Historiann: The New York Times Book Review Interview

cowgirl3a

Giddyup!

Today’s post is was inspired by the interview with James McPherson in the New York Times book review last weekend.  I reviewed that interview in yesterday’s post.  Today, I’ve interviewed myself, and I encourage you to interview yourself too, either in the comments below, on your own blog, and/or on Twitter.  (Be sure to tag me @Historiann and #historiannchallenge.)

What books are currently on your night stand?

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, and some travel guides for southern California.

What was the last truly great book you read?

If you mean a work of history, I’d say Foul Bodies:  Cleanliness in Early America by Kathleen Brown. That’s a book that makes a powerful argument about status and cleanliness, and how women became responsible for both of these things in their families and in the wider world. It’s a book that has tremendous implications about the ways in which body care became intensely gendered over the longue durée, which is something I think about whenever I see a housekeeper, a janitor, an employee of a nursing home or rehab facility, or a home health aide.

Who are the best historians writing today?

In no particular order: Lynn Hunt, Jill Lepore, Annette Gordon-Reed, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Judith Bennett. I could go on, but just reading those authors will keep anyone busy for a few years.

What’s the best book ever written about American history?

That’s a ridiculous question. What the hell is a “best book ever?” What do you think I’m going to say–France and England in North America by Francis Parkman?  Best book in the last century? Best book since 1776? Doesn’t the answer vary according to the fashion of the times and our own tastes? History is constantly being revised and updated by each succeeding generation of historians, so no book can ever be a “best book ever” for more than a few years. Continue reading

Where’d ya go, Chip Hilton? Our historical imagination turns its lonely eyes to you.

chiphiltonMy sabbatical is mellowing me out and I’m definitely enjoying the relaxed, non-wired vibe at the Huntington.  The Huntington is wired, but what I mean by un-wired is that people here appear to be living their professional and personal lives in meatspace, face-to-face, rather than online.  They’re reading historical manuscripts and valuable rare books, they’re having coffee with each other, they’re meeting for lunch in the garden cafe.  In other words, not everyone in the world is on Twitter or blogs or Instagram all of the time!  It’s like it’s the War of 1812 or something:  before telegraphy even.

So, inevitably, I’m going to miss a lot of what’s happening now.  (I do believe my knowledge of both British and North American history in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries will be nonpareil in Colorado upon my return, however.)  Clearly, I missed a fascinating little interview with James McPherson of Princeton University in the New York Timeswhich is purely coincidental to the publication of his new biography of Jefferson Davis, I am sure.  McPherson is probably the most famous American military historian, and among the most famous historians of the Civil War era.

Some friends of mine alerted me to this interview, because something about it just didn’t seem right.  Let me quote an extensive passage from it now:

What books are currently on your night stand?

Ron Chernow, “Washington: A Life,” and Daniel James Brown, “The Boys in the Boat.” In very different ways, these books chronicle unlikely triumphs over seemingly insuperable odds to found a nation from 1775 to 1797 and to win an Olympic gold medal in 1936.

What was the last truly great book you read?

James Oakes, “Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865.” A powerful analytical narrative of the confluence of politics and war that ended America’s shame and trauma.

Who are the best historians writing today?

Bernard Bailyn, David Brion Davis, Gordon Wood, Eric Foner, David McCullough, David Hackett Fischer. In elegant prose, based on impeccable research, they have covered the broad sweep of American history from the early colonial settlements through Harry Truman’s administration.

What’s the best book ever written about the Civil War?

The best book is actually an eight-volume series published from 1947 to 1971, by Allan Nevins: “Ordeal of the Union,” “The Emergence of Lincoln” and “The War for the Union.” It is all there — the political, economic, social, diplomatic and military history of the causes, course and consequences of the war, written in the magisterial style for which Nevins was famous.

Do you have a favorite biography of a Civil War-era figure?

Jean Edward Smith, “Grant.” A lucid and empathetic account of the victorious general and underrated president that helped usher in the current revival of Grant’s reputation.

Continue reading

Randomly generated spam comment, or Camille Paglia?

 

Random spam generator?

Random spam generator?

It’s increasingly difficult to tell them apart:

Sex crime springs from fantasy, hallucination, delusion, and obsession. A random young woman becomes the scapegoat for a regressive rage against female sexual power: “You made me do this.” Academic clichés about the “commodification” of women under capitalism make little sense here: It is women’s superior biological status as magical life-creator that is profaned and annihilated by the barbarism of sex crime.

Continue reading

The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485

Writing a book by day at an august institution like The Huntington, and re-reading Lucky Jim (1954) by night, it’s hard to be seduced by self-importance.  Here, our lucky Jim Dixon considers the article he’s desperately trying to get published in the hopes of being renewed as a lecturer at a red-brick university:

It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems. Dixon had read, or begun to read, dozens like it, but his own seemed worse than most in its air of being convinced of its own usefulness and significance. ‘In considering this strangely neglected topic,’ it began. This what neglected topic? This strangely what topic? This strangely neglected what? His thinking all this without having defiled and set fire to the typescript only made him appear to himself as more of a hypocrite and fool.  “Let’s see,'” he echoed Welch in a pretended effort of memory: “oh yes; The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485.

There’s another great line in which his fellow-boarder at his rooming house asks him what got him interested in medieval history in the first place, and Dixon responds to the effect of, “I’m not interested in this.  I hate it!  Don’t we all do what we hate?”  But I don’t have my copy of the book with me now, and I couldn’t find the quotation on the internets.   Continue reading

Happy Labor Day!

labordayvintageposter

After driving all over L.A. and Orange Counties yesterday to visit friends, I’m taking it easy today.  Here’s a cool Labor Day poster, especially for those of us who work for government.  Enough of the attacks on public sector employees and the small subset of us who are still unionized!  Solidarity forever.

Here’s something I heard while driving around what Southern Californians apparently call “the Southland.”  (Maybe it’s just because I’m an American historian and a professional Yankee by birth, inclination, and residence, but I’d never call anyplace I live “the Southland.”  Just sayin’.): a hilarous segment from Latino USA:  “The Worst Latino.”  Well worth a hearing for anyone who’s ever felt like an inferior member of an ethnic group, political movement, religion, or whatever.  It’s all about interest group boundaries, and how they define us and bring us together as well as potentially alienate us. Continue reading

Valley of the creepy dolls!

For realz!  Anonymous gifts to little girls of  “creepy dolls” that look like the gift recipients.

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Yes, my mother bought me this book.

Personally, I think the creepy part is the fact that people in San Clemente, California live in a gated community.  (Isn’t all of Orange County effectively a gated community?)  I can’t even imagine living in a neighborhood with an HOA (Homeowner’s Association, which tells you what color you can paint your house, and what color your window treatments must be, and so on), let alone a gated community. Continue reading