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.
Sorry–I didn’t realize. Maybe I should ask if you have a favorite biography?
Nell Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol is one of those books I come back to again and again. I also deeply admire Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family. I read Jean H. Baker’s Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion last fall, and I thought that was a terrific model that bridges popular and academic audiences for a biography. All of these books do that, actually.
What are the best military histories?
Mary Louise Roberts’s What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American G.I. in World War II France is a brilliant, fine-grained study of the ways in which the U.S. Army sold the Normandy invasion to its army by deploying stereotypes about France as full of conquered, unmanned men and grateful, sexually available women. It’s also a story about the French experience of invasion and the challenges of dealing with yet another army of occupation.
These are the kinds of military history that I think are getting loads of well-deserved attention. Another title to watch out for is Jennifer Mittelstadt’s The American Military Welfare State which will be published by Harvard University Press in 2015. That book is going to blow some doors down.
And what are the best books about African-American history?
I believe I’ve already answered that question in part, but I can recommend others. For me, Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery was a path-breaking book because it gave us a new way to think about slavery and continuity versus change over space and time. Ira Berlin’s insight that slavery varied according to both location and time was important, but it overlooked the crucial continuities that enslaved women experienced because of their sex and their capacity to be sexually abused and exploited for reproduction.
A few modern memoirs also deserve a mention here because they were foundational to my development as a historian: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi. I came across Angelou’s book among my mother’s books and read it for the first time not understanding that the protagonist was black. I was a white girl growing up in suburban Ohio attending mostly white schools, so my imagination defaulted to “white” when I read books and imagined the characters in them. It was only when some neighbor girls are referred to as “white trash” that it dawned on me that Marguerite and Bailey were black children. That gave me something to think about.
I didn’t read Moody until I was in college, in a class on women’s autobiography that was taught by the fantastically smart and talented literature scholar Maureen Corrigan, who’s now at Georgetown and more famous as the book critic for NPR’s Fresh Air. (She was just as smart and as thoughtful in class as she is on Fresh Air.) By age 20 or so, I understood that Moody was African American, and raced through her account of her childhood and coming of age in the Civil Rights movement in a single night because it was so absorbing.
I wonder if Angelou’s and Moody’s memoirs are why I was drawn to writing history instead of fiction. I always found women’s lives to be so much more intrinsically interesting to me if they were real lives, so that’s probably why I studied history and eventually gravitated to biography as a genre of writing history.
During your many years of teaching, did you find that students responded differently over time to the history books you assigned?
The history of sexuality is something that college students have really embraced, at least in part because so many of them are going through the kinds of sexual experimentation and questioning that many of us experience in our late teens and early 20s. My women’s history class is always very popular, which means that I’m always surprised when I’m informed in course evaluations in my non-women’s history classes that some students didn’t think I was teaching American history, or colonial history, but instead that I was teaching a women’s history course instead, as though that’s a different thing entirely from women’s history. I also get scolded by white students for focusing overmuch on African Americans or Native Americans, because of course that’s not real American history, which we all know is about white men.
I wonder where my students get these ideas?
What kind of reader were you as a child?
A voracious one. I’ve mentioned already a few books that were memorable and important to me as a child and young adult. I loved fairy tales—not so much the sanitized, Americanized ones, but the really weird and bloody stories straight out of the eighteenth-century Schwartzwald. I also was a major fan of the Little House books. I was a child in the 1970s when those books enjoyed a revival because of the popular television series based on the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I’m sure it was the TV show that led me to the books, but once I found the books and the imaginative world that Wilder created there, I couldn’t take the TV show seriously. Even then I think I sensed that it was based in fact on 1970s ideals and values, not the 1870s. (But then, who among us is nostalgic for 1870s values?) It just seemed very modern and hollow to me after reading the books.
When I got older, I was a tremendous Judy Blume fan. Although neither my parents nor the other parents in my circle of friends were particularly bothered by the books, we enacted the ritual sharing of the newest, most scandalous Judy Blume book by passing it around secretly. Each of us had one night apiece to read the book, hiding it under our mattresses to keep it away from prying parental or sibling eyes. Anyone could read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret or Deenie in the open. Forever and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t had to be handled with more discretion.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 is a book I pulled off the shelves of the Boston Public Library in the summer of 1987 when I was eighteen and living on my own for the first time. It was the first history book I ever read that focused entirely on women—and I was a young feminist attending a women’s college! Needless to say, it changed my life. Sadly, I think that many young history students today could say the same thing about a book they encountered on one of my syllabi. I think some of us think that women’s history is more integrated into the college curriculum than it really is.
I never read any of Natalie Zemon Davis’s books until graduate school, but I vividly recall her multi-week visit to Bryn Mawr College in the winter of 1988 or 1989. She gave a public lecture, visited several classes, and talked about the research in what would eventually become Women on the Margins: Three Seventeenth Century Lives, in particular about Glikl Bas Judah Leib. When I was in graduate school at Penn she gave a fantastic public lecture there on Maria Sibylla Merian, another of the women in Women on the Margins. She is such an energetic presence, a force of tremendous intelligence, and her influence on my work is very clear.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
Who cares what the president of the United States reads? He’s got a college degree. He’s done very well for himself. He’s written a few books, one of which was pretty good. He’s probably a fine arbiter of his own literary tastes. I think a better question is what I books I would recommend to someone who wants to learn more about American history and that would interest people of across political, sectarian, and ethnic lines. How about Edward J. Blum’s and Paul Harvey’s The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. If you want to be a better, more compassionate person as well as a more historically informed person, read that book.
You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, and Lena Dunham. Are there any other American writers you’d rather dine with?
I’d have a separate dinner with M.F.K. Fisher, whom I’d keep all for myself. I was thinking about her recently, as she was a Californian and I’m living in California this year. She wrote so movingly and specifically about her life on an early twentieth-century farm, of being sent crates of avocados when she was in college, and of feasting on the wild gathered greens of an older friend of hers who seemed to live in a cottage on the beach. It’s an evocation of a lost California.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I was going to say James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, but no, it’s too much of a cheap shot, even for me. I own the book, and I’ve read parts of it, and I’ve even used it for lecture material as well as to settle bar bets. I own his book, but does he own or read any of the books I’ve mentioned? Does he ever think about them or learn from them? The world may never know.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Laurel Ulrich’s Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. I keep thinking it was just published, but no—it’s been out for the better part of a decade now (since 2007). A partial explanation for my negligence is that the book is regularly checked out of my university’s library, which is good news as far as I’m concerned.
What do you plan to read next?
Laurel Ulrich’s Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. Duh! Now that I’ve owned it, I need to fix it, don’t you think?