The renowned Civil War historian James McPherson recently conducted an interview with the New York Times Book Review about his favorite works of history, who he believes are the best historians writing today, and what sort of reader he was as a child. Several historians were perplexed by the outdated nature of McPherson’s book list and, more significantly, how 29 men were mentioned while only one woman (who is actually a trained political scientist, not a historian) received any credit for their work in the field. Several bloggers critiqued the McPherson interview, including historian Ann M. Little, who challenged other historians to interview themselves and think about the sorts of answers they’d give to these questions if they were interviewed by the New York Times. My interview is below. Enjoy!
What books are you currently reading?
I am currently reading Gerard N. Magliocca’s biography of Civil War Era Congressman John Bingham, American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment. As Yale professor David Blight remarks in his iTunes U lecture series, the United States Constitution prior to the Civil War is not the same Constitution we adhere to today. The antebellum constitution is the “Old Testament” of American governance, whereas our current constitution—shaped largely by the “Civil War Amendments,” especially the 14th—is our “New Testament” of American governance. And John Bingham is the largely unknown author of that New Testament.
What was the last truly great book you read?
Karen and Barbara Fields’ Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life is simply outstanding. It challenged me to reconsider how I view race and inequality in the United States and helped me better understand how the historical concept of “race” is the creation of racism. I wrote extensively about this book here.
Who are the best historians writing today?
I don’t like the way this question is phrased. Some of the best historians in the field today aren’t known for or primarily interested in writing, which is only one facet of work historians undertake within the larger historical enterprise. There are historians who teach in high schools, community colleges, and liberal arts universities who don’t research and write extensively, and there are public historians working in government, National Parks, museums, historical societies, archives, historic preservation, and the non-profit sector who do things like interpretation, museum education, document preservation, and public policy. As American universities corporatize, adjunctify, and eliminate tenure track positions, younger historians like myself are increasingly shunned from the sorts of research/academic opportunities scholars like James McPherson had in the 1950s and 60s. The reality is that we face bleak prospects as research-based academic historians whether we like it or not. And regardless, some of us just have different interests within the field.
That makes sense. To rephrase, who are the most inspiring historians to you today?
Good question! There are too many to name here, but I’ll mention a few noteworthy scholars, regardless of their written scholarship. While a graduate student at IUPUI I was very fortunate to study under some phenomenal historians, including John Dichtl, Jason M. Kelly, Modupe Labode, Anita Morgan, Rebecca Shrum, and Stephen E. Towne. My classmate and good friend Nicholas K. Johnson also deserves mention. Nick is currently in Berlin, Germany, for one year conducting research on Weimar Germany cultural history and studying public history. He is a brilliant scholar who is going to be well-known in the field someday.
Outside of IUPUI, I admire the work of Yoni Appelbaum, David Blight, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kalani Craig, Eric Foner, Barbara Fields, Gary Gallagher, Drew Gilpan Faust, Jennifer Guiliano, Keith Harris, John Hennessey, Caroline Janney, Kevin Levin, James Loewen, Al Mackey, Megan Kate Nelson, Andrew Joseph Pegoda, Bob Pollock, Mary Rizzo, Liz Ševčenko, Brooks Simpson, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. And many, many more.
What’s the best book ever written about the Civil War?
Impossible to answer. There are literally hundreds of thousands of studies on the American Civil War, and our understanding of history is constantly revised as historians reinterpret and ask new questions of their primary source documents. I will happily recommend a few noteworthy selections that I personally love, however.
James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era still remains a fine, comprehensive study of the Civil War that is easily accessible for readers. Charles Dew’s short volume Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War is the one of the best studies of causes of the Civil War. Kenneth M. Stampp’s The Imperiled Union: Essays on the Background of the Civil War explore similar territory and includes a fantastic essay of the evolving nature of U.S. nationalism and the changing interpretation of what, exactly, “a more perfect union” means in American politics. Andre M. Fleche’s The Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict places the American Civil War within the global struggle for liberal democracy in the nineteenth century. Mark A. Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis demonstrates how differing interpretations regarding the Biblical sanctity of slavery presaged political conflicts over slavery. Stephanie McCurry’s Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South chronicles the undemocratic nature of the Confederacy’s experiment in nationhood and, by extension, how the Civil War spawned new (albeit temporary) gender norms in the slaveholding South. And David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory provides a beautifully thought-provoking analysis of the ways the Civil War was remembered throughout the nation after the guns fell silent.
I think that’s a good starting point.
Do you have a favorite biography of a Civil War-era figure?
Although the book has its factual and interpretive problems, I really enjoyed Jean Edward Smith’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant. The book introduced me to Grant and helped spawn my interest in the Civil War Era, and for those things I will always be thankful. Here’s my list of recommended Grant studies for those interested.
What are the best military histories?
I regret to admit that I’m not much of a military historian. That said, I enjoyed Joseph Glatthaar’s General Lee’s Army: From Victory to Collapse, J.F.C. Fuller’s Grant and Lee: A Study in Personality and Generalship, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, and anything from Gary Gallagher and Bruce Catton (it clearly appears that my reading of military history is still dominated by old or dead white men, unfortunately).
And what are the best books about African-American history?
I like David Blight’s A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation, John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, Colin Grant, Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey, Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, and Bruce Baker and Brian Kelly, eds., After Slavery: Race, Labor, and Citizenship in the Reconstruction South. There are many other wonderful studies on African-American history that I have yet to read, and I’d love to hear more recommendations from readers.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
A voracious one. My parents read to me every night as a child and I devoured anything and everything I could get my hands on in our public library and school bookmobile. I still remember winning a reading challenge in my first grade classroom after reading more than 400 books that year.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
Miles Davis’s autobiography, Miles: The Autobiography, is my favorite book of all time. Part memoir, part history of jazz music, part cultural criticism, The Autobiography exposed me during my teenage years to the ways music acts as a form of cultural expression, political dissent, and historical interpretation all at the same time. And it taught me that our heroes–no matter how much we venerate them–have their own faults, shortcomings, mistakes, fears, and concerns about the world around them. Acknowledging those mistakes and taking steps to rectify them is perhaps the really heroic act of humanity we could all do a better job of practicing.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
He’s got plenty of other things he should be doing now rather than taking book recommendations from me, but he should read Jonathan M. Hansen’s Guantánamo: An American History once he leaves the Presidency so he can see how badly he screwed up by not closing down America’s most visible symbol of imperial ambition and the post-9/11 legal ambiguities of the War on Terror.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Too many, but I am particularly embarrassed about not having read Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.
What books are on your night stand?
Three books waiting to be read as soon as possible are Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, George E. Hein, Learning in the Museum, and Caleb McDaniel, The Problem of Democracy in the Age of Slavery: Garrisonian Abolitionists and Transatlantic Reform.