Lee Farrow is Professor of History at Auburn University at Montgomery. This interview is based on her new book, Seward’s Folly: A New Look at the Alaska Purchase (University of Alaska Press, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Seward’s Folly?
LF: I took a cruise to Alaska a few years ago. I realized I knew very little about the purchase, so when we landed in Sitka, I went to the only bookstore in town and looked for something to read on it. There was nothing. When I got back home, I did a little research and realized that the last book on this subject for adults was published in 1975. I decided this should be my next project, and I contacted the University of Alaska Press and they agreed it was time for a new book on the subject.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Seward’s Folly?
LF: The Alaska Purchase—denounced at the time as “Seward’s Folly” but now seen as a masterstroke—is well known as a key moment in American history, but few know the whole story. This book gives an overview of just what the Alaska Purchase was, how it came about, and its impact at the time, and discusses its implications for foreign policy and international diplomacy far beyond Russia and the United States at a moment when the global balance of power was in question.
JF: Why do we need to read Seward’s Folly?
LF: Russia, and the question of Russia-American relations, is back in the news and the subject of much concern and controversy. In addition, Alaska has been at the center of various debates in recent years, some involving global climate change and the environment, some involving questions of domestic energy reserves. There are also those in Russia who believe the Russian-American Treaty of 1867 was not really a sale, but a lease, and that Russia has a rightful claim to Alaska. While this argument is incorrect and not likely to be taken seriously in most corners, it is part of the story of the complex Russian-American relationship.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
LF: I’m actually a Russian historian, but in recent years, I have become interested in the history of Russian-American relations. In 2014, I published a book called Alexis in America: A Russian Grand Duke’s Tour, 1871-72, that examined the visit of Russian Grand Duke Alexis, Tsar Alexander II’s son, to the United States. Among other things, Alexis visited Chicago after the Great Fire, hunted buffalo with Buffalo Bill and Custer, and was in New Orleans for the first daytime Mardi Gras celebration, and was treated as a celebrity wherever he went. I became interested in Russian history in high school in the early 1980’s when an older friend of mine went off to college and started studying the Russian language.
JF: What is your next project?
LF: I am currently working on the republication of several memoirs by American women who witnessed the Russian Revolution of 1917. One of these, Louise Bryant, was the wife of John Reed and was played by Diane Keaton in the film, “Reds.”
JF: Thanks, Lee!