two most famous prisoners in the world,” and it still divides Americans today. This, I believe, is the context in which the Sacco-Vanzetti affair took place. My book is not an attempt to end the discussion about Sacco and Vanzetti, or to provide a definitive account. My aim was to start a new conversation, one that would not be about guilt or innocence but rather about the Sacco-Vanzetti affair-its significance and place in history.” — — Moshik Temkin in an interview with”Rorotoko” about his book”The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair: America on Trial”

About Moshik Temkin

  • “More than 80 years after Italian immigrant anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were electrocuted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Sacco-Vanzetti case continues to confound, fascinate, and even outrage. . . . Kennedy School Professor Temkin examines how. . .the Sacco-Vanzetti case turned into the Sacco-Vanzetti affair. . . . This is a fresh look at an enduring controversy and a reminder that modern ambivalence about American power has deep roots.” — ALA Booklist
  • “[Starred Review] In the first half of the 20th century, America was known internationally for its decisive contribution to two world wars, its Jim Crow laws, and the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. This most recent study. . .surpasses all prior analyses of this subject in terms of scope, erudition, and objectivity. Temkin (Kennedy School of Government, Harvard) not only brings light to bear on the most recent historical research but focuses attention on a much-neglected facet of the case: the worldwide controversy the affair still engenders. Built upon a foundation of meticulous research, this book discusses many fascinating elements of controversy, not least the long-term views held by Sacco and Vanzetti’s defenders and accusers and how their participation in the search for justice was perceived by their peers. Timely given the contemporary attacks America faces abroad for its policies and justice system, this signal study is worthy reading.” — Library Journal
  • “What could possibly have united so many unlikely bedfellows in support of a pair of radical anarchists? Why did Sacco and Vanzetti attract so much attention given the much more widespread injustices done to black Americans in the criminal justice system? Why did a cause that gained so much national and international support ultimately fail? And what does the case tell us about relations between the United States and the rest of the world between the wars? Moshik Temkin does a brilliant job answering these questions. And in his answers, it turns out, lie the roots of the current controversy over America’s war on terror.” – David Cole, London Review of Books
  • “The”agony” of the good shoemaker and the poor fish peddler has been chronicled in scores of books, articles, pamphlets, movies, documentaries, and even ballads. By describing the case as a uniquely American story and by focusing on its legal and criminal aspects, those sources have centered on the trial in an attempt to prove the men’s guilt or innocence. Rather than follow this well-worn path, Moshik Temkin maps out the transformation of the Sacco and Vanzetti case from a local episode to a global cause célèbre. In the book’s most significant contribution, Temkin explains why the legal and political campaign to save Sacco and Vanzetti was more than just a battle against a judicial murder. As the United States rose to a position of unrivaled industrial and financial prominence, the Sacco and Vanzetti affair was a prism through which the rest of the world might understand the new emerging global power.” — Journal of American History
  • “Moshik Temkin has written a brilliant contribution. . . . The Sacco-Vanzetti Affair is a remarkable achievement, a serious book about a sensational subject.” — French Politics
  • “Moshik Temkin has written an engaging book on the political impact and debates spawned by the Sacco and Vanzetti- affair. In a novel way, he uses them to illuminate the deep socio-political and cultural fissures in American life, which have remained enduring over time.” — Jeremy Kuzmarov, History News Network
  • “After 80 years of books, films, plays, paintings and songs commemorating the Sacco-Vanzetti case, it’s challenging for an author to break new ground. Moshik Temkin’s new book does just that by focusing on the relationship between the domestic and international reactions to the case. . . .It’s a refreshing change to read a book about Sacco and Vanzetti that doesn’t stop to ask:”Were they guilty?” While a conclusive answer to that question may be lost to history, Temkin is explaining something even more important: how the case of Sacco and Vanzetti influenced this nation’s transformation into a world power and stimulated some of the important and ongoing debates about our role in the world community.” — Barbara Berenson, Lawyer’s Weekly
  • “Drawing on extensive research on two continents, Moshik Temkin skillfully connects the Sacco-Vanzetti affair to how the wider world was reacting to America’s global supremacy and isolation after World War I. The result is a primer on how the case became a template for how to use radical propaganda to advance political causes. A well-written and absorbing read, Temkin’s book also demonstrates how this case is relevant to today’s multicultural world as it was its harbinger.” — Paula Adamick, The Canada Post
  • “Temkin’s original contribution is to set the case of Sacco and Vanzetti in international context, and he does so in engaging and energetic fashion.” — Sarah Farmer, University of California, Irvine
  • “This exemplary international history reveals for the first time the full scope and multiple meanings of the Sacco- Vanzetti affair.” — Richard Fox, University of Southern California
  • “In contrast to others who have written about the Sacco and Vanzetti case in the U.S., Temkin sets the Affair and responses to it in a genuinely transatlantic context. In so doing he makes an original and distinctive contribution to his subject.” — Tony Judt, New York University

Posted on Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 12:56 AM

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