Richard White: Historian

WhiteErik Moshe continues his series of interviews with historians at History News Network. Here is his conversation with Stanford University historian Richard White.

A taste:

Why did you choose history as your career?

I’d credit my interest in history partially to Landmark Books. It was a series for young readers that I devoured as a child in New York before we moved to California. I particularly remember the books on American history and those written by Harold Lamb, things like Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde. If I liked authors, I would read the books they wrote for adults. My father was not indulgent about many things, but I could buy as many books as I wanted if I read them. The books were on sale for a quarter or less in New York City used bookstores that we would visit from Long Island.

As for becoming an historian, I’d put most of the blame on the Nisqually Indians. I was active in the Indian fishing rights struggle at Frank’s Landing in Washington State in the late 1960s. The Nisqually were the most interesting people that I had ever met, and talked about events a century or more earlier as if they had happened yesterday. In trying to understand that past and how they thought about, I went to graduate school and wrote my master’s thesis on the Medicine Creek Treaty. It was flawed—I was learning to be a historian— but it had me starting to do research, and I have never stopped. In many ways, I am still happiest in the archives.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

For starters: patience, imagination, humility, curiosity, and empathy. Historians need an eye for the bigger picture – they need to answer the “who cares?” question and explain why what they are writing about matters. But at the same time, they need to recognize the specific illuminating details that ground the past in a vivid lived experience.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

I am an academic and so the short answer to both is universities. I have been at Stanford for nearly twenty years, but my heart is still with public institutions, which unfortunately with rising tuition and declining state contributions have become less and less public. At their best, universities offer an engagement not only with ideas but with larger public purposes. At their worst, they are narrow parochial institutions devoted largely to what will enhance their ability to raise funds and to creating an instrumental knowledge that largely serves the powerful.

The horrifying thing about universities is that you constantly grow older, while students never age. But the good thing – really a wonderful thing – is that they allow me to follow my own intellectual curiosity in the company of undergraduates, and particularly graduate students, of often astonishing ability.

Read the entire interview here.