Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Taking the Historiann Book Challenge

Last week, the New York Times interviewed Civil War historian James McPherson about -- books! McPherson is a prolific scholar and a wonderful writer--Battle Cry of Freedom is a classic--and he is also coming out with a new biography of Jefferson Davis. But as historian and blogger Historiann pointed out, the interview presents a very narrow view of what historical scholarship looks like in 2014. Historiann followed this up with an interview of her own and challenged other historians to do the same. And they did!  I can never resist a book meme, though I come a little late to the party (or rather, I have been meaning to post this since last Friday!) so without further ado, here is my response to the #historiannchallenge.  

What books are currently on your night stand [i.e. your personal on-deck]?
Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests (which looks amazing -- and the NPR review only got me more excited) and Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. 

What was the last truly great book you read?
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration is masterful. If you are going to read one book of American history this year, read this. I have been saying that since 2012 and I mean it. From a writing perspective, I also think Warmth is a fantastic model of a different way to structure a work of history. I talked with Wilkerson at the OAH this past spring about how she came up with the structure. Wilkerson stretches the histories of her main characters out over the length of the book, then breaks them up with interstitial chapters that reiterate and carry forward her larger argument and the overarching historical narrative into which the stories of her core characters fit. She explained that in her struggle to invent her own structure, she looked to a range of models, particularly fiction. In fact, the interstitial chapter idea was inspired by John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I think this is such great advice, to look for writing models across literary genres, which is especially important for historians who want to speak to a broader, nonacademic audience.

Side note: I also was extremely taken by Leslie Chang, Factory Girls, which I read this summer. I love really smart, well-researched contemporary nonfiction. Chang weaves her own family history into this exploration of the young women who are the majority of Chinese migrant laborers and who are transforming modern China. Without flinching from the abuses and excesses of global capitalism, she pushes back against a tendency to paint these women as passive victims, instead exploring their motivations, struggles, and strategies for "making it" in the new China. 

Who are the best historians writing today? 
I hate “best” questions, but that is what this meme is all about, right? And so without further ado: Jill Lepore. Collect them all. I love scholars who can do really creative but compelling things with unusual or limited sources.

What’s the best book ever written in your subfield (cultural history/history of popular culture)?
I have to name book that midwifed my entire academic career, of course: Robert Allen, Horrible Prettiness. (P.S. I'm saving my paen to Horrible Prettiness for another time!) And I will always come back to Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul as an exceptional example of the cultural turn in the discipline of history, not to mention an incredibly important book pushing historians to see capitalism and slavery as intertwined rather than at odds. Good stuff.     

Do you have a favorite biography of a historical figure? 
This is so difficult, in part because my favorite biographies are actually books that have brought a feminist edge to the practice of biography by using the lives of the otherwise invisible or overshadowed figures to open up complex histories to our view. Linda Colley, The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh is a classic example of this – and one of my favorite books. This is a masterful use of a woman’s life to open up larger themes in Atlantic world history.

On  related note: We just read Tiya Miles, The Ties That Bind in my graduate seminar and I was reminded just how much creativity as well as confidence is involved in constructing a historical narrative around figures who might easily fade from historical view. Miles constructs her story around the enslaved Doll Shoe Boots, the figure with the least power in the Shoe Boots family, a fleeting presence (at best) in the historical record. But Miles uses Doll and Shoeboots to tell a masterful story about the history of slavery, race, and the Cherokee nation. Read it.

What kinds of history books do find your students respond to the most?
The biography or memoir never goes out of style. We all respond to a good narrative. The murder or trial story is also a crowd pleaser. Ripped from the (historical) headlines! The stranger, the better! Case in point: my students in MI, SC, and SD have all loved Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz, The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America. It has all of the choice elements of the supermarket tabloid: a charistmatic religious prophet, adultery, murder. Actually, it WAS the 19th-century equivalent of a supermarket tabloid! (Bonus: it's short.)

Last year I had a really positive response in US2 to a collection of oral histories of the Vietnam War, Christian Appy, Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides. My students loved the raw personal quality of the interviews. The Murder ofHelen Jewett by Patricia Cline Cohen works well in upper level classes, but it can be a challenge to get students to push to the end. When it comes to memoir, there is a reason why Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is taught again and again and again.

What kind of reader were you as a child? 
“You always have your nose in a book...” I loved historical fiction. The original nineteenth-century wing of my hometown public library was devoted to children’s and young adult literature. It was an open vaulted space with a tempting maze of dark wood shelves, and in one secluded corner you could find the American Girl books, the Shoe books (Noel Streatfield) and the All-of-a-Kind-Family books. THAT was my corner. Eventually, I graduated to 19th-century English and American novels. I also loved fantasy of all stripes, from collections of Greek myths to Lord of the Rings. And I tried my hand at historical fiction as well, before I discovered that the best stories were the “true” stories—to read and to write! And that is why I became a historian. 

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be? 
This is an impossible question. I want to list a gazillion 19th-century novels, like Sister Carrie and The House of Mirth and Dracula. But I also remember the transformative experience I had as a college freshman when I read and wrote about Laurel Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on her Diary 1785-1812. I spent an intense all-nighter working on that paper in the grotty lounge in Clothier Hall on Rutgers’ College Ave campus. I was using Ballard to work through an argument about changes to family and gender roles at the turn of the century. This was my first encounter with the idea that women’s history had a history – that ideas about family and sex changed. (I was also pretty freaked out considering that, well, I was pulling an all-nighter. But it was my last one, folks! I swear!) 

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? 
A book that Malia or Sasha Obama love. I think it is so important for parents to keep up with the things their kids care about. 

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited? 
Dare I admit it? The first answers that come to mind are all 19th-century English or American novelists... 

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? 
I am going to evade the potential pitfalls of this question and answer with a novel. I tried to read Jennifer Eagan, A Visit from the Goon Squad, but left it in a cab and felt zero desire to reacquire! Not characters I wanted to spend time with, whether out of horror, fascination, or affinity... 

Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing? 
I do this all of the time...and then pick them up again in a few weeks, months, or years... Right now I'm hoping I'll find my way back to Megan Marshall, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. 

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet? 
Michael Warner, The Trouble With Normal. Don’t tell on me! I've read about it, I've read books based on it, but somehow I have never actually read it. Funny how that happens... 

What do you plan to read next?
In academia land, I’m excited about Rachel Hope Cleves, Charity and Sylvia and Estelle Friedman, Redefining Rape. In novel land, I’ve been meaning to read Amanda Coplin, The Orchardist for a while now.

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