What I’m Reading: An Interview with Historian Nina Silber

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Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor. 

Nina Silber is professor of history and American studies at Boston University and the author of a forthcoming book on the fight over Civil War memory in the New Deal era. As summarized on her Boston University profile, Silber’s books include The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (1993); Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (1992); Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (2005); and Gender and the Sectional Conflict (2009). She has been the recipient of numerous grants, including the Charles Warren Fellowship at Harvard University, a Fulbright Senior Lectureship at Charles University in Prague, and a Senior Research Fellowship through the Boston University Humanities Foundation. Aside from her teaching and research, Professor Silber has also worked on numerous public history projects, ranging from museum exhibitions at the Gettysburg National Military Park to film projects on the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

What books are you reading now?

I like to read both historical scholarship and fiction, especially the kind of fiction that has a historical bent. I find the latter a wonderful way to imagine the feelings, actions, attitudes, etc. that are not explicitly stated, or done, by historical actors, but that are certainly in the realm of the possible. With this in mind, I have enjoyed reading George Saunders's Lincoln in the Bardo for its moving depiction of Lincoln's grief at the loss of his son, Willie, in 1862. Likewise I've found Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad a fascinating way to think about the profound delimitations that slavery placed on human relationships.

In terms of historical scholarship, I'm reading Tiya Miles's The Haunted South because right now I'm teaching a course on the Civil War in Memory and her look at "old South" Ghost Tours analyzes some of the bizarre ways tales of slavery have entered our popular culture today. I'm also in the middle of Steven Hahn's big Civil War book, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and its World in an Age of Civil Wars. I like the way this book brings a global perspective to the study of the war and posits a different type of timeline for the process of nation state formation in the US.

What is your favorite history book?

It's hard to pick a single favorite. Probably like many in my graduate student cohort, I was profoundly influenced by Edmund Morgan's American Slavery/American Freedom for the way it addressed this central American paradox and did so with incredible attention to the texture and detail of colonial Virginia. Later, after I started teaching, I found myself returning again and again to Glenda Gilmore's Gender and Jim Crow. I find it an incredible combination of moving and inspiring stories of individual women and some tremendously insightful observations about the gendered nature of the "white supremacy" campaigns in the postwar South.

Why did you choose history as your career?

I came from a left-wing, social justice-oriented family where there was a lot of attention paid to the history of US social movements. My grandmother, for example, liked to talk about having worked on the campaign to free Eugene Debs from prison and then meeting him – even being greeted with a kiss! – upon his release. My father had a strong interest in the American folk tradition and compiled various American folk song collections, including Songs of the Civil War and Songs of Independence. Although he wasn’t an academic, he had a very historical way of thinking.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

It certainly helps to be observant about the human condition and our circumstances today. I appreciate when historians ask questions about how we got to where we’re at today - in terms of a whole range of topics like the presidency, race relations, reproductive rights for women, etc. The ability to see and understand the origins of ideas or practices that we live with but take for granted seems to be a tremendously important quality for historians. I’ve also learned to appreciate the importance of close, detailed readings, not just in terms of fiction, but in all the kinds of documents historians work with.

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

I started my historical career firmly planted in the mid-nineteenth century but I've been lately edging into the twentieth century. I suppose I'm still primarily drawn to the Civil War era, for the way it brings so many essential historical themes regarding race, slavery, freedom, and gender together. But I wouldn’t rule out doing more research into the mid-twentieth century and the kinds of “culture wars” that raged at that time.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

I had some wonderful mentors and advisors in graduate school at UC Berkeley. I remember a seminar in French history taught by Susanna Barrows, a modern French historian, that was particularly stimulating and which I credit with giving me an abiding interest in cultural history. I was also tremendously inspired by a course I took in college, taught by Eric Foner when he was a visiting faculty member at Berkeley. It was a class on the history of American radicalism. I loved his energy; and I loved the serious attention he gave to groups and people who had so often been dismissed by other scholars. My PhD advisor, Leon Litwack, gave some of the most finely-crafted and inspiring lectures I’ve ever heard.

What are your hopes for world and social history as a discipline?

I’m excited by many new trends in the historical profession. The broad perspective taken by scholars doing “global history” – like Steve Hahn’s new book – has the capacity, when done right, to give us a new way of thinking about old problems. And while I’m no expert on this topic, I’ve also learned a lot from some of the new “history of capitalism” studies, like Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton.

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

My artifact collection tends towards the "historical kitsch" – mostly in terms of Civil War-themed gifts which I've received from students. My favorite, along these lines, is my "Civil War nurse Barbie" – made by Mattel in the 1990s. It comes with a little book that describes "Barbie's" adventures as a nurse at Gettysburg. Many people don't know this but Barbie even got to hear Lincoln deliver the Gettysburg Address!

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

I've loved working with some very talented students, both undergraduates and graduate students. Many of them often gravitate to new and interesting scholarship long before I get there – so working with them keeps me current! And of course when I’m able to connect with students with my own research, when I sense I’ve given them a new way of thinking about the world, that is also deeply satisfying.

But there’s no question that my principal frustrations concern my awareness of the obstacles that women and people of color face both in the historical profession and in academia more generally. This includes institutional obstacles that make it difficult for women and people of color to advance, unstated assumptions that even highly-respected academics make about women and racial minorities in the academy, as well as a general tendency, in both the media and within the profession, to pay more attention to white men's voices and white men's scholarship.

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

The explosion in terms of the history of women and gender has been particularly noteworthy. What I mean is scholarship that does not simply “add women” to the story but has really reconceptualized historical narratives by paying attention to gender. After reading Stephanie McCurry’s insights in Masters of Small Worlds and Confederate Reckoning, I’ll never think of the Civil War in the same way again.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

The phrase that's been on my mind lately comes from William Faulkner's The UnVanquished. It comes during the Reconstruction portion of the book when the former slave, Ringo, observing the violence of that period, says to his white companion: “This war ain’t over. Hit just started good.” I like that Faulkner has a black character say this as it not only suggests the continuation of white on black violence but also points to black resistance to post-Civil War racism. It’s also a phrase that seems particularly apt for our current circumstances.

What are you doing next?

Well, I’m finishing a manuscript that addresses Ringo’s very point: how the Civil War has resonated, and been perpetually refought, in American culture. Titled (I think) Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America, it focuses in particular on the various meanings a wide range of people attached to the Civil War during the years of the New Deal and World War II. There’s so much about the political battles of the 30s and 40s - and the way the Civil War came to figure so prominently in those battles - that persist in our own times.

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