Beyond the Archives: An Interview with Rebecca Onion

For Rebecca Onion, history is a reservoir of problems and questions that resonate as deeply with the present as they do with the past. As Slate’s history writer, Onion’s beat includes coverage of museums, archives, and historical research. On The Vault blog, she contextualizes primary source material: a list of types of mania and melancholy from 1817; panoramic photos from the ruins of Hiroshima; a 1912 children’s book about a “wayward rocket.” These quick hits have proved satisfying to an Internet audience that sometimes seems as compelled by historical ephemera as it does by cat videos.

Why we’re such suckers for the antiquated, and the larger question of how we engage with history online, guide much of Onion’s more in-depth writing. On Slate earlier this year, she made a case against popular Twitter accounts like @HistoryInPics. “By failing to provide context, offering a repetitive and restricted view of what ‘history’ is, and never linking to the many real historical resources available on the Web,” she wrote, “these accounts strip history of the truly fun parts: curiosity, detective work, and discovery.” Onion’s own work is fueled by exactly those things, and her approach feels fresh and vital. In her hands, history has urgency.

In addition to writing for Slate—where, this summer, she and staff writer Jamelle Bouie have been co-hosting a podcast on the history of American slavery—Onion has published work in the Virginia Quarterly Review, The New Republic, and in The Boston Globe‘s Ideas Section, among other publications. In Aeon Magazine earlier this year, she argued that framing human history and experience in terms of “generations” is reductive and ultimately “fatally flawed as a mode of understanding the world.” In The Atlantic, she explained how Nickelodeon’s “green slime” found a place in “the pantheon of American childhood objects.”

Onion has a PhD in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. She defended her dissertation the very same week she started The Vault in 2012, and over time moved decisively away from professional academia. Her first book, Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Public Science in the United States, will be published in 2016. Having grown out of her dissertation, the book is a product of Onion’s academic life—and she’s had to reckon with where it sits in relation to her current writing for a more mainstream audience. Today she lives and writes in Athens, Ohio.

Were you always interested in history? When did it become a fixation, and then something you took seriously?

It’s really stereotypical, but I loved Little House on the Prairie. My grandmother really liked the idea of us reading older kids’ books so we read series like The Bobbsey Twins and The Boxcar Children, the Betsy-Tacy series and The Happy Hollisters. Although I wasn’t processing them as books written about past times, I always recognized that these people lived in a different place and time, and I was curious about what their lives were like. I think it was the mood of them that I was into.

I wrote a piece for Slate where I asked a bunch of historians about the first book they read that made them think they loved history. I opened that piece talking about a series of Time Life books my parents had called This Fabulous Century. It was cultural history, basically: all the fads that people were into, the music people liked, the major scandals, court cases, major news stories, cartoons—all the ephemera of a decade; there was a volume for each one. And I loved them. I thought they were so cool. I was probably 11 or 12.

I was a literature major until my sophomore year, and then I had kind of an existential crisis. I happened to start taking some American Studies classes and I thought, this is more like it: This is like This Fabulous Century, but in a class. I felt more like I was doing something new. It felt more creative to me.

How have your interests shifted over the years?

I used to think that I wanted to write more about contemporary history. In the spring of 2000, I wrote my senior thesis on the Columbine killings. I was connecting it to earlier narratives about childhood and vulnerability, and I sort of thought that’s what I would do: write about contemporary topics with a historical bent. But the interests of the professors in my department at UT Austin really influenced me. One of my advisors was really into childhood studies. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in there about psychology and myth and narrative, and it was very intellectually exciting to me. For a while, my other advisor was really into animal studies, which is, again, sort of a historical, cultural studies way of looking at animals. I wrote my masters thesis on sled dogs in late 19th century Alaska. In grad school I mostly wrote about the 20th century, and my dissertation—now book—is a 20th century book.

I really like reading about the 19th century. But I’ve never done research in it or published about it, though I write about a lot of 19th century stuff on The Vault. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to propose the history of slavery podcast—there is so much good writing about the subject, and I’ve never had a chance or an excuse to really delve into it. It’s awesome to be able to do that. Academia can be kind of confining that way. Once you’re in a period, it’s a little difficult to come into another period and try to write about it. People look askance.

I’m interested in the relationship between your academic life and voice, and your journalistic one. How do they feed each other? Are they ever in conflict? 

Early on, when I would talk to academics about what I was doing at Slate, I got some nervous feedback: “Oh, when you go back on the market again its going to be hard to explain, its going to sound like you were taking time away from doing academic writing to do this.” The truth is that I was, of course. There are only so many hours in the day, and I definitely was not doing as much as I could have been doing academically because I was caught up in the Internet.

There are a number of academics who have really thriving non-academic writing careers. Jill Lepore is the number one example, probably. She’s in two really good positions, in terms of the university and the magazine that she works for both being places that have tremendous resources, and each values her affiliation with the other one. I would presume that Harvard is probably happy that Jill Lepore writes for The New Yorker, and The New Yorker is probably happy that Jill Lepore teaches at Harvard, so they’re willing to make allowances for it. But it seems like that is the best-case scenario in terms of institutions that would allow for that.

Your book, Innocent Experiments, is coming out next year. It’s based on your dissertation, or at least grew out of it. What was it like to be finishing the book when you had at least one foot out the door of academia? Did you feel like you had split personalities?

I got the contract with University of North Carolina Press when I was still moving forward with the idea of being in academia while also doing non-academic writing. It was a pretty academic idea that wasn’t going to easily convert to a popular book, so I thought, let me just do this; maybe it will help me on the academic market. But then I ended up having to write it in the stage of my life that involved living on being paid for writing, and it was a ridiculous thing—I got a $500 advance or something. That’s standard for academic publishing, but when you’re trying to make a living, it’s just so much time spent for so little money.

I wrote about why there’s been a century-long fixation on kids enjoying science and what that says about the modern mind. I’m critiquing a lot of popular assumptions, and not in a way that offers solutions, but in a way that says, “Isn’t this culturally interesting?” It’s very American Studies: I’m going to take a widespread assumption, interrogate it, and try to figure out what it means about us. I’m a little nervous that when it comes time to promote it I will inevitably be asked to pitch pieces that are related to it. It’s going to be a little difficult. In the conversations that I get into about it, I get questions like “How can I make kids like science?”

Maybe it’s an American Studies problem—you always kind of feel like a fraud, because you’re always dipping your toe in a lot of different disciplines that aren’t your discipline.

You wrote a really smart piece for Virginia Quarterly Review last year about Letters of Note [a book, based on the popular blog of the same name, collecting “fascinating correspondence,” mostly historical]. It is a really sharp criticism of the kind of popular history they’re doing, but the piece is very self-critical, too. You recognize that both the Letters of Note blog and The Vault are doing similar things and you yourself haven’t figured out how to deal with some of the underlying issues of historical content on the Internet.

I try to pick things that, on their own, embody the argument that there are multiple interpretations and meanings to things in history. I try to pick things that you can say more than one or two things about. I only have 300 words, so I can’t do that much. If I see an object or set of illustrations or a map I ask myself: Is it pretty? Is the maker interesting? Was it circulated interestingly? Is there some other thing I can say that’s really different from other stuff that’s like it from around the same time? Does it say something about the people who consumed it? If I can get two or three of those, I feel okay. But it’s a weird calculus. I find myself second-guessing and doubting a lot.

Sometimes I look at a document and I know people are going to love it; I can just tell. And sometimes I’m like ugh, it’s just too perfect. I can tell people are going to love it, but its so pander-y that I almost can’t. And then there are some things that I know people are going to love and I’m really invested in it. A couple weeks ago I did a post about a bunch of newspaper ads that formerly enslaved people had placed after emancipation to try to find the people who had basically been ripped away from them during slavery. I ran a bunch of them and I knew people were going to be amazed and I also feel like it was something people should know about. That’s the magical moment. But it doesn’t happen that often.

Yeah, the Internet has sort of amplified history and become a space to explore it in all kinds of ways. People seem to be really hungry for it, but sometimes that can cheapen the content. Do you think the nature of the Internet itself is fueling that interest, or is it something else about our culture right now?

It’s so hard to step outside of myself in some way, because I’m sort of inexhaustibly interested in it. The Internet loves a particular kind of history. There’s a very specific set of concerns and aesthetics that are really popular. And I’m as guilty of that as the next person. Stuff like mustaches, artisanal apple cider…or the morbid anatomy kind of history, the history of death. There’s a lot of interesting and good writing being done on it, and it’s very popular on the Internet.

A few years ago Annalee Newitz wrote a post for io9 about what she called “the valley of ambiguity.” It’s about what goes viral, basically. The stuff she found that goes viral is either stuff that is telling a truth that seemed hidden in some way, is really informative and someone might not have heard of before, or is really amazing and shocking. What doesn’t go viral: anything ambiguous, anything that doesn’t tell a really direct story, that’s not easily transmissible. I think the kind of history that does well on the web is the stuff that’s really unambiguous.

Do you ever miss academic writing?

When I write for the Internet about certain subjects, I get really nervous about it. It’s gotten better since this is my third year of doing it, but it’s definitely anxiety-provoking. With academic writing, you just do it: line up the evidence and put it together. There’s more autonomy and more room to go deep, to be as hair-splitting as you want. I find it really relaxing.


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