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Focus on Research: Paul Gootenberg F'06, F'88 on Writing (and Finishing) the History of Cocaine


ACLS asked its fellows to describe their research: the knowledge it creates and how this knowledge benefits our understanding of the world. We are pleased to present this response from Paul Gootenberg, professor of history at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

Gootenberg_Paul_lgI spent my ACLS Fellowship on 'Cocaine.' OK, that's a joke, but I actually did use my ACLS Fellowship to finish a decade-long book project on the history of cocaine. That thick book, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug, was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2009 and, later that year, recognized as a Choice "Distinguished Academic Title." To my satisfaction, Andean Cocaine has been received well; for example, it is now used in some of the nation's top graduate seminars on topics such as international history, commodities, and drugs.

But how is a long-range writing project like that done? Or more to the point, ever finished? The most vital element, I believe , are strategic blocks of time that allow harried university professors (such as myself, an historian of Latin America) to escape their daily teaching and university routines to work concertedly on big questions. In some ways, this is the humanities’ analogue to exploratory long-horizon "basic research" in the sciences. Let me go over the slow phases of basic research and writing that goes into making a book like Andean Cocaine.

First, it takes about a decade of conceptualization and research to come up with a major book. I actually began toying with the idea behind Andean Cocaine in 1994 while on a post-tenure Guggenheim. Just as cocaine was peaking as a blighting social problem in the United States and a topic of public interest (or notoriety), I was surprised to discover that no one had ever written a genuine archival or international history of the drug. Given my background as an Andean commodity specialist, it seemed like an apt and exciting new topic. So, I began poring over the secondary literature about drug history, dipped into allied fields such as the history of medicine, and scouted easy-to-find sources on cocaine. By the mid-1990s, I was able to articulate the project's key ideas (for example, conceiving of cocaine as a constructed "commodity" with shifting transnational meanings) well enough to at least write research grants. As a result, in 1996-97 and in 1999-2000, I enjoyed two full years of teaching leave, based at two wonderful institutes, the Russell Sage Foundation in New York (where a symposium I organized brought together colleagues interested in aspects of cocaine history and led to an edited volume on global cocaine) and at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington D.C. I also threw myself into years of intensive and often adventurous primary source research: for example, at the U.S. National Archives, the DEA Library, medical libraries everywhere, Kew Gardens and the Public Record Office in London, and in various corners of Peru, some near lost Amazonian cocaine zones. By 2000, I began drafting a few rudimentary chapters and publishing a few essays in cocaine history, which helped in feeling out the book's future arguments.


I hope that Andean Cocaine makes an enduring contribution to global historical knowledge—one that makes a difference not only in how we view the past, but to our present social dilemmas with drugs, which are rooted, I'd argue, in our long global and contradictory relationships to goods like cocaine.


Still, as a book project like this expands, it can get quite difficult to find the discipline to write and close it. By year 2000, I was tired, raising a young family, and taking on new and heavier program responsibilities at my home institution, Stony Brook University. Like so many professors, I despaired of ever "finishing the book." Its scope had expanded willy-nily to cover all the complex global entanglements of cocaine, in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Asia. In chronology, the project now ambitiously stretched over a formative century, or more, 1850-1980, all prior to the infamous illicit U.S. coke boom of the 1980s. I also had accumulated a veritable mountain of new documents—more than I could possibly digest. And I had almost as many conceptual options (cultural commodity studies, a "glo-cal" transnational lens, and so on) for getting at cocaine's key historical transformations, notably, its initial nineteenth-century creation from traditional coca leaf into a modernizing medical export, and its shift, after World War II, into a criminalized drug and illicit culture. During the summers, I eschewed fine weather, friends, and rest to work on archival essays that might one day serve as chapters. But I still had no book when I was fortunate to win a ACLS Fellowship in 2006.

So, what did I do with my ACLS fellowship during 2006-07? Or, how do scholars finish off books that have consumed many years of their careers? Basically, I closed the door, and with the luxury of a home office in Brooklyn, sat myself down for a year to force together the book. I found focus again, worked 10-hour days, and disciplined my year "off" with self-exhortations and strict deadlines. There was struggle and angst in sewing together narrative fragments and obscure details of archival finds. Gathering footnotes felt like torture. And my grammar and syntax sometimes came out pretty tortured as well. Yet over the months, an overarching, synthetic structure for a book began to congeal and make more sense to me. It linked broad global contexts and flows with local actors and thick local description. I filled glaring chronological and analytical gaps. By mid-year, I had a working book draft, which a courageous friend offered to critically read (he was painfully honest about its writing defects). The rest of the year was spent cleaning up the mess, and by June or so, the manuscript seemed cohesive enough to submit to an academic press.


Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (University of North Carolina Press, 2009)

Shortly after returning to my day job, university teaching, in late 2007, UNC Press (which moved more swiftly than I ever did on the manuscript) returned with a positive verdict from their external readers. Yes, it was a book! Until then, I wasn't myself completely convinced. More revisions followed, but now in a process guided by sure-handed editors and copyeditors. In a memorable scene, my fine UNC editor, Elaine Maisner, handed me the first copy of the book at the American Historical Association convention in December 2008!

The ACLS offered me, as it has many other scholars, an unparalleled opportunity to freely concentrate on the nitty-gritty details and big picture of a longer humanities project. Was it all worth it? Certainly to me: I'm finished with this capstone book of my historical career, and fulfilled a 15-year professional and personal quest. But I also hope that Andean Cocaine makes an enduring contribution to global historical knowledge—one that makes a difference not only in how we view the past, but to our present social dilemmas with drugs, which are rooted, I'd argue, in our long global and contradictory relationships to goods like cocaine.

Oh, in case I forgot: Thank you ACLS for my year on cocaine!

Paul Gootenberg F'06, F'88 received an ACLS Fellowship for his project "The Birth of Cocaine: A Transnational History, 1850-1975" and an ACLS Research Fellowship for Recent Recipients of the Ph.D. Degree for "Commercial Policies and the State: Peru and Latin America, 1820-60." The complete series is available here.


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