My birthday was a couple of weeks ago. Typically, I go find myself something small – my mom and I used to hit a local antiques shop, but the shop has been shut for a few years now and frankly, let’s face it: I saw Hamilton three times this year, along with Les Mis. What else could I possibly give myself that would top THAT?! 🙂
Well . . . as it turns out, there is something.
Back in November, I picked up an amazing book, The American Story: Conversations With Master Historians. This is a collection of discussions hosted by the Library of Congress, for Congressional members, facilitated by David M. Rubenstein. If you have ever wanted to know why and how historians do what they do, this is the book you want to pick up. It’s part historiography, part inspiration, and completely unique in its approach.
This series was conceived by Rubenstein: what if major American historians were invited to speak before members of Congress to talk about their work and the major figures they have studied? So in this amazing book, we have conversations with some of the most eminent historians of today, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Jon Meacham, Cokie Roberts, A. Scott Berg, Robert Caro, and yes, of course, my favorite, Ron Chernow. (I am such a freaking fangirl.)
As a historian, this is a fascinating look into not just the men and women these historians have studied, but also into the process of history. We get an up-close, intimate look at the men (and women!) immortalized in their works, and you may definitely learn some new things – I sure did! For instance, did you know that Thomas Jefferson burned every letter his wife ever wrote, even those she wrote to her friends? We don’t know why. He just did.
Each interview covers at least one book written by the author (sometimes, two or even three). So we have broad overviews – and yet, each author has the ability to choose small kernels of insight, those moments that make each person come alive. Those are the tiny details I strive to put before my students, and those are the tiny details that enliven almost every page of this book.
But there are also amazing insights from the authors themselves about the process of writing history. And yes, anyone who has ever done even so much as a decent research paper will tell you that there is a process to it. Even when you think you know everything about a person, as A. Scott Berg thought when he wrote Lindbegh, there are things you don’t know. The records don’t exist. No one talked about it. And Berg realized that when he met seven of Lindbergh’s illegitimate children, after his book was published. But he knew Lindbergh so well that when one of the German children faxed him letters Lindbergh had written to her mother, Berg recognized his handwriting on sight. It was true. But no one, ever, had talked about their existence.
For me, though, the greatest takeaway from American Story isn’t the knowledge – although that is a fantastic takeaway – but the insights into the authors. If you know anything about my blog, you know I’ve been on again, off again obsessed with the George Kimmel disappearance for years. I get obsessed . . . and then I back away. And I wait six months, maybe a year, before I re-submerge myself into the research, only to back out again as soon as I feel those tentacles of mystery start to grab at me. Obsession isn’t healthy, everyone says, and so I get cold feet. Get out.
That ended as soon as I read the interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin about Team of Rivals. Rubenstein asks her why she wrote another Lincoln book, when we have hundreds already, and she said:
“I don’t think I thought that the world needed another book. I just knew that I wanted to live with him Because it takes me so long, as I was saying, to write these books, and because I get so involved with whoever it is – I haven’t written twenty books like a lot of my historian friends. I knew that I wanted to live with Lincoln.”
And then, in the margin, I scribbled, Okay. So it IS okay.
Ask Robert Caro about obsession. He’s been writing the master work of biographies about Lyndon B. Johnson for decades. He spends almost every day at Lyndon Johnson’s presidential library, at the Archives, at the presidential libraries of Roosevelt and Kennedy and Nixon. Digging. Talking to those who knew him. Not taking no for an answer. Coming back time and again, as long as it takes, to get the answers he needs. (I actually just finished Working, Caro’s book about his process in writing – extremely interesting and well-worth the read as well.)
So for me . . . this was a revelation. I don’t think we covered ‘Getting Obsessed With Your Subject 101″ in grad school. Because we cover so much, so fast, there isn’t time to get obsessed – unless you’re writing a thesis, of course, and even then you may not dig deep enough, because you don’t have the time. Robert Caro moved his wife into the middle of Texas nowhere in order to understand Johnson better. Goodwin simply wanted to spend as much time with Lincoln as she could.
And it suddenly occurred to me that Ron Chernow did not write Alexander Hamilton in five years without a slight bit of obsession. (Well, and full-time assistants, I’m sure.) Robert Caro has not spent two decades writing about Johnson without a teensy bit of obsession driving him. Bottom line: historians become obsessed. It’s what drives us. And it’s okay to give in to it. Because if we don’t, then how will we ever finish the research? How will we find the courage to ask the hard questions? To stay at the desk a little longer, to look in one last file folder, to dig deeper?
It’s what has driven me to the National Archives, to keep returning to those files again and again. Only this time, I’m sticking with it. And that was my birthday gift to myself this year: permission to stick with it. Permission to remain obsessed, to follow the trails, to get lost in the research, to try whatever it takes to find the truth.
So if you, too, struggle with those kinds of issues – or if you just want further insight into some of the most important historical people in American history and their biographers – go pick up American Story. There are a handful of editing issues – mostly dates, as on page 62 when the wrong election year is given – but I adored this book. It’s a master class not only in American history, but in American history writing.
And it was precisely the book I needed, at precisely the moment I needed it.
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-american-story-david-m-rubenstein/1130641281?ean=9781982120337#/– link to the book at Barnes & Noble