Like Narcissus


So here I am, honoring Ann Little’s clever reversal of James McPherson’s head-scratching New York Times interview, and accepting her call for others do to the same. McPherson, who is (no matter how he defines his taste in history-writing) personally charming and an excellent mentor, answered a set of questions from the paper of record by listing only very dated, classic-type texts – presumably because they are “timeless.”  You know what else is timeless?  A gentleman’s club.  But focusing only on books by the old boy’s club elides the dynamism of history-writing, and especially the sweeping revolutions of the last 40 years.

I’ve used Ann’s questions, which are not exactly the same as those asked by the Times.

And, like her, I’m eager to see what others do with the same format.

What books are currently on your night stand?

I do not have a nightstand.

If I did, there would only be pulp there, nothing too taxing. When I read in bed, I read very different things. I did just re-read Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism Without Racists, and I did read some of that book upstairs in our bedroom.  And there is a stack of class-prep books about women and action movies downstairs in our sun-porch, where we sit at night and unwind, but those books generally have titles that aren’t, for reasons of decency, re-printable here.

What was the last truly great book you read?

I read great books all the time. But Julia Scheeres’s A Thousand Lives sticks with me. Jesus Land almost broke me when I read it. Her follow-up is just as devastating.

Who are the best historians writing today?

I like Ann’s suggestions. To that formidable list, I’d add Farah Jasmine Griffin and Ruth Feldstein and Jayna Brown, whose histories of black women performers I adore, and Michael McGerr, whose soon-to-be-done book on the Vanderbilts is going to be just plain awesome, and my own mentor, David Levering Lewis, currently hard at work on yet another biography.  Jane Kamensky should be on this list, too. She is an amazingly versatile writer. But I’d also add a crowd of people who should be soon household names in the biz – our next superstars: Thavolia Glymph, Karl Jacoby, Natalia Molina, and Dylan Penningroth. And then, of course, the newcomers: Allyson Hobbs, Brooke Blower, Gerry Cadava, Marissa Moorman, Christina Snyder, and Ellen Wu. And then there are people who just think in fascinating ways: people like Katie Lofton and Christine Skwiot and Rosanne Currarino and Cara Caddoo.

What’s the best book ever written about American history?

“Best” is such an interesting word here.  I think/know that for McPherson, it was a purely a “great books” sort of word.  It means something different for me, though. I’m drawn to high-journalistic forms of history because I love the moment where an amazing story just snaps into sharper focus. And Ann has already singled out Jill Lepore. So I’d list Michael Lewis’s savage critique of neoliberalism, The Blindside, or Mike Davis’s City of Quartz in the same vein. Or Alec Wilkenson’s Big Sugar, which just blew me away.  I doubt that McPherson would think of these books as history. So then let me just close with this: I have returned, over and over again, to a reading of A Midwife’s Tale, and wish that I could write a book that was just half as big.

Sorry–I didn’t realize.  Maybe I should ask if you have a favorite biography?

Neal Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie. I grew up with that book on the shelf, but didn’t dare to touch it and read it until I was older. It always seemed emotionally fraught. The book almost claimed Sheehan’s life, and it still drips with the pain of war and the tragedy of broken promises. John Paul Vann. Damn. And, for even more personal reasons, I just love David Levering Lewis’s two-volume W.E.B. Du Bois and Kathryn Talalay’s portrait of Philippa Schuyler.

What are the best military histories?

This is not a genre I read often. Though I do remember reading Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War in graduate school, and being quite taken. And John Dower’s book stole my heart for a whole year.

And what are the best books about African-American history?

This is a rich, rich field, and one I know pretty well.

In no order, and focusing on relatively recent titles, and not including the books written by those folks above:

Walter Johnson’s Soul By Soul; Micol Seigel’s Uneven Encounters; Adele Logan Alexander’s Ambiguous Lives; Khalil Muhammad’s Condemnation of Blackness; Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women; Robin Kelley, Hammer and Hoe.

I think that, held together, this mismatched septet captures the great variety and ambition of one of the most dynamic fields of American history-writing. There are literally hundreds of amazing, recently-written, innovative books in this field, and any set of them would have revealed the same exciting truth.

During your many years of teaching, did you find that students responded differently over time to the history books you assigned?

Many years of teaching? This counts as year 15. But yes, the very first students I taught were roughly my age. They had living memories of the Cold War, of Reagan, Prince, etc. So there are actually things I can’t assign anymore, because they simply don’t make sense.  Even some of the powerful books on the Gulf War are too historically distant, and require too much scaffolding.  A book like The Disuniting of America is so odd to this generation that you’d be better served assigning The Lord of the Rings. You can still assign history, of course, but you need to think carefully about what sorts of stories now resonate.  (N.B. I am not in a History department and do not teach History classes!)

What kind of reader were you as a child?

Picky but hungry.  I’d read one genre at a time – horror, science fiction, fantasy, detective.  I read the novelization of Star Wars so often that the book fell apart.  I read Cujo and it kept me up at night.  And like every other child of the 1970s, I read the World Book encyclopedia from the first cover to the last cover.

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

You’d need an advanced degree of narcissism to sit and ponder such a question and then offer up a singular answer. A better answer would reflect a hundred or a thousand intersections, starting with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, cresting with Wuthering Heights, When Harlem Was In Vogue, and Big Sugar, and closing with Alice Walker’s essay on Zora Neale Hurston. Somewhere in there, I had a terrible reaction to Ethan Frome. I am one sum – and not the sum – of other people’s exquisite labors.

Professionally, though, I can honestly say that Nathan Huggins’s book on the Harlem Renaissance changed the course of everything.  And so did Jackson Lears’s No Place of Grace. But the truth is I was probably engineered by life to love those books.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

If I were permitted to require such a thing, I’d let him do the reading after he left office. And then I’d choose something completely and totally unrelated to his line of work. Like Gone Girl. Or Bossypants.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

Three guests is not a party. Alec Wilkenson and Julia Scheeres for sure. But also Toure, Tina Fey, and the Countess LuAnn. And Jelani Cobb. And – because this blog was her idea – Ann Little, who I have never met!

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

I would never answer such a question publicly.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

Ed Baptist’s book on slavery.

What do you plan to read next?

Anne Martinez’s book on Catholic Borderlands is next up in the queue.  Baptist’s book is about five down. I have to say something about it soon-ish, so it can’t wait too long.

2 responses to “Like Narcissus”

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Matthew Pratt Guterl recently took the #HistorianChallenge. Guterl would like to add Farah Jasmine Griffen, Ruth Feldstein, Jayna Brown, Michael McGerr, David Levering Lewis, and Jane Kamensky to the list of best historians. Additionally, he names several young historians that he believes will be the next group of superstars. McPherson might have even taken less flack if the New York Times has specifically asked him to name some of the best young historians. He also included Michael Lewis’ Blindside and Mike Davis’ City of Quartz as two of the best books about American history. It is fascinating and eclectic mix.


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