What I’m Reading: An Interview with Allen C. Guelzo

tags: interview, Allen C Guelzo

Erik Moshe is a freelance writer and an HNN features intern.

Dr. Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era, and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College. He is the author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, which won the Lincoln Prize for 2000, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, which won the Lincoln Prize for 2005, and Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, which won the Abraham Lincoln Institute Prize for 2008. His most recent work about Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln As A Man of Ideas (a collection of essays published in 2009 by Southern Illinois University Press) and Lincoln, a volume in Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions series (also 2009).

What books are you reading now?

I’m half-way through William C. Harris’s little book on Lincoln and Congress, because the means by which Lincoln dealt with, and managed, the 37th and 38th Congresses are still a mystery, and J.P. Clark’s Preparing for War: The Emergence of the Modern U.S. Army, 1815–1917, which I hope will help me understand more of the professional culture which surrounded Robert E. Lee. (Spoiler alert: I have a big Robert E. Lee project in the works.) In the queue are Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Ian Buruma’s Year Zero, Michael Klarman’s The Framer’s Coup, and Douglas Winiarski’s Darkness Falls on the Land of Light.

What is your favorite history book?

That’s like asking which is my favorite child, or do I like coffee or tea. But I’ll pick four (1) Perry Miller’s Jonathan Edwards, which won my heart as an undergraduate for American intellectual history by its sheer reckless daring, (2) Bruce Catton’s Army of the Potomac trilogy, which I first read when I was twelve and whose style is the single biggest literary influence on me yet, (3) Harry V. Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided, which was the book that persuaded me that Abraham Lincoln was a character worth taking seriously as a man of ideas, and (4) Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down, which dazzled me as an undergraduate with its deep command of 17th-century source material.

Why did you choose history as your career?

It chose me. I caught the history bug very early on, starting in the summer of 1960, when I got tossed unwillingly into a remedial reading program that, with no real plan, included a lot of short history essays – I remember one, especially, on King Robert of Sicily. I asked my grandmother, with whom I grew up, what this King Robert business was, and she replied, “That’s history.” The hook was in. Even so, I was a music composition major my first year in college, something for which I mercifully discovered I had no sufficient talent (interest and affection, yes; talent, no). I had intended to go into the ministry, not into history teaching. I was never a history undergraduate. But I got detoured into teaching courses on church history at the theological seminary I had just graduated from, and thought it would be prudent to do history graduate work, which I did at the University of Pennsylvania. I have been lurching from one unplanned career development to another ever since. I used to think this was highly irregular, but it’s surprised me how many other history people have gone by indirect paths, as well. History was something we loved before it became something that employed us.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

First, you need what one old professor of mine called sitzfleisch – which I’ll translate politely as “scholarly patience.” You have to rebuild mentally an entire world, with all of its taken-for-granted details, before you talk about an individual in it. Second, you need an eye for the telling detail – the missing button on Pushkin’s coat, the dog in the night that didn’t bark. Third, you need the daring to make connections. Surprisingly, it’s the third of these that I often find lacking, even in good history students.

Which historical time period do you find to be the most fascinating?

Back to the favorite child, are we? Well, I won’t surprise anyone, and say that I like the American 19th-century – to study, mind you, not to live in, since I’d prefer not having any first-hand encounters with cholera, slavery, or transportation to the Antipodes.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

Now we’re at the other end, asking which parent was my favorite. I’ve had several remarkable teachers: Linward Crowe, as an undergraduate, for one, for his kindness and encouragement. Alan Charles Kors at the University of Pennsylvania was by far my greatest history teacher, followed close-on by Donald Fleming at Harvard. All of them, you notice, were intellectual-history people. I never actually took a course on Lincoln or the Civil War, either as an undergraduate or a graduate student.

What are your hopes for world and social history?

That we can learn the difference between description and prophecy.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I have perhaps half-a-dozen or so 18th-century imprints, but nothing a liber furem would be interested in. I’m afraid I wouldn't even yield a worthwhile haul for a second-hand dealer, since I tend to scribble and underline in books. Reading, for me, is extractive; I tear books apart (metaphorically) to get what I want from them. The only artifacts I could possibly describe as such are some items I use for class demonstration, a plaster cast of Lincoln’s hand, and a piece of an amphora lid from somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

I’ll begin with the rewards. Benjamin Franklin once said that if you cannot perform great deeds, the next best thing is to write about them. Second the motion. I have more fun than is legal in writing and teaching history. And being at Gettysburg is, for a person doing Lincoln and the Civil War era, like being a cat in catnip. And I dearly enjoy the company of old academic friends and new, talented young students. But then there’s also frustration, especially in the degree of cultural and political self-sorting that goes into university hiring. There are so many well-credentialed and gifted young PhDs out there that hiring committees turn into elimination derbies in which the actual hiring hinges on matters which have nothing to do with the job in hand – what’s so-and-so’s politics, what were the candidate’s dissertation advisor’s politics, does their laugh annoy us, will they “fit in” (which usually means, will they behave just like us)? Colleges and universities have become similar to the “landslide counties” in Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort (in 2008), in which people live, work, and interact in intellectually-closed enclaves. I've been in a few that generate all the joie de vivre of the Island of Dr. Moreau.

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

By the time I began graduate study, the sun had already set on intellectual history and its near-kin, American Studies. Social history was the dominant mode of historical inquiry, whether from number-crunchers who were anxious to approximate the hard sciences, or from ideologues who were interested in a “usable past,” which meant discovering a genealogy for class, gender or simply socialism in the American past. The social turn was itself subverted by post-modernism, although post-modernism’s chief product has been a philosophical incoherence that has not been healthy for the study of history or its practitioners. Still, people produce better research monographs than they did forty years ago. Compare the footnotes and you’ll see what I mean. Whether they write better history is another question. Clarity is the prime test of the likelihood of your ideas, but clarity is also very risky and there are not many risk-takers on offer.

If you could sum up world history in one word, what would that word be?


Why’d you pick it?

The evidence suggests it.

What is your favorite history-related saying?

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.” Lincoln, of course.

Have you come up with your own?

History has no sides.

What are you doing next?

This coming academic year, I will be the Garwood Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton. I have a small book on Reconstruction in the Oxford University Press Very Short Introductions series coming out before the end of the year, a big book on Robert E. Lee for Knopf, and another small book on Lincoln and democracy in Southern Illinois University Press’s Concise Lincoln Library series. And that, as St. Thomas said, will settle the Manicheans.

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