What I’m Reading: An Interview with Civil War Historian George C. Rable

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Erik Moshe is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia.

George C. Rable is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama. He received the Lincoln Prize in 2003 for his 2002 book Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!

What books are you reading now?

Rick Atkinson, The Day of Battle—the second volume of his superb liberation trilogy on World War II. A detailed, beautifully written history that invokes both the period and the people and masterfully deals with the uncertainties and complexities of the Sicily and Italy campaigns. Six Encounters with Lincoln by the late Elizabeth Brown Pryor. A deeply researched and very well written account of Abraham Lincoln’s interactions with all kinds of Americans. Creative, in places quirky, and unfailingly informative.

What is your favorite history book?

David M. Potter’s The Impending Crisis. Potter’s analysis of the sectional conflict is still unsurpassed. He handled complicated subjects with both subtlety and clarity. Potter was a giant of his generation—who could examine evidence and cut through interpretative thickets with unsurpassed skill. It is not only a very informative read but also a wonderful resource for anyone teaching about the period.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

John D. Unruh, Jr. of Bluffton College. I was a first generation college student, uncertain of my major. In high school, I was more interested in mathematics than any other subject. I probably had always had at least some interest in history, but I hadn’t been one of these people who read Bruce Catton when they were 10 years old. Unruh had a reputation for being hard and even his United History survey was a bear. We had to write two 10-15 page historiographical essays. One based on scholarly articles. One based on scholarly articles and books. The course was arranged entirely thematically, a brilliant course. But Unruh was much more than simply a demanding teacher. He was an inspiring and deeply humane teacher who brought out the best in people.

After taking his survey course, I thought if this is what history is about, this is what I should study. This was the late 1960s and early 1970s, so I never thought very much about practical considerations and the job market. I took every class Unruh taught. His American West class was the equivalent of a graduate class. We read a book a week or the equivalent in articles and wrote papers every week. We had to read a book and write a paper for the first class session because he sent students the syllabi in campus mail before we had even met. One day he suggested that I go to graduate school. I doubt that I even knew what graduate school was. He also suggested I apply to LSU to work with T. Harry Williams.

When I was at Bluffton College, Unruh had not yet completed his dissertation but finally did so in the fall of 1975. The following January, he died of a brain tumor at the age of 38. The University of Illinois published what was essentially an unrevised dissertation as The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60. The book won seven awards and was a Pulitzer finalist. The loss to students and the profession that came with Unruh’s death was incalculable.

Why did you choose history as your career?

Certainly the inspiring example of John Unruh described above set me on that path. Even though Unruh suggested I go to graduate school, this was the early 1970s and he also advised me on how tough the job market would be. At Louisiana State University, T. Harry Williams and William Cooper taught me a great deal about teaching and scholarship. It was Bill Cooper who first suggested I try to get something published. That first article clearly whetted my appetite for research and writing, and I have been heavily engaged in both for over forty years. On that score and many others I owe an enormous debt to the LSU History Department and especially to Williams and Cooper.

Since then my career has been divided in roughly equal halves—the first, teaching at Anderson College (later Anderson University) and the second at the University of Alabama. For all my reservations about the recent direction of higher education, I owe both these institutions a great deal for taking a chance on me and nurturing me as a teacher and scholar. One thing for certain, I have absolutely no doubt that a career in history was the right choice.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

A historian needs to transcend his own time and immerse himself in another period. The purpose here is to understand, not to judge. I am not saying that moral imagination should not enter into the process, but preachy scholars often prove to be self-defeating. Historians should address significant topics and questions in ways that help readers understand human behavior and motivation in other times and places. This requires diligent research but just as important is good writing. Historians should always strive to produce work that a reasonably educated person with some (or even relatively little) interest in the subject can understand and appreciate. In terms of teaching, a historian obviously needs to be knowledgeable but also needs to bring both a passion for the subject and a love for students to the classroom.

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

Given my career, I had better say the Civil War era. Besides the large issues at stake—Union, emancipation, citizenship, and national identity—the wealth of source material is a major attraction. The war gave voice to so many people who might have lived and died in complete historical obscurity. By separating families, the war encouraged people to write thousands of letters, to keep diaries, and in many ways reflect on their own lives. Even though I have now studied the period for over forty years, I still have a great deal to learn and keep discovering surprising information, new questions, and new voices.

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

I own several thousand books on the Civil War era but very few are rare or collectible. I have wanted a working library, and my books get used, not worshiped. I do not disdain the purchase of ex-library books. I have never collected historical artifacts though I do have a matchbox from the Franco-Prussian War and some First World War German officer helmets.

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

I have been greatly blessed to have had a career in both teaching and scholarship. During the first half of my career at Anderson University I was heavily involved in the training of high school social studies teachers. I am proud to say that some absolutely first-rate teachers came through that program. At the University of Alabama, much of my teaching has focused on graduate students. In fact, I am still working with three students who will soon be finishing their dissertations—or at least better be! These students have distinguished themselves as scholars, teachers, and in public history. Several have published very good books, and several of them will soon be doing so.

In terms of frustration, I would have to say the overall direction of higher education. Currently the study and teaching of history has entered a crisis period. At colleges and universities there is increasing reliance on adjunct and part-time instructors, especially in survey courses. The growth of online courses (with quite questionable educational value) has only further limited meaningful student contact with historians and with the field of history. Research universities in particular have become increasingly corporate. There has been an explosion of expenditures that have little to do with education including a remarkable (and unjustifiable) growth in administration. At the same time, those teaching history often have to devote more and more of their time to activities that have little if anything to do with educating students. A prime example is the emphasis on outcomes assessment, a process that also opens up a wide path for the manufacture and manipulation of “data.”

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

Two large changes have greatly shaped the history field. One is an explosion of fields’ subspecialties. This has led to some very good work but has also encouraged narrow specializations and less attention to communicating with a wider public. In tumultuous political periods, history also at times becomes more ideological, and some historians have recently become aspiring op ed writers. Some ideologically driven history can be very good history, but it can also be tendentious while ignoring contrary evidence.

The second big change has been technological. First, computers and then the internet (including digital resources) have certainly democratized scholarship, though sometimes the amount of available information on a given topic can be as overwhelming as it is enlightening. At the same time, technology has also created all kinds of distractions including everything from email to cell phones to social media.

What is your favorite history-related saying?

“We cannot escape history” by Abraham Lincoln.

What are you doing next?

A lecture/essay on hatred and vengeance in northern thought during the Civil War. I am also writing on book on the relationship between George B. McClellan and Abraham Lincoln tentatively titled, “McClellan, Lincoln, and the Politics of War.”

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