A Writing Group of Boston-Area American Historians Gets a Story in *Publishers Weekly*

GeorginiCheck out Alex Green’s piece at Publishers Weekly.  The writers group, known as “The Squad,” includes historians Kevin Levin, Liz Covart, Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.  (Covart and Georgini have been guests on the The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Listen to our conversation with Covart here.  Georgini here).

Here is a taste of Green’s piece:

Kevin Levin got his first taste of having his work reviewed by the historians in the Book Squad as they finished their obligatory postdinner course of mint chip ice cream. “It took me a little bit of time to pick my ego up off the floor,” Levin said. Despite the intensity of the critique, Levin (who is a faculty colleague of the author of this article at Gann Academy) came to depend on the process for writing Searching for the Black Confederates (Univ. of North Carolina, Sept.). “I don’t think I would have finished the book without it,” he said.

The Book Squad first gathered when Liz Covart, host of the history podcast Ben Franklin’s World, wanted to create a writing group to motivate her to write. Levin signed on, as did historians Sara Georgini, Megan Kate Nelson, Heather Cox Richardson, and Nina Silber.

The group began meeting monthly at each other’s houses in 2015. The host is responsible for dinner and a piece of writing for review. For Georgini, who was completing her dissertation and converting it into a trade title, the group offered an opportunity to share her work with published writers.

“We didn’t do the traditional fetishizing of the person’s work with comments like ‘I really love what you did here,’ ” Georgini said. “We went straight into it.” Her Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family was published by Oxford University Press in February.Black Confeds

In one instance, Heather Cox Richardson told Nelson, “You went the first 18 pages of this chapter before you had a single color.” Nelson, whose The Three-Cornered War will be published by Scribner in February 2020, said the advice has stayed with her, and as a result, she often thinks about ways to bring a more vivid sense of place into all of her writing.

After each session, each member sends written manuscript edits to the author who presented that night, which Silber said was invaluable as she finalized her edits for This War Ain’t Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, which was published by UNC Press in 2018.

For Silber, who is an academic, working with the group was challenging at times. “Being in the group, I thought a lot more about how to make my writing lively and engaged and compelling,” she said. “But it was very hard for me to tell this as a story and not add a lot of analysis.”

Silber’s struggle reflects a wider issue. “We’re in this moment where historians are torn between writing for an academic audience or a trade audience,” Georgini said. “What does it mean to write for both? So a lot of these conversations in the Book Squad were about these readers who we were imagining and also the readers we hoped to attract. That was some of the richest dialogue we had.”

Read the entire piece here.

Early American Historians on the Opinion Page

Yoni

Yoni Appelbaum, Senior Editor at The Atlantic

Yesterday I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts to participate in a session at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of the Early American Republic devoted to historical writing for popular venues.  The session was titled “Early America on the Opinion Page: Writing Historically-Minded Pieces for Contemporary Audiences.”  (Thanks to Caitlin Fitz of Northwestern University for organizing the event).

I was honored to sit on a roundtable with the following historians:

Jill Lepore (Harvard University and The New Yorker)

Yoni Appelbaum (Senior Editor at The Atlantic)

Erica Armstrong Dunbar (Rutgers University and National Book Award finalist)

Gautham Rao (American University)

Lepore, who chaired the session, asked each participant to send her the first few paragraphs of a recent op-ed piece.  She pasted these excerpts into a document and distributed it to the standing-room only crowd.   I chose a piece I wrote last year for The Atlantic. Each member of the roundtable took fifteen minutes to talk about the history behind the piece and offer insights into their own experiences with op-ed and other forms of public writing.

Many of the participants talked about the risks involved in writing for the public in a social media age.  Several of the panelists have received death threats for their public writing. I talked about the difficulty in bringing complexity and nuance to opinion pieces.  My favorite response came from Appelbaum, who encouraged the audience to find a community of friends and family who love and affirm their work in the midst of the inevitable criticism that comes when we write for the public. It was the first time I have ever heard the word “love” invoked in this way at a secular academic history conference.

Lepore and Rao had a really interesting exchange about book reviewing in popular venues.  Rao (a fellow Mets fan by the way!) lamented the fact that magazines and newspapers often choose non-academics or non-historians to review important history books.  Lepore disagreed.  She thought it was a very good idea that non-academics and non-historians reviewed these books because such reviewers are free from the politics of the academy and the historical profession.

Rao responded to the exchange on Twitter:

Lepore ended the session with some advice of her own:

1. “Drive Responsibly”:  Bring your best work and your deep commitment to civic responsibility to the public sphere.  If you don’t write well or make weak arguments you weaken all of our reputations as historians.

2. “Be brave, but don’t be shi..y”

3. “Delight your reader”

And then there was moment.

Robert Caro on Working in Archives

Robert Caro, author of "The Power Broker," a biography on Ro

Robert Caro, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and Lyndon Johnson biographer, recently published Working: Research, Interviewing, Writing.  Here is a the publisher’s description:

For the first time in book form, Robert Caro gives us a glimpse into his own life and work in these evocatively written, personal pieces. He describes what it was like to interview the mighty Robert Moses; what it felt like to begin discovering the extent of the political power Moses wielded; the combination of discouragement and exhilaration he felt confronting the vast holdings of the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas; his encounters with witnesses, including longtime residents wrenchingly displaced by the construction of Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway and Lady Bird Johnson acknowledging the beauty and influence of one of LBJ’s mistresses. He gratefully remembers how, after years of working in solitude, he found a writers’ community at the New York Public Library, and details the ways he goes about planning and composing his books. 

Caro recalls the moments at which he came to understand that he wanted to write not just about the men who wielded power but about the people and the politics that were shaped by that power. And he talks about the importance to him of the writing itself, of how he tries to infuse it with a sense of place and mood to bring characters and situations to life on the page. Taken together, these reminiscences–some previously published, some written expressly for this book–bring into focus the passion, the wry self-deprecation, and the integrity with which this brilliant historian has always approached his work.

Over at Popular Mechanics, Eleanor Hildebrandt talks to Caro about his work in the archives.  Here is a taste of their conversation:

Popular Mechanics: What do you bring with you when you go to the archives?

Robert Caro: It depends on the archive. I have a computer on my desk [a Lenovo Thinkpad], although I still write and do most of my stuff on this typewriter. The reason I have a computer is that some years ago, the Johnson library said that my typewriter was so noisy, it was disturbing the other researchers. So I bought a computer and I took all my Vietnam notes on it, but I still write on the typewriter and in longhand.

It makes me think more. Today everybody believes fast is good. Sometimes slow is good.

Almost two years ago, Ina [Caro’s wife] and I went down [to the archives], and I’m sitting there, in the reading room, writing my notes. Everybody else is standing there taking photographs of their documents. They do it with cell phones now. If you saw me there, you’d see one person who’s not in the modern age.

PM: Have you ever been tempted to switch to pictures?

RC: No. I feel there’s something very important, to be able to turn the pages yourself. I don’t want anything standing in between me and the paper. People compliment me on finding out how [Johnson] rose to power so fast in Congress by using money. That happened down there, and it was a vague, amorphous thing. I was sitting there with all these boxes, taking all these notes. And you saw letters, his very subservient letters—“Can I have five minutes of your time?”—and then you see the same letters coming back to him. And I said, Something happened here. What’s the explanation? Why is a committee chairman writing to Lyndon Johnson, asking for a few minutes of his time? So I sat there and put my notes into chronological order. And then it became absolutely clear.

Would the same thing have happened if I’d stood there taking photographs and went back? Possibly. But I don’t believe it. To me, being in the papers is really important.

Read the entire interview here.

On Writing the History of the 21st Century

2057c-9-11_statue_of_liberty_and_wtc

How would you write a history of the 21st century?  Historian and Anxious Bench blogger Philip Jenkins just finished such a work and he tells us how he did it here.  A taste:

I have just completed a book titled Rethinking a Nation: The United States in the 21st Century. Yes, that’s 21st, not 20th. The whole project raises some interesting questions about just what history is, how we define it, and how we separate it from (for instance) journalism or political science. This has important implications for how we define and study contemporary religious history, the kind of endeavor that concerns most of us at the Anxious Bench.

What a historian has to do, of course, is to rise above simple reportage to supply broad themes and identify key trends by which the larger story can be told. Often, that means making unsuspected connections between different forms of study – social and economic, political and technological, cultural and sexual.

But writing any history of “Only Yesterday” has potential pitfalls, as it can be difficult to rise above strictly contemporary concerns and obsessions to arrive at a balanced long-term perspective. When today we write the history of the 1850s or the 1950s (say) we know exactly the topics and individuals that demand to be covered, so that to some extent our narrative framework is pre-set. We know where the story is going, and the script is already written. That is simply not the case for the most recent era, where we rely on our individual judgments to determine the critical trends, and the most significant events. In a sense, I really am making it up as I go. Not, I hope, in a bad way.

Read the rest here.

Writing Accessible History

Jersey ShoreOct2009 014

Maybe if one of my books sold 350,000 copies I would not need to do this

Last summer a group of K-8 history teachers urged me to write a popular biography of Philip Vickers Fithian.  Here is what I wrote back then:

I am always amazed when I talk to people who develop strong emotional connections to the characters in The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.  I did not expect the book to be a tearjerker. The title is long and technical.  It is published by a university press.  Most bookstores do not carry it.  When my first royalty check arrived, I spent it all on Christmas presents. When the second royalty check arrived, I spent it all on a nice dinner for my family.  Today I can still splurge for dinner with the annual check, assuming that the meal is eaten at Arby’s.

But since the book first appeared in 2008, a few dozen people have told me that they cried at the end.  This week at the Princeton Seminar, five teachers mentioned that the final chapter brought them to tears.

Philip Vickers Fithian’s story does have an emotional ending, but I am still surprised that a book about the Enlightenment in America resonates with readers in this way.

Last week several K-8 history teachers (and at least one school librarian) attending the Princeton Seminar strongly encouraged me to write a biography of Philip for the young adult nonfiction market.  I am taking their advice seriously.  I don’t know very much about this market, but I want to learn more.  After listening to these teachers, and thinking about this a bit more myself, I think that teenagers might find Philip’s story interesting for what it teaches us about everyday life in colonial America, the early years of the American Revolution, love and courtship, education, self-improvement, and life on the frontier.

Stay tuned.  And if you have any advice I would love to hear it.

I thought about this possible project again after I read Elizabeth Elliott’s AHA Today post: “Experiments in Writing History.”  Here is a taste:

Laura Kamoie still receives periodic royalty statements for a book she published over a decade ago—an economic history of the early American Tayloe family, based on her PhD dissertation from the College of William and Mary. She knows that, to date, it has sold 773 copies, an ordinary showing for a first book that might be assigned in a university class once in a while. As for the next work she lists under the publications section of her CV? That one has sold over 350,000 copies. 

The wildly successful America’s First Daughter (2016) is not an academic history but a work of historical fiction. Using “the exact same research process as I did for my dissertation,” Kamoie, along with co-author Stephanie Dray, wrote a novel from the point of view of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter Patsy. Headlining the jam-packed AHA18 session “Historians Writing Historical Fiction,” Kamoie talked about the ways she finds writing academic history and writing historical fiction similar, arguing that “both attempt to link known facts and try to shape them into some kind of a narrative. Both make historical contributions, and both are meant to generate curiosity about the past.”

Read the entire piece here.

Do the Victors Really Write the Histories?

Lee

Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Keenan Norris of Evergreen Valley College asks: If the victors write the histories, then why has the Confederate flag and monuments been around for so long?  It’s a great question.

Here is a taste of his piece: “To  Be Continued, or Who Lost the Civil War?”

The possibility that the victors do not necessarily write the histories is an interesting one. Today, histories and counter-histories and counters to the counter-histories can be found in most libraries and on the internet. Yet the basic truth that the victors enjoy the spoils and the heroic history books is supported, most obviously, by our historical record. Begin with the language of that record. The works of Herodotus and Livy, C. L. R. James and W. E. B. Du Bois, Studs Terkel and Svetlana Alexievich are not written in the tongues of the defeated. We do not read about Hannibal’s valiant refusal to be a friend to Rome in his native Punic, nor about Toussaint L’Ouverture’s revolutionary cause in Haitian Creole, nor are Alexievich’s incredible interviews on Russia’s ongoing conflict with Chechen rebels conducted in Chechen. Moreover, the histories that have been legitimated by widely acclaimed literature and film — that have been canonized — have tended toward a heroic vision of the victors. Plutarch does not remember Alexander the Great as a bloodthirsty psychopath bent on successive genocides, nor does Gary Sinise portray Harry S. Truman as a simple-minded destroyer of worlds, though the subjugated histories of the raped, pillaged, and atom-bombed would probably have told a different tale about them.

The victors do, in fact, write the initial and most powerfully influential histories of every conflict, whether between warring armies or warring ideologies. And, when it comes to war, that history begins not with books or movies, but with the terms of peace treaties, the force of occupation, and the redrawing of borders.

Is the rebel flag an impotent symbol? Do the monuments maintained to the greatness of Confederate generals not hold persistent emotional power? There would be no petitions and no protests calling to bring those symbols down if that were the case. White supremacists and neo-Nazis would not be clashing with Antifa in pitched battles in broad daylight if no one cared. The #NoConfederate Twitter movement would not exist because the idea for an HBO show, which the Twitter movement protests, about the historical “what if” of a Confederate victory in the Civil War, would never have been considered potentially lucrative enough to bring to primetime in the first place, let alone to endure such a sustained negative public backlash if these symbols were just ugly gift-shop kitsch.

Read the entire piece here.

Ken Burns and “Sour Grapes”

Vietnam

Yesterday I had the chance to be part of a small group discussion with Martin Luther King Jr. biographer Taylor Branch.  During the course of the conversation someone asked him if his work had been criticized by academic historians because he wrote in a narrative style and he did not have a Ph.D in history.  Branch said that many academics don’t like his books in the same way that they don’t like the work of David McCullough or Ron Chernow.  He took the criticism in stride and didn’t seem to be bothered by it.

At this point in the conversation I chimed-in and told him that I was one of those “academic historians” who happens to like (and read) narrative history.  I also told him that the criticism of narrative history writers could be best explained by jealousy.  He laughed out loud and said thank you.  My day was made and my reputation as a suck-up was firmly secured.  🙂

What about Ken Burns?

I have had more conversations about the Vietnam War in the past two weeks than I have had in my entire life.  People are talking about history.  Last time I checked, historians usually think this is a good thing.

As I have written here before, I thoroughly enjoyed Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s documentary “The Vietnam War.” I am thus in full agreement with Jonathan Zimmerman‘s recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education: What’s So Bad About Ken Burns.”

Here is a taste:

Historians aren’t very happy with Ken Burns. He’s a simplifier; we complicate. He makes myths; we bust them. And he celebrates the nation, while we critique it.

That’s the party line, anyway, among my fellow academics. And while I agree with some of their attacks on Burns’s recently concluded TV series about the Vietnam War, there’s something else at work here.

It’s called sour grapes. Put simply, Burns has managed to engage a huge public audience. And that makes him suspect among members of our guild, who write almost entirely for each other.

We pretend we don’t envy his fame and fortune, but of course we do. We’re like high-school kids who don’t get asked to the prom, then say they never wanted to go in the first place.

That’s the only way to understand the dismissive, vituperative tone of our profession’s reaction to Burns’s series. Several scholars praised Burns for including multiple voices — especially Vietnamese ones — in his interviews. But most historians in the blogosphere took him to task for distorting the conflict, especially with regard to his quest for a shared national narrative that can bind Americans together.

Read the entire piece here.

Ron Chernow’s Latest Biography

GrantHe became famous by writing the book on which the smash-hit musical “Hamilton” was based.  Now Ron Chernow‘s latest book is a biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  The Washington Post has the story covered.  Here is a taste of Karen Heller’s piece:

Ron Chernow’s timing is exquisite, even if it took six years and 25,000 index cards to get to this moment.

As Americans debate the continued reverence for Confederate general Robert E. Lee in the wake of the Charlottesville protests, the biographer of Hamilton — the “Hamilton” who inspired the theatrical juggernaut — delivers his latest brick of a book, “Grant” (publishing Oct. 10), to help rescue the Union commander and 18th president from the ash heap of history.

Ulysses S. Grant, you may recall, won the Civil War. He was the military architect who triumphed on multiple battlefields and vanquished Lee in Virginia after six other Union generals failed.

Yet after the South’s defeat, “Lee was puffed up to almost godlike proportions, not only as a great general, but as a perfect Christian gentleman, this noble and exemplary figure and an aristocratic example,” says Chernow, 68, sitting in his sun-splashed kitchen on the top floor of the 19th-century Brooklyn Heights brownstone where he rents two stories. “The glorification of Lee and the denigration of Grant are two sides of the same coin. We’ve created our own mythology of what happened.”

Read the entire piece here.

How NOT To Write Your Second Book

how-not-to-write-your-second-book-logoThe Junto blog is running a series of posts on this topic featuring some excellent historians. The posts stem from a roundtable presented at the 2017 meeting of the Society for the History of the Early Republic.  It was organized by Emily Controy-Krutz and Jessica Lepler.

Here is a taste of the Conroy-Krutz and Lepler’s introduction to the series:

How do you start a new book that’s on a wildly different topic from your last book? Or written in a different style? And how do you write a book while teaching new preps and serving on committees? What if you’re also raising kids and caring for aging family members? If a book could be articles, shouldit be articles? In a packed conference room on a hot Saturday in July, five incredibly generous, funny, and thoughtful scholars shared their tips and tricks for “How Not to Write Your Second Book,” and the laughter and nods around the room suggested that the comments, questions, and conversation spoke to concerns that are widely shared among mid-career scholars and that had sparked the creation of the SHEAR Second-Book Writers’ Workshop (2BWW).

Read the entire roundtable here.

On Writing Your Second History Book

writing-923882_960_720

Benjamin Park, an early American historian who teaches at Sam Houston State University in Texas, has live-tweeted a great session from the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) on how to go about writing a second book.

For most academic historians, their first book is a revised version of their dissertation. Much of the research and writing for the first book is accomplished during graduate school. (Although revisions are always necessary for turning a dissertation into a book). Second books, however, are usually written under different circumstances.  Graduate students become faculty members and their lives change.  They have to prepare lectures, attend meetings, and, for some, take on the responsibilities of family life.  Writing that second book become a lot more difficult when one’s attention is pulled in so many different directions.

The members of the panel:

Kathleen DuVal of UNC-Chapel Hill

Paul Erickson of the American Antiquarian Society

Timothy Mennell, University of Chicago Press

Tamara Plakins Thornton, University at Buffalo

Catherine Kelly, University of Oklahoma

As I read Ben’s tweets I once again realized how different my career has been when compared to the traditional career trajectory (or at least the one that is considered normal among people who attend SHEAR) in the profession.

Here are some of Park’s post

Andrew Bacevich on Carl Becker, Donald Trump, Bill O’Reilly, and the Writing of History

Becker

Carl Becker

Historian and foreign policy scholar Andrew Bacevich brings these three figures together in a provocative essay about how we write history.  Here is just a small taste:

Contrast the influence wielded by prominent historians in Becker’s day—during the first third of the 20th century, they included, along with Becker, such formidables as Henry Adams, Charles and Mary Beard, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Frederick Jackson Turner—with the role played by historians today. The issue here is not erudition, which today’s scholars possess in abundance, but impact. On that score, the disparity between then and now is immense.

In effect, professional historians have ceded the field to a new group of bards and minstrels. So the bestselling “historian” in the United States today is Bill O’Reilly, whose books routinely sell more than a million copies each. Were Donald Trump given to reading books, he would likely find O’Reilly’s both accessible and agreeable. But O’Reilly is in the entertainment business. He has neither any interest nor the genuine ability to create what Becker called “history that does work in the world.”

Still, history itself works in mysterious ways known only to God or to Providence. Only after the fact do its purposes become evident. It may yet surprise us.

Read the entire piece at The Nation.

How Does Annette Gordon-Reed Write?

86d77-hemingsesShe is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family and she was a guest on episode of eight of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

And have I mentioned that she gave the 2012 American Democracy Lecture at Messiah College?

Over at “Writing Routines,” Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University tells us how she writes.

Here is a taste of her interview:

Let’s start with the basics: What time of day do you start writing? Is it easier for you to write early in the morning? Late at night?

I am a morning person, so I prefer to work in the morning. I am at my best writing between 6AM and noon. Things begin to deteriorate after that. The afternoon hours are not so great. I can start back up again around 7PM or so.

What’s your preferred tool for writing—a word processor like Microsoft Word, Google Docs, etc.? A pen and paper?

I start off all serious writing with pen or pencil and paper. I also say out loud what I am writing. I sometimes dictate. It is very difficult for me to start out writing on a computer. Once I have the flow going very well, I transfer what I have written onto the computer. Then I can keep writing and editing.

Do you listen to music when you write, or do you prefer silence, or something else in the background?

I prefer silence because, as I said, I am talking as I’m writing. I only want to hear what I am saying.

Do you have any pre-writing rituals or habits?

I listen to music and I straighten things up around where I’m going to be writing.

How many words a day do you produce, or try to produce? How much of that ever sees the light of day?

Oh, there is no set amount. It depends on where I am in the writing process. I would say most of it sees the light of day. I don’t move onto the next thing until I’m satisfied with the pages I have written. It is very unlikely that I will have written, say, a chapter, and then throw it out and start all over. I do not proceed until I’m satisfied with what I have done.

Read the entire interview here.

How to Write a Book Proposal

book-proposalDan Berger, a history professor at the University of Washington Bothell and the author of Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Erahas a helpful post up at Black Perspectives with some tips on how to write a book proposal.

Here is a taste:

A good proposal should be sent to multiple presses. While you should not submit the manuscript to multiple publishers simultaneously, it is not a betrayal of confidence to submit proposals to multiple publishers; in fact, it’s in your benefit to do so. The neoliberal university affects publishers as much as any other part of the academy. Editors are overworked and expected to do more with less while navigating legions of anxious junior (and senior) scholars eager to find a home for their work. Interest from one press is perhaps the only surefire thing that can get another press to get back to you if they have not already. In sending your proposal to multiple presses, you may want to make some superficial adjustments to the proposal. For instance, if you are interested in a particular series that a publisher has, you might work the themes and concepts of the series into your proposal in a deliberate fashion. However, since the proposal is introducing the book, it should be able to stand alone across multiple submissions without much tailored revision.

When I was finishing the proposal for Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era, I devised a three-tiered list. Each tier had four or five presses in it. My plan was to send out the proposal to all of the presses in the group and see what happened; if no one in tier one was interested, then I would send it to tier two, and so on. I developed my list with equal parts reason and emotion: I talked with friends and mentors about it, and I scoured my bookshelves to see who had published books I was excited by or which bore significant tie in to some of the themes of my own book. I was fortunate to have interest from three of my tier-one list, so I didn’t need to keep sending it out. But having that list made me feel confident that I would publish the book somewhere, that I had other options if my top choices did not pan out. And the process of creating the tiers also helped me decide which press to go with when I had interest from multiple places. The other factor that helped me decide was gauging excitement for the project from different presses; when decision time came, I went with the press that seemed to best understand what I was doing with my book and shared my vision of what it could be.

Read the entire post here.

What Are You Working On?

Troubled RefugeAcademic historians often ask this question of other academic historians.  Sometimes when a person asks this question at a social gathering they are sincerely curious about the other person’s work.  Other times this question is something akin to “nice weather we have been having….” The later folks really do not care what the heck you are “working on,” but they need to keep the conversation going until they can figure out a legitimate reason to slip away to another awkward conversation.

Every historian must have an answer to this question.  If you do not have an answer, you will send a message that you are lazy, not a good historian, or have no interest in contributing to your field.

Chandra Manning rightly rejects everything I wrote in the preceding paragraph.

Manning teaches history at Georgetown University.  Some of you may remember that she visited The Author’s Corner last September to talk about her book Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War.

Here is a taste of her Chronicle of Higher Education essay, “On Not Writing a Book Right Now.”

I am in an asterisk moment right now — which would hardly be worth wasting ink on, except that I suspect I am not alone. I certainly thought I was aberrational in that regard, until three or four people asked what I was working and I jokingly replied, “I think I’ll write an essay about not working on anything right now.” Their vigorous agreement suggested that such an essay might serve a worthwhile purpose.

First things first: The premise of “not working on anything” contains the assumption that the only type of project that really counts is a book project. I am “working on” plenty of things. It is just that none of them are destined for two hard covers with my name on the title page and a Library of Congress E-Four-Fifty-Something call number on the spine.

For the past two years, I have been on faculty leave and employed in a staff position, where I write every day on all sorts of topics, in various formats — none of which go out under my own name, but all of which help keep the writing muscle memory reasonably fit.

Meanwhile, a lot of what I “work on” every day has nothing to do with writing at all, but instead has to do with life — that is, with caring for my two sons on the autism spectrum. Other scholars might not spend the same amount of time teaching their children basic life skills, hanging out at various kid events in case of meltdowns, restoring calm when things go disastrously wrong, or navigating school and insurance bureaucracies as I do, but everyone’s life presents challenges that can be hard to reconcile with scholarly life as we envisioned it back in graduate school.

That gulf — between our expectation of uninterrupted erudite productivity and our various lived realities — can feel a lot like failure. But is it? Now, I firmly believe that bona fide failure serves a necessary purpose in life, but that is a subject for another day. Being without a book project isn’t necessarily a failure.

I propose a different explanation: The problem isn’t that we’re failing to meet our writing expectations; the problem is the expectations themselves. Yes, scholars should write books. I am all for good books and high standards. But the idea that a scholar should always be writing a book is flawed.

Read the entire piece here.

Manning is consistent.  Here is a taste of her Author’s Corner interview:

JF: What is your next project?

CM: I am not sure. Troubled Refuge was a very difficult book to write on many levels, and it drained me dry. It will take awhile for the well to refill, especially because there are some either things that need my presence and attention right now. What comes next could be completely different.

Yet Another Jill Lepore Interview

2116c-leporestoryYou may recall this post from yesterday.

Today we offer a new Jill Lepore interview post.

B.R. Cohen of Public Books interviews Lepore about “the challenge of explaining things.”

Here is a taste:

BRC: As we talk about the historical trajectory of such things, of how things change and develop, I have a corollary question. How can we write about history in ways that don’t come off sounding like what I think of as a tired mode: the academic translating obscure scholarship in smaller words and shorter sentences and calling that “writing for a broader audience.” You don’t take that approach. Did you evolve away from it early in your career? Or did you always know you would produce public (not just academic) commentary?

JL: I only ever wanted to be a writer. I love history, and I especially love teaching history, but I never intended to become an academic, and I’m baffled by the idea that reaching a wider audience involves using smaller words, as if there’s some inverse correlation between the size of your audience and of your vocabulary. You don’t talk about, say, technological determinism to a freshman the same way you talk about it to a colleague, right? Is it easier to talk to a freshman? No, it’s harder. Is it more important to give that student a clear explanation of the concept than it is to chat with your colleague about it? I think so, though I suppose that’s debatable. I love the challenge of explaining things to other people, in the same way that I love other people explaining things to me. I love being a student. Nothing is so thrilling as diving into scholarship I’ve never encountered before and trying to get my bearings, learning what so many scholars have been piecing together over a very long period of time, and trying to figure out how to bring that learning to bear on a problem that I, like a lot of people both inside and outside the academy, happen to be struggling with. The hitch is getting the scholarship right. I always worry I’ve missed something, or distorted something, or failed to understand the big picture. That’s the downside: missing something crucial. Nothing is more concerning, or more discouraging, than getting something wrong; there’s no real way to right it. It’s horrible; it kills me.

Read the entire interview here.

How Robert Caro Writes

CaroMost historians spend their careers jumping from topic to topic.  They finish a book on one subject and then move on to something different.  Perhaps they stay within their general area of expertise, but they seldom spend their entire life working on the same project.

That is why I am so fascinated by the career of writer Robert Caro.  After he won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for The Power Brokera biography of New York developer Robert Moses, he spent the rest of his career writing about Lyndon B. Johnson.  He won a second Pulitzer in 2002 for Master of the Senatethe third book in his projected five-volume biography of Johnson.  He is currently at work on volume five.

Over at the Paris Review, Caro talks about his career, Lyndon Johnson, and how he writes.  Here is a taste:

INTERVIEWER:

How do you research a subject?

CARO:

First you read the books on the subject, then you go to the big news­papers, and all the magazines—Newsweek, Life, Time, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Star, then you go to the newspapers from the little towns. If something appeared there, you want to see how it’s ­covered in the weekly newspaper.

Then the next thing you do is the documents. There’s the Lyndon Johnson papers, but also the papers of everyone else—Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower—whom he dealt with. Or for The Power Broker, Al Smith’s papers, the Herbert Lehman papers, the Harriman papers, the La Guardia papers. But to stick with Johnson, the LBJ Presidential Library is just massive. The last time I was there, they had forty-four million pieces of paper. These shelves go back, like, a hundred feet. And there are four floors of these red buckram boxes. His congressional papers run 144 linear feet. Which is 349 boxes. A  box can hold eight hundred pages. I was able to go through all of those, though it took a long, long time. This was when we were living in Texas for three years. Ina and I were spending five and a half days a week, typically, at the library. 

The presidency is different. There’s no hope of reading it all. You’d need several lifetimes. But you want to try to do as much as possible, because you never know what you will find. You have to rely on all of the cross-­referencing that the archivists have done. If it’s something really important, like a civil rights file, from 1964, 1965, or voting rights, you want to see everything. So I called for everything. But other­wise, you know you’re not seeing even a substantial percentage. You hope you’re seeing everything that really matters, but you always have this feeling, What’s in the rest?

So that’s the first three steps—the books, the newspapers and magazines, the documents. Then come the interviews. You try and find everybody who is alive who dealt with Johnson in any way in this period. Some people you interview over and over. There was this Johnson speechwriter, Horace Busby. I interviewed him twenty-two times. These were the formal interviews. We also had a lot of informal telephone chats. Once, he had a stroke. After he got better, he wrote Ina—he had a crush on Ina—“All I could think of when I went into the hospital was, ‘This will be hard on Robert, nobody else can tell him about the vice presidency.’ ” I came to love Buzz. But none of this is enough. You have to ask yourself, Are you making the reader see the scene? And that means, Can you see the scene? You look at so many books, and it seems like all the writer cares about is getting the facts in. But the facts alone aren’t enough.

Read the entire interview here.

How to Write a Book Proposal

book-proposalOver at Black Perspectives, Keisha Blain of the University of Iowa interviews Dawn Durante of the University of Illinois Press about how to write a book proposal for a university press.

Durante acquires books in Asian-American history, Latino History in the Midwest, Black Studies, Digital Humanities, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality in American History.

Here is a taste of the interview:

Keisha N. Blain: What do you think is the biggest misconception about the process of writing the book proposal?

Dawn Durante: In my opinion, the major misconception about the purpose of the book proposal is that it is solely for the benefit of an editor or a publisher to gauge interest in the book project. Proposals can be a much more valuable tool that serve authors better when drafted well before the point of contacting an editor. I often get asked about when the right time is to be thinking about a book proposal. An author should begin crafting a proposal as soon as they are beginning to develop the book. When a scholar is preparing a proposal for a press, they must articulate key arguments, audiences, and lay out the framework and arc of the book. Many of these issues are aspects authors are thinking through (or should be thinking through) from the very conception of the project. For instance, if someone has not thought deliberately about the key stakeholders and most likely audience for the project prior to the proposal, then how has the book’s organization and writing style been appropriately designed and implemented? A proposal constructed at an early juncture can serve as a guide for the writing process and should be refined up until the point it is submitted to an editor. I have encountered authors who are hesitant to invest time in a proposal early on given all the competing commitments scholars have to deal with, and I certainly understand that. However, having a well-thought-out proposal on hand can be useful for a variety of job, grant, or fellowship applications, and more importantly, a fully conceived proposal can be a beneficial roadmap for an author from the very beginning of their project’s development.

Read the entire interview here.

Joyce Appleby: RIP

joyce-applebyJoyce Oldham Appleby, a giant in the field of early American intellectual and political history, died earlier this week at the age of 87.  If you are unfamiliar with Appleby or her work I encourage you to head over to The Junto and read Michael Hattem’s excellent obituary.

I never met Appleby, but I read and admired her work. I read Capitalism and a New Social OrderLiberalism and Republicanism in Historical Imagination,and Telling the Truth About History in graduate school.  Appleby’s published disagreements with Gordon Wood and others from the “republicanism” school of the American Revolution were staples on the reading lists of all early American graduate students in the 1990s.  Her book Inheriting the Revolution made me aware of the role memoirs could play in understanding the American Revolution and the early republic.

In 1996 Appleby and James Banner Jr. founded History News Service (HNS) in an attempt to get more academic historians to write for a public audience.  As a newly-minted history Ph.D who was trying to imagine a slightly different kind of career than the one I was encouraged to follow in graduate school, my interests intersected with the mission of HNS and I began sending op-eds to Appleby and Banner.  Anyone who wrote for HNS remembers the editorial good-cop (Appleby)/bad cop (Banner) routine they used when editing the work of those of us who were new to this genre of writing.  Banner would cover the piece with the proverbial red ink.  In my case he pushed me to write more succinct sentences and dispense of academic jargon.  Appleby was no less of a critic, but she had a softer, more encouraging, touch.  Both of them made me a better writer. Banner made me realize that it would take hard work to master the craft of public writing. (And I am certainly not there yet).  Appleby made me feel like there was actually a chance I could contribute to this genre.

After I learned that she had passed away I went back and re-read some of the e-mails she wrote to me in her role at HNS.  Here is one from 2004 that I will always remember:

“Excellent rewrite, John.  I am ready to turn this  over to Jim for fine-tuning.  I have made one suggestion in caps for your conclusion.  I hope that you will consider it.  Many thanks.  I wish you’d write more for HNS.  You are a natural writer.  Joyce

Joyce Appleby probably never thought again about the last two sentences of this e-mail, but this small kindness meant the world to me and kept me going.  Thanks, Joyce.  RIP.

Writing History for the Public

a1b2a-writingI am almost positive that at some point in the last seven years I have written a post with the same title as this one, but I am too lazy to check.  (OK–I just checked. A few have come close, but it looks like I have not written anything with the exact title).

I have stolen the title of this post from Jaime McClennen’s short post at Historical Communication.  If you are a graduate student or academic historian interested in writing history for the public I encourage you to check out some of McClennen’s links, including pieces by Michael Hattem and Liz Covart (published at The Way of Improvement Leads Home), and some of my own reflections on the subject.  (Thanks for the link, Jaime!).

Here is a taste of my January 2016 post “Some Autobiographical Reflections on Doing ‘Academic History’ and Writing for Public Audiences“:

…If everything goes well, sometimes academic history finds its way to the public.  But often times it does not.  The old quip about academics writing scholarly articles that only a small number people read is mostly true.

I applaud people who write academic monographs and publish scholarly articles.  I am just not sure I want to do it any more.  Did I just commit a certain kind of professional suicide by saying this?  Maybe.  Or maybe I did that a long time ago.

Over the last half-decade or so, ever since Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction appeared and garnered attention as a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize, I realized that my vocation as a historian was less about writing for my peers and more about reaching the public with my work.

I still try to keep one foot in the professional world of academic history.  I attend conferences, write book reviews when asked, try to stay abreast of new work, and serve as an outside reviewer of book and article manuscripts.  I try to expose the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home to the latest scholarship in the field through The Author’s Corner feature at the blog.  I continue to network with my academic friends and colleagues because I want to remain in conversation with very smart people who love to talk about history.  As a college teacher I also think these connections are important for my students, especially when I write letters of recommendation to supplement their graduate school applications.  So by no means have I left academia or the world of professional history.

But I am losing my passion for writing academic history. Perhaps I have already lost it. The last scholarly article I published in a history journal was my piece on Philip Vickers Fithian and the rural Enlightenment.  It appeared in The Journal of American History in 2003.  Granted, I have written scholarly essays that have appeared in edited collections and other venues, but these were mostly pieces that I was invited to write. I still have a few ideas for scholarly essays percolating in my head.  Sometimes I wonder if they will ever see the light of print.

My first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, gave me my first glimpse of the power of non-academic story-telling.  As a scholarly monograph, the book covers some sophisticated ground.  I write about the “rural enlightenment,” the “public sphere,” “cosmopolitanism” and “local attachments.”  But when I spoke (and continue to occasionally speak) about the book before public audiences I found that people were most attracted to the tragic life of Philip Vickers Fithian.  They didn’t care about the “rural enlightenment.”  Instead they wanted to know Fithian’s story.  They wanted to hear about his love affair with Elizabeth Beatty.  They wanted to hear about his experiences on the Pennsylvania frontier and what it was like to attend college at 18th-century Princeton. The K-8 teachers who attend my Gilder-Lerhman seminar at Princeton on colonial America have told me on more than one occasion that the book’s last chapter moved them to tears.

I was shocked when people dropped $30.00 for a copy of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and asked me to sign it. I was also a bit embarrassed because I knew that in the book the dramatic story I had told them in the talk was wedged between a lot of theoretical discussion that could make it a disappointing read.  (Maybe this is why in the last couple of years I have found at least three signed copies of the book on the shelves of used bookstores).

My experience with The Way of Improvement Leads Home convinced me to write with those people who attended my book talks in mind.  And then I started this blog and realized that I could reach more people with one post than I could with any journal article or scholarly monograph.

At some point along the way I was forced to reckon with the careerism that defines academic life. I am sure that there are many historians who write academic history for their peers out of a sense of vocation.  They love to advance knowledge and feel called to do it, even if very few people will read what they write. But there are others who would balk at the approach to doing the kind of public history I described above because it might be considered a bad career move.  I understand this critique.  An article in the William and Mary Quarterly brings much more prestige among one’s fellow academic peers than a blog post or a book published with Westminster/John Knox or Baker Academic. Articles in prestigious journals can lead to “good” jobs at research universities and a whole lot of respect.  We are fooling ourselves if we think that the writing of academic history is not embedded in a narrative of social climbing and careerism.  Should academic historians write to advance new knowledge in the context of the noble pursuit of a scholarly life?  Of course.  Is it difficult to separate this noble pursuit from rank careerism and ambition?  Of course.

In 2002 I found a dream job–teaching American history at Messiah College.  From the perspective of the profession and the academy, Messiah College is, in more ways than one, an outpost.  But being at a place like Messiah has made it much easier for me to think about my calling as a historian in ways that are fundamentally different than the academic culture I imbibed as a graduate student.  And this is freeing.

Read the entire piece.