Thomas Fleming: What I'm Reading (Interview)

tags: history

Tiffany April Griffin is an HNN intern.  

Thomas Fleming is the author of more than forty books of both fiction and non-fiction.  A past president of the Society of American Historians, his most recent book is "The Great Divide, the Conflict between Washington and Jefferson that Defined A Nation." 

Why did you choose history as your career?

History seems to have chosen me.  My ambition was to be a novelist. To support my wife and 4 children, I worked as a magazine editor.  I was asked to do a series of short articles, “The Day It Happened,” about events that began and ended in 24 hours. High on the list was the Battle of Bunker Hill. I went to Boston to research the clash  and discovered no one had written a book on the subject for the previous 90 years. I wrote both the article and a book, Now We Are Enemies, which was a big success. Suddenly I was an historian with editors begging me to let them publish my next book. The rest, literarily and figuratively, was history

What was your favorite historic trip?

My visit to Guadalcanal to research my novel on World War II in the Pacific, Time and Tide.  Forty five years after the Navy and the Marines fought the Japanese there on land and sea, the island was still littered with wrecked landing craft on the beaches and under the water, and crashed planes dangled from palm trees in the jungle of the interior. The language, officially English, was more often pidgin English. On the hotel desk, a sign said: WELKOM FRENDS. Traversing the interior was a dangerous business. You had to be constantly on the alert for “Guppy’s Viper,” a snake whose bite caused almost instant death.  A crude wooden sign commemorated the site where the Marines had made a desperate last stand to prevent the Japanese from seizing the airport, Henderson Field. My wife and I were the only American visitors. Everywhere we encountered dozens of groups of Japanese, there to commune with the spirits of fathers, brothers, sons who died during the battles.

If you could have dinner with any three historians, alive or dead, who would you choose?

First would be Tacitus, the great Roman historian. Second would be the British historian, Sir Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  Third would be Count Leo Tolstoy, whose  novel, War and Peace, made me decide to become both an historian and an historical novelist.

What books are you reading now?

I’m reading Richard Norton Smith’s superb biography of Nelson Rockefeller, On  His Own Terms.  Before that I read The Long Affair, by Conor Cruise O’Brien, a fascinating account of Thomas Jefferson’s involvement with the French Revolution. Also rewarding was Gray Mountain by John Grisham, a good example of how a gifted novelist can combine shocking information in a gripping story. In this case, it’s the grisly truth about “Big Coal” and what it is doing to the people and landscape of Appalachia.

What is your favorite history book?

My favorite is a novel, Oliver Wiswell, by Kenneth Roberts. It is a riveting account of the American Revolution seen through the eyes of a loyalist. I read it when I was 15 years old but I’ve never forgotten it.  It awoke me to the importance of point of view in both  history books and novels.

What is your favorite library and bookstore?

My favorite library is the New York Society Library, a private library in New York City, which has been operating since 1756. They have a great history collection and will quickly obtain copies of other books through inter-library loans. As for the bookstore – It  was Scribner’s on Fifth Avenue. It closed several decades ago.  Online is the way most people buy these days – even historians.

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

I live in a New York apartment. I don’t have room for rare books. As for artifacts, I only own one:  a German helmet I found in the forest of the Argonne in France, while writing an article about the famous battle fought there in 1918. My father was in the battle from  start to finish. On my finger is a ring which I now regard as an historical artifact. It has my father’s name engraved  inside. While prowling the forest where the American “Lost Battalion” fought, the ring slipped off my finger (it was a very cold winter day) and disappeared into the loose dirt.  I could not find it and went back to America a very unhappy son. Thirty years later, I received a phone call from a young Frenchman, Gil Malmasson. He had found the ring  while exploring the area with a metal detector and wanted to return it to me. My wife and I flew to France and drove to the Argonne with Gil. He put the ring on my finger exactly where I had lost it --- while a French TV camera crew recorded the event. This was – and is – my most moving historical experience.

Which history museums are your favorites? Why?

The Museum at West Point. I like it because it is totally authentic. Another very good  one is the Museum of the First Division in Illinois. That does an amazing job of putting you in the middle of a battle. In my home town, the New-York Historical Society can’t be topped. They have a wonderful permanent exhibit about New York as well as marvelous travelling exhibits which are on display for two or three months. Plus a great lecture program.

Which historic time period is your favorite?

The era of the American Revolution. I am about to publish my latest book drawn from its endlessly fascinating military and political story. The title is The Great Divide, How the Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson Defined A Nation. Few other periods can compare to the Revolution’s  ability to tell us what it means to be an American.  As an Irish-American, I found it especially meaningful.

What would be your advice to history majors looking to make history a career?

The importance of being a specialist – someone with a truly in-depth understanding of one historical era or  issue. They should combine this with a good overall grasp of  the whole course of history.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

I never took a history course in college. However, I have some favorite history teachers among my friends. Near the top of my list is Gordon Wood of Brown and Richard Buel of Wesleyan. Both have written important books about the Revolution. For many years we have met for dinner during  the summer. There we convene a meeting of “The Bastards of the Revolution.” Each of  us nominates lowlifes who are the opposite of patriots. My favorite is James Wilkinson, the faker who eventually rose to be commander of the American Army under President Jefferson.  He was also known as Agent 13 on the payroll of the Spanish secret service.

Why is it essential to save history and libraries?

The best answer to that question comes from Benjamin Franklin. He was asked to design a curriculum for the school that became the University of Pennsylvania. He proposed that at least half the time, in each year, the future students should study history Nothing else could match history when it came to creating a useful citizen.  Without a grasp of history, Franklin maintained,  we will only repeat the blunders of the past.


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