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.