A Dozen Questions for T. J. Stiles
An interview with the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America” and many other books.
Why did you choose history as your career?
History is about everything, so it’s a playground for intellectual inquiry. But it is also traditionally a literary field as well. Few scholarly fields offer as much room to strive for narrative art. Both aspects draw me, and have since I was a kid.
Even so, my path toward my career was twisting and bumpy, to put it mildly. I attended graduate school at Columbia University, but the historian I planned to work with delayed his arrival on the faculty for two years, leaving me without a patron in the department. During that time I sublet an apartment from people who turned out to be criminals. After a bitter dispute that went on for months, they locked me out and stole everything I owned. I slept on couches for about a month and spent a year in tenant-landlord court. I found my way back to history after landing a job at Oxford University Press, where I worked on books by some of the leading American historians. A friend who was an executive in a commercial house helped me to start my writing career by publishing some minor historical primary-source anthologies, which educated me in how to structure a book. I was trained as an academic historian, but my decade of working in publishing taught me to value books that succeed as immersive reading experiences. I try to provide that by combining literary and scholarly values in my work.
What was your favorite historic site trip?
The most haunting was, without question, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Compared to most Civil War battlefields, the landscape is relatively undeveloped, creating a sense of immediacy. It was a remarkable experience to stand at that site and listen to a ranger tell family stories of his ancestors who fought against the 7th Cavalry. But another kind of “site visit” came on the Staten Island Ferry when I was working on my biography of the founder of the line, Cornelius Vanderbilt. I was aboard the Andrew J. Barberi when it crashed in 2003, killing eleven people aboard. I was never in any danger, but the experience taught me something about maritime disasters.
If you could have dinner with any three historians (dead or alive), who would you choose and why?
W. E. B. Du Bois, E. P. Thompson, and Joyce Appleby. All three were brilliant writers and thinkers, passionate and morally engaged. Each challenged orthodoxy and redefined the way we think about the past—though in Du Bois’s case it took a long time for the field to catch up with him. On top of that, Joyce Appleby was a mentor, a wonderful, generous scholar. To see her in conversation with Du Bois and Thompson would be, well, amazing.
What books are you reading now?
I’ve just finished a few very interesting books, including Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People. Last fall I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s splendid novel, The Sympathizer, and have his new book, The Refugees, next on my list. It’s important for narrative nonfiction writers to read fiction. I’m also reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit.
What is your favorite history book?
There are so many contenders, but two spring to mind: James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, and Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Rhodes is one of the greatest literary artists of the last century, and his ability to distill the history of science, political institutions, and war into a vivid narrative populated by complex characters is astonishing. McPherson synthesis of the vast landscape of the Civil War era into a single volume, written with such grace and insight, is unsurpassed. His treatment of Lincoln’s assassination was the inspiration for how I handled the Little Bighorn in Custer’s Trials.
What is your favorite library and bookstore when looking for history books?
I’m fortunate to live in the Bay Area, well served by marvelous independent bookstores. There’s no better used-and-new shop than Green Apple in San Francisco. Mrs. Dalloway’s in Berkeley is tremendous, and Books Inc. is another favorite. The New York Public Library has gone through travails in recent years; I built much of my career there, and dearly hope it endures as a great research library.
Which history museums are your favorites? Why?
I tend to find museums disappointing. I remember how exciting it was when the American Museum of Natural History began to present the debates among paleontologists over interpreting fossils; by contrast, history museums tend to be static and a bit dull. But I am fond of the New-York Historical Society and the Museum of the City of New York. I like their art collections. Also the NYHS’s library is a great place to research, and the MCNY has some wonderful rooms that reproduce historic interiors.
Which historical time period is your favorite?
For fun I like to read classical history. My own work focuses on the long nineteenth century in the United States, particularly the Civil War and Reconstruction. But really everything from the early national period to Theodore Roosevelt interests me.
What would be your advice for history majors looking to make history as a career?
Be flexible. You will compete for comparatively few academic positions. You might find to your relief that history is excellent training for other fields that require research and writing skills, the ability to critically analyze sources, and an aptitude for seeing connections in complex systems. If you do try to make it your career, remember that academic history and writing for general audience are different, if overlapping, endeavors. Academic history is built on conversations between scholarly peers, on painstaking monographs that are a far cry from the sweeping narratives that may have led you to fall in love with history in the first place. If you write for the general public, you can still advance the field, but your goal is to provide a fulfilling reading experience. And it’s a hard way to make a living.
Who was you favorite history teacher?
I was lucky to go to Carleton College, where I worked closely with the excellent faculty. My adviser, Robert Bonner, was an ideal professor. I took a freshman history seminar with him in my first semester. He taught lessons about how to study and write history that I keep in mind to this day. He was (and is) not only a scrupulous scholar and deeply humane man, but also someone who stressed the importance of literature. He included novels in his reading list, emphasized good writing, and brought a moral sense to his work. I learned from him that scholarship is about human conditions; literature is about the human condition; and history can be both. I admire him immensely, and am proud to call him a friend.
Why is it essential to save history and libraries?
History, of course, tells us where we came from, how the present came to be. It also peels back the surface to show why we think the way we do; it reveals the evolution of our values and our intellectual constructs of the world. History tells us how to know who we are, what is right, and what is true. As for libraries, they are the transformative engines of society, where even the poorest person can access the highest art and research. They are the first and last stop in elevating oneself. Libraries preserve knowledge and art—and preserving them in print is essential, because the codex is safe from power failures, solar flares, and operating-system upgrades. (And I say that without any disdain for digitizing sources; my point is that the digital should be an addition, not a substitution.)
Why did you choose to write about Jesse James? In your book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, it seems as if you dislike him.
I wanted in my first major book to write about the Civil War and Reconstruction as one continuous story, to explore the revolutionary nature of the period, the triumphs and tragedies and transformation of our democracy. I originally wanted to write about a hero of the era: Adelbert Ames, a Union general and advocate of racial equality who served as Mississippi’s governor and U.S. senator during Reconstruction. Ames was also the last Civil War general to die. I interviewed his great-grandson, the late George Plimpton, who met Ames when Plimpton was a child. Plimpton said that even as a child he marveled at being in the presence of someone who saw Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. But the public doesn’t know Ames. So I turned to a man who tried to rob Ames in 1876, after the latter had been driven out of Mississippi by a white supremacist insurrection and settled in Northfield, Minnesota. That robber was, of course, Jesse James.
In writing about James, I followed the approach of another mentor, the late Richard Maxwell Brown. Brown took colorful, famous episodes in American history seriously; rather than debunk, say, the gunfight at the OK Corral, he found fresh significance in that event and others. James was a Confederate guerrilla in Missouri and an unrepentant rebel for the rest of his life. His career shows us the Civil War and its aftermath at its most violent. He secured an unusually long career as a bandit by making it about politics (as well as money), winning the support of his fellow secessionists. I didn’t “discover” that he said and wrote such things; rather, unlike previous scholars, I took him seriously. I situated him in his times to show that both he and his contemporaries took his politics seriously as well. The result was a life story that was even more dramatic and much more momentous than traditional accounts would suggest. It doesn’t matter to me if he was likable; he was always interesting!