This week Stan remembers the birth and death of two iconic musicians from the 20th century, and the recent deaths of five historians whose work over the past 60 years helped redefine several eras of American history.
Holly Goldstein is a Professor of Art History at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, where she has taught since 2010. She taught previously at the University of Hartford, Boston University, Suffolk University, and the Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico. She also served as a Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Photographs at the Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums. Dr. Goldstein earned a Ph.D. and M.A. in Art History from Boston University and an A.B. in Art from Princeton. She received the Dean’s Award for Teaching Effectiveness and the Ambassador’s Choice Award for Teaching Excellence at SCAD in 2014. Dr. Goldstein has collaborated with her students since 2014 on “Hidden Histories,” an ongoing online publication produced in partnership with the Georgia Historical Society. She is the co-author, with Christy Crisp, of “Savannah’s Hidden Histories: Using Art and Historical Markers to Explore Local History,” in The Art of Public History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).
What first got you interested in art history?
Art history is learning about the world through the objects humans have crafted. I’ve always been interested in the creative ways we communicate. My mom was the greatest early influence for my love of art and culture—she took me to museums, collected art, and could paint and draw in a way that made me want to do the same. Growing up, my family traveled constantly, and I was lucky to be introduced to museums and art objects as far back as I can remember. My childhood home was full of wacky and wonderful contemporary art, and our family travels inspired my love of deciphering visual storytelling. As a senior in high school, I took an AP Art History class, which set me on the path to pursuing art history professionally. Actually, my first job after college was teaching high school AP Art History, along with photography and fine art foundations.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I remember reading as much as I could, always trying to keep up with my older sister. I loved the Ramona books [by Beverly Cleary, 1955-1999], From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler [by E.L. Konigsburg, 1967], A Wrinkle in Time [by Madeleine L’Engle, 1962], The Phantom Tollbooth [by Norton Juster, 1961], The Babysitter’s Club [by Ann M. Martin, 1986-2000], Encyclopedia Brown [by Donald J. Sobol, 1963], Nancy Drew, and I went through a memorable Agatha Christie phase. The Little House books inspired my fascination with the American landscape. For the past few years my daughters have begun discovering these same books and introducing me to new ones, so now I’m a big Harry Potter fan, too (and proud Hufflepuff).
What book did you read in grad school that you never want to see again—and what book was most influential?
The grad school books I never want to see again were not from my art history classes, I loved every one of those. But German for Reading Knowledge does not remain on my bookshelf—I passed my required language exams and that was the end of that book for me. I have to say, though, that I still appreciate and use my “reading knowledge” of German! The most influential book was perhaps Mary Warner Marien’s Photography: A Cultural History [Harry N. Abrams, 2002]. This rich contextual history opened my eyes to viewing photography as a key to understanding diverse multi-cultural value systems, and I use it as a textbook for my undergraduate students. Additionally, the insightful scholarship of photo-historian Martha Sandweiss provided a formative inspiration for me in graduate school; in particular, Print the Legend: Photography and the American West [Yale University Press, 2002] has influenced my own writing and teaching on landscape photography.
What’s the last great book you read, fiction or non-fiction?
This is the happy moment where I get to praise a brand-new work of brilliant fiction by my friend Katie Kitamura. Katie and I went to college together at Princeton, and I was dazzled then (as now) by her wit and humor. She is an extraordinary novelist, and I just finished her recent book Intimacies (published by Riverhead Books in July 2021). Katie uses spare descriptive language to conjure emotionally searing moments of incongruous wonder. Her previous novel, A Separation [Riverhead, 2018] is equally excellent. A few years ago, Katie visited Savannah as an honoree of our fabulous Book Festival, and I was lucky to escort her to Leopold’s where they served her a special ice cream concoction inspired by her book.
When you’re not reading for your particular field of history, what else do you like to read? What genres do you avoid? And what’s your guilty reading pleasure?
I like historical and contemporary fiction. This past summer I read a ton of books; I finally felt I had the time to read stacks of novels for pleasure. I found recommendations by joining an app called “Book of the Month” that sends me a hardcover book in the mail each month (it’s great—check it out!), visiting my favorite local Savannah bookseller E. Shaver, and using a Kindle while traveling. Recent favorites have included Kristen Hannah’s The Great Alone [St. Martin’s Press, 2018] and Charlotte McConaghy’s Once There Were Wolves [Flatiron Books, 2021]. And I adore anything by Ann Patchett—I just finished The Dutch House [Harper, 2019]. My guilty pleasure is online celebrity gossip. There, I said it. I grew up in LA; it’s in my blood.
What do you read—in print or online—to stay informed?
I read the New Yorker every week as my way to keep up with current cultural and political happenings, and I love the feel and familiarity of the paper magazine. Online, I read the New York Times daily. I like to assign articles from current newspapers to my students since I teach contemporary art, so I’m constantly reading a variety of newspapers and art journals online. I’m always looking for new publications about the coastal South to inform my “Hidden Histories of Savannah” class. My recent favorite is the anthology Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture: Environmental Histories of the Georgia Coast [edited by Paul Sutter and Paul Pressly, University of Georgia Press, 2018] for an insightful compendium of articles examining issues of race, ecology, and history.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how)
Celebrity gossip, on my iPhone, under my covers. And I tend to do a lot of reading while I’m waiting for my kids—in the carpool line, waiting at a tennis lesson—and I love the few stolen minutes of pleasure here and there with my latest hardcover or New Yorker throughout each day.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
Well, people have definitely heard of it, but it could certainly use as much vocal praise as possible: Lost and Wanted: A Novel by Nell Freudenberger [Knopf, 2019] is exceptional. And, I love maps. The book You are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination by Katharine Harmon [Princeton Architectural Press, 2003] inspired me to examine the links between maps and art, truth and fiction.
What book or collection of books might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have a lot of books, mostly in the academic genres of landscape photography, cultural geography, and local Savannah history. But I also have an interesting selection of cookbooks, which is surprising because I (almost) never follow directions when I cook. I cook constantly and love it, but I don’t seem to be able to follow recipe directions!
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
Growing up, I always loved reading the books that were assigned in English and literature classes. Everything from Island of the Blue Dolphins [by Scott O’Dell, 1960] to Jane Eyre to Beowulf made an impression on me. Once I stopped being a formal student, I realized I had missed out on many literary classics. So now, I’m trying to make a list and start reading some important and beloved books I (embarrassingly) have never actually read, including Moby Dick and some of the Jane Austen novels.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
In my quest to make up for lost time reading classics, I started The Brothers Karamazov—I didn’t get very far. It’s a really, really long book. Maybe I’ll return to it someday!
What book would you recommend for America’s current moment?
I recently read the novel The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett [Riverhead Books, 2020]. It’s a meandering story of sisters that confronts issues of race and class, linking past and present, and I couldn’t put it down.
What do you plan to read next?
A classic! Moby Dick? It’s time.
What is the next book or article you’re going to write? When and how do you write?
These days, most of my writing occurs in collaboration with my undergraduate and graduate students. Each year I work with SCAD students to create entries for our “Hidden Histories” online exhibition which is hosted by the Georgia Historical Society website. The students research and write about Savannah’s lesser-known historical narratives, and I coach and collaborate with them in order to publish our work. Topics researched have included the history of Georgia-based soybean farming, the production by enslaved workers of Savannah gray brick, an examination of Savannah-based duels, an exploration of Revolutionary war hero Casimir Pulaski’s gender identity, and the ecological history of Ossabaw Island.
With which three historic figures, dead or alive, would you like to have dinner?
Georgia O’Keeffe, landscape painter, Meret Oppenheim, feminist Surrealist, and Mary Musgrove, Native American interpreter during the founding of the Georgia colony. If I get a fourth, Dr. Jill Biden is invited, too. And I would love to cook dinner with them, without following a recipe.
This week Stan revisits the death of the King, the birth of the phonograph, Buck Owens, the Aztec empire, Alfred Hitchcock, Napoleon, Margaret Mitchell, and one of the darkest episodes in Georgia history. He also remembers Rosalyn Carter’s birthday, a hero from Iwo Jima, and shares new additions to the Off the Deaton Path bookshelf.
For Independence Day, Stan talks about This Week in History (including Elvis, the CDC, the Beatles, Sherlock Holmes, Thomas Jefferson & John Adams), notes the birthday of a celebrated historian, remembers a segregationist southern governor from the Civil Rights Movement, highlights new additions to the Off the Deaton Path bookshelf, and revisits one of his favorite movies about the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers.
John Ferling, Winning Independence: The Decisive Years of the Revolutionary War, 1778-1781 (Bloomsbury, 2021, 701 pp., $40)
John Ferling, professor emeritus of history at the University of West Georgia, is one of the most prolific historians writing today—and one of the best. This is John’s 15th book on the colonial and Revolutionary period, and his 10th in the last 21 years. This volume, covering the last three years of the American Revolutionary War, weighs in at 561 pages of text and nearly 150 pages of notes and bibliography.
By my count, this is John’s third book that focuses on the military phase of the Revolution, following Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (Oxford, 2007), and Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It (Bloomsbury, 2015). Of course his biographies of George Washington and John Adams cover the war years as well, as does his political history of the war, A Leap in the Dark: The Struggle to Create the American Republic (Oxford, 2003), and his prosopography, Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the American Revolution (Oxford, 2000). Yet he never repeats himself, always offering fresh insights and interpretations.
How does he manage to do this? Here’s what I wrote in a review of his dual biography, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation (Bloomsbury, 2013): “How, one might ask, does Ferling keep plowing the same ground and still have something new to say? Part of it is simply attributable to his maturity as a scholar. Unlike others who leap from one time period to another with each book, Ferling has spent his entire professional life laboring in the vineyard of the Founding era. Ferling isn’t just dabbling in this period; he knows it as well as anyone can who is now two centuries removed from the time about which he’s writing. He is well versed in what the Founders wrote, what they read, what they believed, and what they hoped to achieve. But he’s not awe-struck by them. Simultaneously, his reflections on people and events have deepened with the years, as he himself has aged. As should happen as we grow older, his own insights about human nature reflect his growth as a human being; he’s more empathetic, more forgiving of human foibles and less harsh on their failures, though he isn’t afraid to point them out and to hold men and women accountable for not only what they achieve, but what they fail to achieve. He knows what it’s like to live life, make mistakes, and have regrets. It’s the primary reason why people in their 20s shouldn’t write biographies.”
Rick Atkinson, the author of The British Are Coming: The War for America, 1775-1777 (Henry Holt, 2019), the first volume of his Revolutionary Trilogy, recently told me that he believes some subjects are bottomless. No matter how much is written about some historical periods and people, historians hundreds of years from now will still be producing books on Abraham Lincoln, the Second World War, and the American Revolution.
John Ferling’s masterful prose, in this and all his books, bears this out. As prolific as John is, I have no doubt that other volumes will follow, all exquisitely written, exhaustively researched, and deeply analytical.
Americans are endlessly fascinated by those who fought and won the Revolution, and that first greatest generation has no finer historian than the indefatigable Dr. John Ferling.