Civil War Historian Gary Gallagher on Being a Historian


Erik Moshe of History News Network interviews Gary W. Gallagher, the John L. Nau III Professor of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia.

Here is a taste:

What books are you reading now?

I re-read Jane Austen’s novels every year (well, all but Northanger Abbey), and I am working on Persuasion right now. I am also very much enjoying Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, which evokes the academic world in ways alternately hilarious and painful. As for works of history, I am reading Joe Jackson’s Black Elk: The Life of an American Visionary—for the second time, having first encountered it while on a prize jury. I find it a remarkably successful use of biography to get at a range of questions relating to Lakota and, more broadly, American history.

What is your favorite history book?

I do not have a book that stands out as my clear favorite, but I always profit from returning to David M. Potter’s work. The essays in The South and the Sectional Conflict, particularly “The Historian’s Use of Nationalism and Vice Versa,” remind me of the long-term value of scholarship that reflects superior analytical gifts, intellectual integrity, and deep immersion in sources.

Why did you choose history as your career?

I can say with great firmness that I did not choose it in the hope of retiring early with a large bank account! I have been drawn to history since I was in grade school, and I was fortunate to have excellent teachers at various points in my schooling who urged me to follow my interests. By my second year of undergraduate school, I knew I would try to become an academic historian. I urge my own students to find a profession they love, one that makes them excited about going to work, rather than dreading it, every day. I cannot imagine a better way to spend a professional life than teaching and writing about history.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

The baseline is performing the hard work that yields a good foundation of knowledge—a foundation that should be made stronger by continuing to engage in research throughout a career. In the classroom, the quality of conveying genuine engagement with the topic is essential. Students can tell immediately if a teacher is going through the motions, and they respond, properly, by withdrawing intellectually or dropping the class. In terms of scholarship, historians must be able to sustain solitary work, often for protracted periods. Anyone who prefers always to be part of a team probably should avoid historical research. Perhaps the most important quality is a determination to go where the evidence leads, whatever initial expectations might have been. Hewing to a promising thesis or theory in the face of preponderant evidence to the contrary is, at least in my view, unforgivable.

Read the entire interview here.