John Gillis and the Creation of Coastal Studies

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By Christopher L. Pastore, Jack Bouchard, Claire Campbell, Kevin Dawson, Isaac Land, Steve Mentz, Anna Pilz, and Dyani Taff

Author of Islands of the Mind (2004), The Human Shore (2012), and a co-edited volume titled Fluid Frontiers (2015), as well as numerous essays exploring the connections between humans and the ocean, historian John R. Gillis (1939–2021) played a central role in establishing the field of coastal studies.1 Gillis had published earlier works on topics as diverse as the Prussian bureaucracy, British marriage, youth culture, and “family values,” but it was around the turn of the twenty-first century that he identified a “blue hole” in the humanities and began to fill it.2 Drawing from human geography, anthropology, the history of science, and environmental history and literature, Gillis began to investigate the ways that humans shaped and were shaped by their interactions with the sea. Humanists, he believed, had much to contribute to oceanic understanding, and his enthusiasm for the topic was contagious.

Portrait of historian John Gillis wearing a red hat, white knit sweater, and glasses
John Gillis. Photo, Peter Gillis Armstrong, 2016

To celebrate Gillis’s life and work, in March 2023 we published a special issue of the journal Coastal Studies & Society (vol. 2, no. 1).3 Opening with a historiographical state of the field, the issue includes historical and literary essays that explore the Atlantic coast from the early modern period to the present, concluding with an essay by Steve Mentz that considers the ways Gillis’s work will continue to shape the blue humanities moving forward. As spaces where the forces of history were muddled by perceptions of timelessness, and loss was often met with recovery, coasts, these essays demonstrate, help us reimagine the geographic and temporal boundaries of the Atlantic world while reinforcing the importance of interdisciplinary perspectives to humanist scholarship.

Some of the contributors knew John personally; others were simply inspired by his work. But we all agreed that his scholarship was something to celebrate. In mid-June 2023, we gathered online with journal co-editor Isaac Land to talk about coastal studies and Gillis’s contributions to it. As the guest editor for the special issue, I (Chris Pastore) took on the role of scribe. What follows recounts some of the highlights from the special issue and the discussion we held to celebrate its publication. Although I will refer to myself in the first person and the rest of the contributors in the third, know that this summary was a communal effort. We encourage NiCHE readers to visit the special issue.

We all agreed that Gillis’s emphasis on environmental issues was particularly important to the field of coastal studies. Gillis encouraged his readers to live with coasts and islands, rather than simply on then. “He emphasized mobility, flexibility, and adaptation to environmental change,” explained Claire Campbell, whose special issue essay examines coastal development in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. “In an era of climate change and sea-level rise, Gillis showed us how to reconnect with the ecotonal qualities of coasts and how to do it on a human scale.” One of Gillis’s great strengths was his ability to consider coastal processes on many geographic and temporal scales. His writing often shifted from the global to the local, from the distant past to the present, sometimes within a single paragraph. Like Rachel Carson, whom he greatly admired, Gillis unraveled complex global processes and explained how they translated to the immediacy of, say, an individual beach or tidal pool or how they have played out in the present day.

Gillis also emphasized the power of the human imagination. Journal co-editor Isaac Land recalled the ways Islands of the Mind emphasized the importance of human ideas to the creation of the Atlantic world and how The Human Shore seemed to connect seamlessly to the earlier work. “It’s easy to imagine the two books as a unit,” he suggested. “The first explores human ideas, and the second emphasizes the interplay between ideas and the material world.” In his special issue essay, for example, historian Jack Bouchard showed how imagined islands and harbours shaped the commercial contours of the sixteenth-century Newfoundland fishery. Dyani Taff, whose essay explored the coastal dimensions of Suriname in Aphra Ben’s Oroonoko (1688), added to our conversation that “ideas about coasts fundamentally shaped the lives of early modern people—where they went and why they decided to travel. And the meanings they ascribed to rivers and coasts shaped the ways they interacted with environments and people both at home and abroad.”

Gillis’s approach to coastal history was also deeply interdisciplinary. His work was certainly rooted in the “embodied knowledge” of a person who split each year between the coasts of California and Maine. He also read widely and had a gift for drawing connections between ideas. “He drew on a wide range of sources,” observed Anna Pilz, whose special issue essay examined the narrative promises of coastal infrastructure in Romantic travel writing. “His ability to weave in different perspectives, I think, is the reason why his work speaks to colleagues across many scholarly disciplines.”

Close-up portrait of the face of historian John Gillis
John Gillis. Photo, Peter Ralston, ca. 2009

Gillis, we all agreed, brought people together. “He reached out and touched people on both professional and personal levels,” explained Steve Mentz. “He was extraordinarily generous.” And that is how I remember him as well. Gillis invited me to a conference he had organized. He then read my book manuscript, provided valuable criticism, and wrote a blurb for the back cover. At every step he provided encouragement, and in the process he provided a model for what a community of scholars could achieve through collaboration. “I am trying,” concluded Mentz, “to live up to his example as an academic who is just a kind and giving human being.”            

Gillis provided the field of coastal studies with a path going forward. We agreed that coastal studies would do well to turn its attention to urban environments, emphasizing, as Gillis did, the connections between the technical and the lyrical. Coastal studies also needs to include more voices from beyond the global north, including those of Indigenous people and Africans, as reflected in Kevin Dawson’s special issue essay on “beach culture” in Atlantic Africa and across the Atlantic world. As we continue to grapple with overfishing, pollution, and the effects of climate change, coastal studies could also become more politically vocal by showing, as Gillis did, how history can inform decision-making in the present. To continue Gillis’s legacy of leadership, scholarship, and education, the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, has instituted the “Gillis Blue Humanities Scholars” program, which will bring together humanities scholars whose work examines the human relationship to the marine environment. It is a fitting tribute to John, who played an extraordinary role in shaping the field of coastal studies. We dedicate this special issue of Coastal Studies & Society to him.

Feature Image: Ebeneecook Harbor, Southport, Maine. Photo, Christopher L. Pastore, 2022

Christopher L. Pastore is Associate Professor of History at the University at Albany, SUNY, and the author of Between Land and Sea: The Atlantic Coast and the Transformation of New England (2014); Jack Bouchard is Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University and is author of the forthcoming Terra Nova: Food, Water and Work in an early Atlantic World; Claire Campbell is Professor of History at Bucknell University and author of Shaped by the West Wind: Nature and History in Georgian Bay (2004) and Nature, Place, and Story: Rethinking Historic Sites in Canada (2017); Kevin Dawson is Associate Professor of History at the University of California—Merced and is author of Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora (2018); Isaac Land is Professor of History at Indiana State University, Co-Editor of Coastal Studies & Society, and author of War, Nationalism, and the British Sailor, 1750-1850 (2009); Steve Mentz is Professor of English at St. John’s University and is author of Ocean (2020), Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550-1719 (2015), and At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (2009); Anna Pilz is an Academic Developer at the University of Edinburgh as well as an independent researcher specializing in Irish and Scottish cultural productions and the ways in which they narrate environmental change; Dyani Taff is Assistant Professor of English at Colby College and is author of the forthcoming Gendered Seascapes and Monarchy in Early Modern English Culture.

1 John R. Gillis, Islands of the Mind: How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World (New York: Palgrave, 2004); John R. Gillis, The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); John Gillis and Franziska Torma, eds. Fluid Frontiers: New Currents in Marine Environmental History (Cambridge, UK: White Horse Press, 2015); Gillis published several essays, two of which were previously published in the New York Times, in John R. Gillis, The Shores Around Us (North Charleston, SC: Create Space Independent Publishing, 2015). Other important essays include John R. Gillis, “Afterword: Beyond the Blue Horizon,” in Coastal Works: Cultures of the Atlantic Edge, eds. Nicholas Allen, Nick Groom, and Jos Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) and John R. Gillis, “Muddying the Waters of Environmental History: Islands as Ecotones,” 19-35, in Edward MacDonald, Joshua MacFadyen, and Irené Novaczek, eds., Time and a Place: An Environmental History of Prince Edward Island (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016).

2 John R. Gillis, The Prussian Bureaucracy in Crisis, 1840–1860: Origins of an Administrative Ethos (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1971); John R. Gillis, Youth and History: Tradition and Change in European Age Relations, 1770–Present (New York: Academic Press, 1974); John R. Gillis, For Better, for Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1985); John R. Gillis, A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values (New York: Basic Books, 1996); John R. Gillis,  “Filling the Blue Hole in Environmental History,” RCC Perspectives no. 3 No. 3, The Future of Environmental History: Needs and Opportunities (2011): 16-18.

3 “Living with Coasts: Special Issue Honouring John Gillis (1939–1921), Coastal Studies & Society 2, no. 1 (March 2023): 3-152.

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