My 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 Times, which 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.
To his credit, he mentions that he saw increasing student interest in “the experience of civilians, especially women, and in the impact of the war on communities and families.” But then he moves quickly on to say that two books by men were student favorites, Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave and Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels, the latter of which “provides the most incisive insights into the various meanings of the war for the men who fought it.”
If you are a historian, would your interview look like this? Do you think you might be aware that women other than Doris Kearns Goodwin write history, or that there have been some really great books written by non-white scholars other than the late John Hope Franklin and Northrup? Do you think you might be interested in sharing this information with the New York Times and its readers?
Maybe this tidbit explains a lot about his work as a scholar. (And no, I’m not knocking his interest in comic books as a kid! Some of my favorite historians are still obsessed with comic books):
What kind of reader were you as a child?
I devoured my quota of comic books as a child in the 1940s, but my earliest years as a reader coincided with World War II. My uncle was a fighter pilot in the European theater, so I also read a good many boys’ books and even adult books about the Army Air Corps in the war; two that stick in my memory were “Barry Blake of the Flying Fortress” and “God Is My Co-Pilot.” By my teenage years, my interests turned to sports, and I read and reread a series of novels about Chip Hilton, a high school athletic hero.
Now that is the pay-off pitch! Chip Hilton, “high school athletic hero”: our historical imagination turns its lonely eyes to you! Why is it so little has changed since the days of George Bancroft and Francis Parkman, and “Great Men and Famous Deeds?” It’s all guys, guns, wars, and heroes, all the time, plus pickup hoops, sandlot games and a dash of Indiana Jones. But that’s just my first question. The other question is, why are media outlets so eager to publicize this view of history still? It’s like we Americans don’t trust history if it’s delivered by anyone other than an older white man puffing on a pipe and stroking his beard. Just tell us what we need to know, old man! (So long as it’s pretty much what the last old man told us 30 or 40 years ago, which in the case of the McPherson interview, it probably was.)
Why are professionals dedicated to the study of change over time so clearly disinterested in seeing it in their own lives? (As one wag said to me recently, “we study change; we just don’t recommend it.”)
True story: I was lost looking for the 1992 AHA meeting in Chicago. I wandered around until I found a bunch of bearded men standing on the corner wearing tweed jackets, and knew that I had found the right hotel. Why is this still the most reliable way to locate an AHA if you get turned around as you exit the subway in Chicago/New York/Boston/Washington/Atlanta? I wonder.
Tomorrow, I’m going to publish my interview with Historiann, asking her the same questions that McPherson answered for the New York Times. I’m also going to invite you commenters to answer as many or all of the same questions yourself in the comments. (Or if you’re feeling energetic, why wait? Go ahead and get started today!) I’m talking to all of you–not just to American historians, and not even just to historians. You can modify the questions to your expertise as you like.