New Stars of Yore
USC Dornsife’s Department of History welcomes professor Jacob Soll and assistant professor Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, who are looking at the days of old in new ways.By Pamela J. Johnson
January 22, 2013
One of the top-20 history departments in the nation just got stronger. USC Dornsife’s Department of History has recruited MacArthur Fellow Jacob Soll from Rutgers University, who is using his innovative talents to produce an unusual pairing.
Junior faculty Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, one of USC’s inaugural Provost Postdoctoral Scholars Program fellows in the humanities, has been hired as assistant professor. He will contribute to the department’s meritorious research in early modern studies.
“It’s exciting whenever we have the chance to add a new colleague regardless of rank or field,” said William Deverell, professor and interim chair of history. “The intellectual enthusiasm that these two scholars bring to our department, to USC Dornsife, to the university, and, frankly, to greater Los Angeles is palpable. We are simply delighted to have them join us, and their scholarly distinction is matched step-for-step by their collegial warmth and high regard for undergraduate and graduate students.”
Jacob Soll: Speaking the Unspeakable
You’re at a dinner party and the vichyssoise is a mere memory, the smoked velouté of partridge is gone and you’re deep into the butterscotch budino. What’s the one subject that has not been broached?
“Accounting freaks people out,” said Jacob Soll, professor of history and accounting in USC Dornsife, who arrived in the summer. “It makes them nervous. It’s a tense thing, accounting. It reminds you of getting audited, of facing your books.”
And facing your books has proven to be of upmost importance considering the United States was recently at the brink of economic collapse. Although the subject may be absent at dinner parties and even in print and T.V. news, the understanding of accounting, or lack of, is responsible for our nation’s financial woes, Soll said.
“Here we have a country with a disastrous mortgage bubble that we are not out of yet,” said Soll, who has a joint appointment with the USC Leventhal School of Accounting. “We have a country where household debt is enormous. And we have a country where debates are carried out in accounting numbers that no one understands and couldn’t verify if they wanted to.”
A MacArthur fellow in 2011 and Guggenheim fellow from 2009 to 2010, Soll is blazing the trail in the fields of the history of politics and accounting, which has a rich narrative that helps explain how the word “budget” went from meaning a leather pouch to a full-fledged financial plan by the 19th century.
Soll has been studying history since he was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, where he earned his bachelor’s in history in 1991. He then moved to Paris, France, where he received his master’s degree at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Then he was off to England, where he obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge.
Studying library and government information systems of the 17th century at the French National Library, Soll learned that officials took care of all state functions from the royal household to new public buildings with serious accounting.
Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who served as France’s minister of finances from 1661 to 1683 under the rule of king Louis XIV, was an accountant first and foremost. Soll’s second book, The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert Secret State Intelligence System (University of Michigan Press, 2009) showed how Colbert used libraries, accounting, classical scholarship and national science to make an information network and build a modern state.
“Colbert created the Palace of Versailles; he founded the Academies of Sciences and Arts, the French navy and massive canal systems; he built up French industries in tapestry and porcelain, and their library systems which were the greatest in the world at the time. He did all of this through his accounting techniques.
“First of all: Wow,” Soll said. “There, in the archives, this is all accounting talk. There is nothing in history books about this. Who would ever explain the great history of industrialization, the West and modern government through accounting?”
Soll decided he would. He saw a clear parallel in the importance of accounting then and now. Back in the 17th century, Colbert ultimately failed at financial reform. Why? Because no one wants to hear bad news.
“Imagine you’re Louis XIV and Colbert tells you that you’ve blown all of your money on this war. You’re done. Louis XIV would say, ‘But I’m the king. I have God-given power. Don’t ever talk to me like that again. You’re out. Never tell me that my books are bad. Because I don’t do that. God is my only book.’
“Today, people might blow all of their money, but they don’t want to look at that. They don’t want to deal with it. Or think about what happens to homeowners when their expenditures exceed their income.”
A winner of the 2005 Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History, Soll’s third book will explain why countries are suffering through the same financial problems they did in 1490.
Soll still can’t believe he found an atmosphere where his creative thinking is so supported. Before accepting his new job, he interviewed at other major universities that told him right off the bat exactly what they wanted him to do in their existing systems.
Feeling discouraged, he decided to take the direct approach during his interviews at USC Dornsife.
“I told them, ‘I’m going to be honest. I really want to do this funky thing where I do research in accounting, but I see it as part of the history of libraries and government,” Soll recounted. “I think the key to understanding many of our fiscal problems right now is knowing how we got here and taking this really weird approach.’ They told me, ‘We get it.’ ”
Soll was born and raised between Cambridge, Mass., and Iowa City, Iowa, where his father holds a chair in molecular genetics at the University of Iowa.
“So I spent my youth looking through microscopes,” Soll said. “I know how to set up an experiment. I know how to test something and track it in the laboratory.”
His mother, a dance choreographer in Boston, taught him about the arts.
“With the art world, you see things and when you want to track something you go home and you listen to [Frédéric] Chopin, you go see an art exhibit, and maybe look at how someone built a chapel. You think about it in a larger way.”
His family has strong connections to France, where a young Soll spent quite a bit of time visiting his extended family and attending university. His life is deeply steeped in the French culture, he said, adding that his best friends are French chefs.
Soll’s philosophy on life is Epicurean in that he believes in balancing the pursuit of artful pleasures with a healthy dose of discipline.
His philosophy on teaching is grounded on the belief that there are great human achievements and great human follies.
“Sorting them out and understanding them through primary sources and ancient artifacts shows how dramatic and fascinating our past is,” Soll said. “It’s filled with staggering achievement and incredibly dark chapters. We need to accept it all and sort it out. I think imparting to students one's passion for history and a belief that knowing it is an essential and distinctly human trait can move them and make them see their own lives in a sort of temporal 3D — in more complex shades, which makes life richer and more fulfilling. Also, my students find that reading loads of history books is good for the brain muscle.”
He attributes his creativity to his polyglot, multicultural background. He’s also been bucking the system since he attended Iowa City West High School, where he says he was frequently in detention for being a general troublemaker. The school later gave him a distinguished alumnus award.
“My old high school friends can’t believe I pulled that off,” he said.
At USC Dornsife, he’s working with USC Leventhal to organize an international conference on accounting and political accountability.
“At USC, there’s this attitude that says, ‘let’s build something new; something no one has ever built before.’ In the humanities? It’s rare that anyone does that.”
Soll was drawn to USC Dornsife’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“It doesn’t exist in academia elsewhere,” he said. “When you say, ‘Here’s something kind of intense, weird and strange, are you with me, I’ll explain it, I’ll write a proposal,’ people here say, ‘Do it!’ Go to other universities and say that and they will look at you in horror; in horror. ‘Don’t change anything. You do what your master did.’ It’s like the head of a church. Like a monastic tradition. The dogma is handed down and you master it for yourself.
“I’d rather take the dogma and keep hitting it until something interesting happens.”
Nathan Perl-Rosenthal: Sailing into Exciting Research
As a USC Provost Postdoctoral Scholars Program fellow in the humanities, Perl-Rosenthal taught and conducted research for a year prior to joining the faculty this past summer. For his first book, he examined handwritten sources in archives located in France, Britain, the Netherlands and across the U.S.
“When you’re a junior professor, it’s hard to get that kind of support,” he said. “The resources here are amazing.”
Growing up on the upper-west side of Manhattan, Perl-Rosenthal’s father is an art critic and mother, a professor of painting. Convinced he wanted to be a scientist, he worked in laboratories throughout high school and published two papers in bacterial genetics. But he found he preferred archives over microscopes.
He earned his bachelor’s degree in history at Harvard University and Ph.D. in history at Columbia University.
An expert in the political and cultural history of 18th century North Atlantic, Perl-Rosenthal was attracted to USC Dornsife because of the “amazing vibrancy of early modern studies.”
“Part of what’s great about the early modern period is that it’s very different from our world,” Perl-Rosenthal said. “To borrow something a friend once said, ‘I stop being interested once they stopped wearing triangular hats.’ ”
The USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute also became a huge incentive for Perl-Rosenthal. The institute’s director, Peter Mancall, vice dean for the humanities and professor of history and anthropology, was supportive when Perl-Rosenthal proposed an unusual approach for his first book. Rather than build it out of his dissertation — about the influence of old regime letter writing on political organizing in the late 18th century — he wanted to revive a research project he had begun as an undergraduate and master’s thesis.
The subject is sailors in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At that time, the U.S., France, Britain, the Netherlands — all of these nation states needed sailors, Perl-Rosenthal said.
During wartime, sailors moved from the merchant marine to the Navy.
“You need lots of sailors but you have a problem if you’re a public official in the British Empire during wartime,” he said. “You have to allow your sailors to travel around and speak foreign languages. What if they speak French and spend a lot of time in France and France is your enemy? If France offers higher wages, what’s to prevent them from going over to the French side?”
Perl-Rosenthal is studying the years between 1760 and 1815 when all maritime states from the Atlantic began to close off sailors’ ability to move easily from one empire to another.
“The way they did that was by producing things we think of as being a typical product of the nation state: passports, identity papers and other bureaucratic documents that allowed them to monitor sailors.”
Say you’re a farmer at that time in western Massachusetts.
“You would never need identity papers because what do you need a passport for if you never leave your town? These things were pioneered for maritime workers in the late 18th century and only started applying to everyone during the 19th century.”
This brings up interesting questions when one thinks about nationality and even the birther movement today, he said.
“In the early 19th century, there wasn’t a concept that you’re born in a place and that’s your nationality and from your nationality you aspire to certain things,” he said. “The whole world of defined nationality — it bears on the current question of the regularization of illegal immigrant workers, for instance — only exists because we now have a strong sense of national boundaries.”