U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reading and the Career of a Historian

Building off of LD Burnett’s fascinating piece from yesterday about writing and thinking through historical topics, I am using today’s blog post to think about the importance of reading to that process. In my case, I cannot help but think about certain texts that propelled me to pursue a career as a historian. Such texts have not only fueled my intellectual journey, but have also provided examples of the kind of work I wish to do. No doubt historians all have certain texts that mean something special to them. These are just a few of those for me.

It is not an exaggeration to say I would my journey to graduate school for history began when I read W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction. More specifically, the chapter titled “The Propaganda of History” was a revelation for me. Reading it as a college sophomore, I was stunned to realize that history was, for all intents and purposes, a weapon in cultural and intellectual warfare. Perhaps I already knew that—after all, I (like many other young Americans since the 1980s) had read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in high school and already understood how history was far too complicated for one, simple narrative. And, admittedly, I had an inkling of different interpretations of historical figures when, in the eighth grade, I found myself disagreeing—however quietly—with my teacher about Malcolm X (she saw him as a villain, whereas I grew up in a household where he was still respected so many years after his death). But Black Reconstruction was different. It was as though Du Bois took historiography and made it into his own intellectual flurry of punches against the Dunning School.

Even today I still flip through the pages of Black Reconstruction to get my thought process going. I do the same with James Cobb’s Away Down South, especially its chapters on the recent South of the post-Civil Rights era. I consult the book not so much for research purposes as to capture, for a few moments, the flavor of the 1970s and 1980s South. I do the same when looking back at the works of John Egerton or Albert Murray. Although there are some relatively recent works that excel at revealing the complicated history of the South since 1970, reading work from the time period I write about in my dissertation is critical for making me think of new questions to ask as I am writing and researching.

I also look at the works of Barbara Fields when I am thinking about the history of race. Fields’ work on the ideology of race, for instance, is always at the back of my mind when writing about racial tensions and American politics in recent history. And I often see it play out in both primary and secondary sources—when I look at an old issue of Black Scholar or Freedomways, for example. Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet is also a work I go back to from time to time. His analysis of African American political agency before, during, and after the American Civil War has lessons for thinking about political agency during and after the Civil Rights Movement.

What we have read as historians, what inspired us to get into the field in the first place, should never be forgotten—or taken for granted. These are just a few books I occasionally flip open to get some inspiration or to jog my mind for another writing session.

Speaking of Reconstruction, I wanted to bring attention to an important symposium coming up this weekend: “Memories of a Massacre: Memphis in 1866.” It will be a fascinating event that will remind the public of the heinous Memphis Massacre of May, 1866. This year’s events are the culmination of a long-standing debate about how to remember the tragedy of 1866. With anniversaries for a variety of Reconstruction-era calamities, such as the New Orleans Massacre of 1866, the Colfax Massacre of 1873, and the Hamburg Massacre of 1876, all coming up, “Memories of a Massacre” has the potential to provide a wonderful example of how to discuss the Reconstruction era with a public audience in mind.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks so much for this post Robert.

    I mostly have people I know in person to blame for my wanting to become a historian (or, “an historian,” if I’m being fancy). But for now I’ll just talk about the culprits at my own blog.

    However, if I could single out three books that proved crucial in setting me on this path, they would be these (in the order that I read them):

    Amy Dru Stanley, From Bondage to Contract: Wage Labor, Marriage, and the Market in the Age of Slave Emancipation

    David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory

    David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 1770-1823

  2. Thanks for this post! Those are all great books to be influenced by, that’s for sure.

    It is important to think about the people and books that push us into pursuing a career in history, and more broadly a life of the mind. I am curious to see who else chimes in!

  3. Yes. Who and what belongs on my own “life of the mind” list — people and books, music and movies too, places, moments, loves — has been much in my thoughts lately. I suppose in some ways all our writing, all our work, is a testament to everyone and everything that has moved us and made us who we are. But it’s also important to testify sometimes, to name the names of those who have blessed us — and maybe the names of those who have burdened us as well. Sometimes they are the same.

  4. Not to be too flippant, but I can think of one work of history I’d just as soon have passed on: A.J.P. Taylor’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918. 500+ pp. of diplomatic history from the dispatches. Had to read it in high school and then parts of it again in college. Relatively little of it remains in my head.

    On the more positive side, someone gave me as a present, when I was maybe 15, Pieter Geyl’s Debates with Historians, which I enjoyed and got a sense of polemical engagement (but not in the negative sense) from. Memorable in large part for his sharp criticisms of Toynbee. Also an interesting short essay on the history and historiography of the Netherlands (Geyl was Dutch), written long before Simon Schama’s bestseller(s) made hist. of the Netherlands a thing for Anglophone ‘general readers’. (Plus I think Geyl was interested in somewhat different issues.)

    The modern classics of historical sociology (e.g. Moore, Skocpol, just to mention two names, and I’ll throw in Wallerstein too) definitely left a lasting impression on me.

    From these ramblings it maybe becomes sort of clear why I didn’t become a historian, though I could see that having been otherwise had the proverbial cookie crumbled in a different way.

    p.s. Since this is a U.S. history blog and I haven’t yet mentioned any books on U.S. history, I’ll mention two biographies: Ronald Steel’s bio of Walter Lippmann and Sheldon Novick’s of Oliver Wendell Holmes (Jr.). The Steel, which won the Bancroft Prize, is superb. (Had to discard my paperback copy but I believe it’s been reissued fairly recently by the publisher Transaction Bks.)

    • Sometimes the books that turned us off are as important as the ones we enjoyed!

  5. There are a couple of books that propelled me into seriously studying history as an undergraduate. The first was Drew McCoy’s The Elusive Republic. The book is a work of art. The book was extremely well crafted with a tight argument and economical prose. It was a real joy to read. The second was Alfred Chandler’s The Visible Hand. When I was a young pup, the pedagogy of teaching history was still mired in whether the progressive interpretation was valid. When it came to teaching about the Gilded Age, the debate was still over whether the titans of wealth were robber barons or captains of industry. Chandler was asking different and more interesting questions which I found more satisfying. The third book was Leonard Levy’s, Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side. Here was an extremely iconoclastic book which even today serves as a sort of Rorschach test to gauge the ideology of Jeffersonian scholars. My last influential book during my undergraduate years was Peter Onuf’s Origins of the Federal Republic: Jurisdictional Controversies in the United States, 1775-1787. Back in the 1980s, the major historiographical debate on the period was consumed with Republicanism, and here was a book that examined different questions and had a fresh new take.

    • Those are definitely great books–I am pleased you mentioned those!

  6. Some current reads for me:

    James Kloppenberg, *Toward Democracy*
    Saul Bellow, *Collected Stories*
    Andrés Reséndez, *The Other Slavery*
    Frank R. Rossiter, *Charles Ives and His America*

    I have said/will say more about these titles elsewhere — but for now I’d just note that, despite my best efforts/intentions, I always fall back into eclecticism of one kind or another, and this sort of reading list is one good example. While this restlessness usually strikes me as a lamentable habit of mind, it is, in fact, a habit of mind: the way, or at least a way, that I can reliably sort things out and work things through, or at least one step in my process. (As the Tin Man said to the Scarecrow, “Well — that’s you all over!”)

    “Some dinosaur gave his all to put gas in your car,” ran the old Chevron commercial — and a rather haunting commercial it was, especially for a child already prone to dwelling despondently upon the problem of mortality. But it seems like a pretty good way of picturing the influences of thought, at least sometimes — a whole bunch of discrete and distinct things that, over time and under pressure, become a rich deposit that kind of all mixes together to fuel the whole enterprise of thought. Sometimes there’s just no telling which particular input or influence, which dead dinosaur, is making the wheels turn. I’m just glad those wheels still turn most days. And for the days when they don’t, I keep an oil can handy.

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