Who is Bowe Bergdahl? Now we know.

atlasshruggedSome of you may remember my occasional blogging about the recently returned U.S. Army captive of the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in 2014.  I wondered about whether his experiences were similar to those of other “redeemed captives” of eighteenth-century Anglo-American wars against Native people and their French allies, and why the U.S. media seemed to have so little interest in following up on his story.  (As I suggested, the story was probably complicated and wouldn’t fit easily into a politically useful narrative for anyone on any side of U.S. politics.)

Serial, Sarah Koenig’s hit podcast, has been focused on his story in its second season, and the story it’s telling is indeed very complicated.  Check out Koenig’s efforts to get Bergdahl’s story, and to fact-check it against the stories told by his Army colleagues, commanding officers, and sources with connections to the Haqqani Network in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The story she tell is of a young recruit with fairly weak ties to his fellow soldiers who were all in a bad situation in Afghanistan.  Bergdahl became convinced that his commanding officers were corrupt, and decided to alert the U.S. military to the corruption by going “dustwun” (duty status whereabouts unknown) in order to get the attention of military leadership. Continue reading

Chronology, “coverage,” and other pointless wastes of time for historians.

I’m not a traditional historian. I don’t give a fig about chronology except (maybe) in my “first half” (1492-1877) of the U.S. History survey class, and I never care about “coverage.” Maybe it’s my short attention span, but I go for books and ideas that intrigue me rather than the idea that I need to “cover” certain decades or themes in my classes.  The only kind of coverage I ever worry about is ensuring that my students are reading, hearing, and talking about as many different Americans as possible.  I try to ensure that we are reading and talking about women and men alike, and Americans of all classes and ethnic backgrounds.

More proof that I’m probably a bad professor: I write syllabi for the courses I wish I could have taken.  Selfish?  Guilty as charged.  But then I figure if I’m bored, how can my students not be bored too?  I’m just not that good of an actor.  Also, I’ve found that if it excites me (environmental history! material culture!), it’s probably going to interest the students more than a lecture or book I feel merely obligated to share with them.

Joseph Adelman has an interesting blog post over at The Junto about teaching a history course organized around four American autobiographies rather than rigid notions of “coverage” and chronology.  In a seminar for first-year students, I can see how it might be disorienting for them to jump from the 1670s (Mary Rowlandson) to the eighteenth century (Benjamin Franklin), and then to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with two African American autobiographies, Frederick Douglass and Melba Pattillo Beals.  (He very generously provides a link to his syllabus, too.) Continue reading

White woman faculty member encounters campus “police.”

Perhaps like many of you, I was appalled but sadly not shocked by the senseless murder of Samuel DuBose by University of Cincinnati “police officer” Ray Tensing.  The only thing that surprised me is 1) what violent people are willing to do even when they know the cameras are rolling, and 2) that Tensing was indicted yesterday on murder and manslaughter chargers.  Also 3) why the f^(k are campus “police” issued service revolvers?  This is clearly a risk to public safety on and near our campuses.

Higher education needs to look to itself to address the militarization of campus “police forces.”  It’s not just the state troopers and municipal police, but the so-called campus “police” who patrol our workplaces and our students’ educational and recreational spaces.  DuBose’s death has moved me to share my encounters with campus “police” over the past twenty years of my life as a faculty member.  Yes, me!  Goody-two-shoes white faculty lady! Continue reading

Crossing over, part III: The uses and limits of literary models

lauramaryattic

Mary with Laura holding Susan. Illustration by Garth Williams, Little House in the Big Woods, 1932

Today’s post is an unanticipated part III in my series Crossing Over, on writing and publishing an academic book that aims to be a “crossover” title with a popular audience.  Part I can be found here, “What is my book about?”, and Part II here, “Will I ever publish this book?”  Many thanks to those of you in the comments on those posts who encouraged me to write a Part III.  I hope to hear from the rest of you as to the writers and titles you see as your historical and literary models.

One of the challenges in writing The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) was the fact that her life is very eventful early in childhood and adolescence, and then again in old age–a reversal of most biographies, which tend to focus on the adult years of a subject’s life, and offer only scant attention to their youths and their decline in old age.  But while her childhood was very eventful–taken captive at age 7, brought to New France at age 12, and announced her intention to become a nun at age 14–most of it before she enters the Ursuline convent as a student at age 12 is only very lightly documented.

How does one write the history of an eighteenth-century childhood, especially one almost entirely undocumented?  Although I was powerfully influenced by the historians I’ve been reading all my professional life, especially those who have focused on telling the story of a single life, I saw this as more of a literary problem than a historical one.  That is, I knew what I could do as a historian–I just didn’t know how I could bring it all together.  Or, as I wrote in part I of the Crossing Over series a few weeks ago: Continue reading

Crossing over, part II: Will I ever publish this book?

Do I feel lucky?

Do I feel lucky?

Howdy, friends!  Today’s post is part II about how I wrote and got a contract for the book I’ll publish next year, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016).  For part I of this series, “Crossing Over:  What is my book about?” click here.  When last I left you, I had just arrived at the Huntington and presented a draft of my introduction to a terrific seminar that meets there, Past Tense, which focuses on the craft of writing history and the choices historians make.  The people there seemed to like the intro and expressed enthusiasm for the project overall.

After the Past Tense seminar last autumn, I contacted the agent I had been in touch with more than six years earlier, and sent him the first four chapters and my introduction.  He replied with admirable alacrity–within a week, said that the four chapters were “very interesting” and “very impressive,” but he utterly disliked my introduction, which was not just an introduction to Esther Wheelwright, but also a short essay on the politics of early American historical biography and our preference as both writers and readers to read the same damn so-called “Founding Father” biographies over and over again.  (Longtime readers here will recognize this complaint!)

The agent informed me that my introduction was out-of-date and the feminist analysis was tedious and “hectoring,” and said that he wasn’t interested in representing me.  I talked to some of my friends about this, and they bolstered my sense that I should stick to my guns.  I didn’t write this book just to tell a fascinating story about a little girl and a woman (although I do that!)–I wrote it so that I could make a larger point about U.S. American history, and whose stories get told and whose stories get left out. Continue reading

Crossing over, part I: What is my book about?

View of Quebec City across the St. Lawrence

View of Quebec City across the St. Lawrence

In a post last weekend, I revealed that my forthcoming book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) would be published as a crossover academic-trade title.  Some of you expressed interest in how I got a contract like this, as many of the scholar-readers here are interested in writing beyond a traditional academic audience of other professors and their students.  So, I’ll tell you my story and do my best to draw a few lessons out of it.

(Over the last several years, I would tell junior scholars who asked about how I got my first book published to ask the same question of a lot of other people, because it seems like no two journeys to a publisher and to publication are the same.  Maybe this is a truth universally acknowledged?  Those of you with more experience, PLEASE weigh in with your ideas, advice, and experiences!) Continue reading

Writers, readers, publishers, and money

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

Ursuline convent, Quebec, July 10, 2015

Liz Covart has a post on her blog called “How to Write for Your Readers,” which is effectively a post about “How to Write for Readers Beyond Your Colleagues and their Students.”  She points out that journalists are very effective at writing history books that people actually buy and read.  They’re eating our lunches!

History books written by journalists tend to be more popular than those written by professionally-trained historians because journalists write them to reveal history in a way that readers want to discover more about it.

In contrast, professionally-trained historians tend to write books that emphasize argument. Historians present the main topic of their book in a way that supports the case they are trying to make. Our books tend to be more about argument than story.

To encourage historians to think about story first, she reports on an interview with Mitchell Zuckoff, a journalism professor and author of two historical books that landed on the New York Times bestseller list, she shares his very good advice for effective storytelling.  His advice–quite good, actually–boils down to these three points:  Find a fascinating story focused on human actors, make sure there are plenty of sources to help you tell it, and finally, write the story for a broad audience and rewrite agressively.  I especially like his advice about reading your drafts out loud to identify writing and syntax problems, and to help you cut out the parts that just aren’t working.  (Read Liz’s discussion of his advice–it’s more thorough than this brief summary.)

This is all good advice, but I think the issue of journalists who write books that people buy versus historians who write books for other historians is oversimplified, and ignores the question of resources, platforms, and marketing that work to the advantage of the journalists who write a history book or two.  Commercial publishers want to publish books not to help obscure writers make a name for themselves; they want to publish books by people who are already well-known because they think (rightly!) that a journalist with a prominent perch at a national newspaper or (better yet) who regularly appear on television will help them sell more books. Continue reading