H. W. Brands, best-selling author of The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, knows how to tell a good tale. And the ones he’s telling are all true. Read on as he delivers his sales-pitch for American history, shares his outlook for historical narratives, and spins his latest yarn about the California gold rush.
Do you feel a bit like a salesman at book festivals?
Yeah. But I feel that way all the time. And it’s partly because I’m a teacher. With my students, I always have to sell my subject because I know when you’re 19, 20 years old, you’ve got other things on your mind besides American history. What I have to do is make this as compelling as possible. And I tell the students quite frankly at the beginning of the semester that I don’t really worry about conveying a body of information so much as conveying a sense that history is exciting and important . If I can make that case then they will continue to read and be interested in history for the rest of their lives. If I can’t make that case—no matter what I teach them in fifteen weeks—they’ll lose that and they won’t ever come back. When I write, when I go to these book festivals, yeah, I’m selling the idea of American history, that it can be very interesting and it might even give readers some insight on their lives today.
How do the subjects you write about sell themselves to you? You’ve written numerous books on various American topics …
I don’t necessarily consider myself a perfect weather vane of what other people will like, but I do tend to choose topics that interest me first, and that I think will interest other people. I’ve probably written some books, I know I’ve written some books that were more interesting to me than to a large audience, but that was mostly when I was first getting started in academia and writing for a narrow audience.
Which books were those?
Oh, my dissertation, which became the book Cold Warriors, which was about foreign policy making in the Eisenhower administration. At the time I wrote the book I thought it was absolutely fascinating stuff. And it was somewhat to my surprise and dismay that I discovered that not everybody was so fascinated. But since then, I’ve been able to step back farther and ask myself, “What are the big questions that people ask about American history?” So for example, when I wrote the book about Benjamin Franklin, a fundamental question that I had in mind was, ‘What is it that makes us American?’ Because Benjamin Franklin wasn’t born in America (Massachusetts was a British colony at the time of Franklin’s birth on January 17, 1706), but he died in America, so how did the American identity evolve over the course of his lifetime? In particular, how did it change his thinking?
In terms of the California gold rush, I didn’t actually take this question into the research and writing but it was something that emerged while I was working: ‘What is the nature of success in America? What were people trying to accomplish when they went to California? Why did everybody go there? Did they get what they were looking for? Did they find it? Did they find what they were looking for and discover that it wasn’t really what they wanted or needed? How did they measure whether all this effort to get to California was worth it? Did they think the trip paid off for them?’ And one of the things that I discovered was—and most of these discoveries are pretty obvious after you see them—that there were three hundred thousand people that went to California and they had three hundred thousand different dreams. Yeah, gold, the riches they were going to discover in California, this was going to be the means to achieving those dreams, but they all had different plans. But it seemed to me that in the going out to California there emerged this new, what you could call a collective, American dream. To my way of thinking it presented a new model of American success. So this is the kind of thing that I get interested in, that I get excited about, and it’s what I try to convey to the readers and what I try to convey to audiences at lectures and readings and things like the Texas Book Festival.
How do you get started down those roads? Do you just get hit by something one day?
The stories that I tell, the topics that I choose to write about, usually are suggested by something that I’ve done before. Although in the case of my next book, which is going to be about the Texas revolution, I had long been thinking about the Texas revolution. I think it’s one of the great stories of American history, but because I lived in Texas for twenty years, I wondered if I didn’t have a near-sighted perspective on this. Naturally, Texans think it’s a great story, but do people in New York, for example? So I didn’t say anything about it. But a couple of people at my publisher, Doubleday in New York, actually suggested it. And I said, ‘Since you raised the point, being in New York, I think it’s a great idea.’ And so that’s what led me to doing this one. Of course the Texas revolution is a very touchy topic for Texans, and I’m not quite sure I know what I’m getting myself into. As I told my wife, I think we may have to leave the state for a while after the book comes out.
How do you get into the heads of people who are long gone?
The main thing is to find diaries, letters, journals, and memoirs. The gold rush may be one of the best examples of people being aware of something different in their lives. These were not the ordinary, everyday state