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 of affairs so they tended to write things down. These days when people go on trips they take pictures which form the basis for the stories they tell when they come home. In 1849, you couldn’t take pictures so people had to write it down. Many left loved ones at home. Now we can call home or we can e-mail home, but in those days you had to write. So what I try to do is get the words of the eyewitnesses as close as possible to the things they were witnessing and participating in. I try to identify early on some individuals that I can build my story around, individuals who were there of course but who also recorded what they saw and what they did. It really helps if they have a knack for characterization, for description, if they have a tone of voice that comes across fairly well.
Have you selected the people you’d like to follow in the revolution?
Well, there are some obvious main characters—Stephen Austin, Sam Houston, Santa Anna of Mexico. But I’d like to find some more ordinary folks who got swept up in these events. I’m looking for the individuals who sort of innocently went to Texas and found themselves caught up in this revolution. How did it affect them? I think very few of us can envision ourselves being Sam Houston. A lot of us have an easier time envisioning ourselves being some ordinary man or woman who was there when all hell broke loose in Texas. So what would we do? I think one of the reasons that readers read history is to imagine what it might be like for them to live in the past. We can’t imagine ourselves being Napoleon, but we can certainly imagine being one of the foot soldiers in Napoleon’s army or one of the peasants who got pushed aside when his army was going East or when it was going back West.
You spent some time as a traveling salesman. Did that help you at all as a historical writer?
Yeah, I think I learned more about history during the time when I was on the road than I probably have during at any other comparable period in my life. Partly because I just had a lot to read.
What were you selling?
Cutlery. Knives and scissors. So I had lots of time on the road. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Elco, Nevada, but there definitely aren’t a lot of distractions. So I’d always leave with a big suitcase and throw a big pile of books in the back of the car, and in motels at night I’d have a chance to read these books. And I think because I wasn’t in any kind of formal academic program, I didn’t know what was good and what was bad. But that is actually very good I think because if you’re in a class, if you’re in a graduate program, that kind of setting, then you have things—I won’t say they’re spoon-fed to you exactly—but at least they’re cooked and put on your plate for you. You’re told this is good stuff, and by implication the stuff that you’re not presented with is maybe not so good. I didn’t know what I was supposed to read and what I wasn’t supposed to read, so I read a whole lot of stuff that wouldn’t have been by any stretch of the imagination on anybody’s reading list. But some of it was very interesting, so it really piqued my interest in history, and it was the first I time I began thinking seriously that this was something I might like to do. Until that I didn’t really have any notion that I might become a historian or a writer.
How do you think historical writing is fairing these days?
If you look at how the general public has flocked to the works of people like David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose, there is obviously a great deal of interest in history. There has always been interest in certain phases and aspects of history—military history is a perennial bestseller, the Civil War, that sort of thing. But I think that there is a lot of interest in historical biography and what’s generally called narrative history; history as story-telling. Historians got away from that, particularly academic historians got away from that starting in about the 1960’s as they moved in the direction of social science and trying to make their discipline more scientifically respectable. But in the last ten years or so, some academics and in some cases more popular historians, they have been able to tap into this hunger on the part of the reading public for the great stories of history. Sometimes they take the form of biography and sometimes they take the form of historical narratives about particular events. I think it’s actually doing pretty well.
Do you think the genre’s taken a hit at all with plagiarism issues that have popped up with a couple of writers?
There have been a couple of writers—Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose who come immediately to mind—who have had their reputations damaged by charges of plagiarism. It’ll be interesting to see if that has any effect on appreciation of history at large. I suspect much less than people might think, largely because, most people when they pick up a book, they want to know is this a good story. And they’re not especially concerned over what the sources are. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “No Ordinary Time” about FDR, is the one that she’s currently in trouble over because it’s she won a Pulitzer for it and now there’s a question that she might have borrowed too much from other authors. But whether she did or not, it’s a really good book. It was a really good book when it won the prize. It’s a really good book still. With Ambrose – the same thing. Ambrose was a brilliant story teller. Did he borrow too closely? Did he leave out quotation marks when he shouldn’t have? For most readers that’s not an important issue. They want to know is this a good read. Does it tell me something about history that’s worth knowing? And if the answer is yes, then they’ll still buy the book. I think it’s a shame that it’s happened to these two historians, but I don’t think it’s going to have a huge effect on the public’s general appreciation of history.