Category Archives: Great Books

Podcast S4E6: The Stamp Act, Houdini, & Spike Lee

Stan talks about This Week in History (the Stamp Act, James Jackson, Spike Lee, the first Black graduate of West Point, the Masters, Tomochichi, & Houdini), says goodbye to a pathbreaking historian and actor, spotlights new additions to the Off the Deaton Path bookshelf, and welcomes the opening of Major League Baseball.

The Other Washington Monument

Jean-Antoine Houdon’s bust of Washington, taken from a life mask, 1785

I’m currently reading the fourth and final volume of James Thomas Flexner’s monumental biography of George Washington, Anguish and Farewell (1793-1799). As the title implies, it covers Washington’s second term as president, from 1793 to 1797, and the last two years of his life following his retirement from office till his death in December 1799.

Flexner’s life of Washington is often hailed as the best cradle-to-grave biography ever written about the man known during the Revolution as “His Excellency.” His goal was to pull Washington down off the pedestal and humanize him, knocking away the accumulated myths and legends to reveal the real man who was vain, short-tempered, flirtatious with women not named Martha Washington, politically ambitious and calculated, obsessed with what today we would call his “brand,” and of course a slaveowner who demonstrated no qualms over the institution till very late in his life.

Many writers who followed Flexner have had similar goals in regards to humanizing Washington, and it can be hard now to see how groundbreaking his achievement was when the four volumes, published by Little, Brown, & Co., appeared between 1965 and 1972. For what it’s worth, the United States of 1965-1972, riven by social unrest, dissent over Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, and the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, must have found it reassuring, as we do now, to read about Washington’s leadership through another tumultuous era.

As long-suffering readers of this blog know, I love multi-volume sets, and Flexner’s is one of many on my shelves. Rather than plow straight through them, however, I prefer to eat the elephant one bite at a time. For this set, I read the first volume, The Forge of Experience (1732-1775) in 2015, followed by a volume every two years: George Washington in the American Revolution (1775-1783) in 2017, and George Washington and the New Nation (1783-1793) in 2019.

Flexner’s work is not without its flaws—he continually confuses Washington’s age in this last volume, for instance, which for a reader less familiar with GW could be very confusing—but the work has been justly hailed as monumental. I confess that when I finished the first volume, I wasn’t that impressed, either with his style or his conclusions. I had just finished Edward J. Larson’s The Return of George Washington, 1783-1789 (William Morrow, 2014) and found it far superior, though written about a different era of Washington’s life.

But Flexner comes into his own, as does Washington, in the second volume, which covers the years of the American Revolution, and he carries his subject majestically to the end of the fourth and final book. And while comparisons are invidious, it’s worth noting that Flexner published all four volumes within 7 years of each other, covering Washington’s 67 years. Robert Caro is still working on the fifth (and supposedly final) volume of his life of Lyndon Johnson, who lived 4 years fewer than Washington; the first volume was published in 1982 and 39 years later Caro still isn’t finished. One never gets the sense, however, that Flexner’s is a rush job, as he tells his story gracefully across 2,000 accumulated pages.

For his efforts, Flexner was recognized with a special Pulitzer Prize in 1973, and the last volume won the National Book Award for Biography. He published a one-volume life entitled Washington: The Indispensable Man in 1974, but it’s not simply an abridgement of the larger work: Flexner re-wrote much of his material and it stands alone as a critically-acclaimed work that repays reading alongside other recommended one-volume treatments of the Great Man: John Ferling’s The First of Men: A Life of George Washington (University of Tennessee Press, 1988); Joseph J. Ellis’s His Excellency, George Washington (Knopf, 2004), and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life (Penguin, 2010, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for biography).

As those last titles suggest, Flexner’s is hardly the last word on George Washington. A host of other titles published since Flexner’s last volume dig deeper into specific subjects and areas of Washington’s life, and there are always more to come. As Rick Atkinson recently noted, some subjects are bottomless, and Washington’s life is surely one of them.

A glance at my own shelves and the titles I’d recommend: John Ferling, The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of An American Icon (Bloomsbury, 2009, on Washington the politician); Robert Middlekauff, Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader (Knopf, 2015); Joel Achenbach, The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West (Simon & Schuster, 2004); Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (FSG, 2003, perhaps the best book on Washington and slavery); Kevin J. Hayes, George Washington: A Life in Books (Oxford, 2017, Washington’s library and how books influenced him); David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, Washington’s Circle: The Creation of the President (Random House, 2015, Washington and his Cabinet); Peter R. Henriques, Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington (UVA Press, 2006, Washington’s religious beliefs); and a trio of books on Washington’s relationship with other historic figures: Stuart Leibiger, Founding Friendship: George Washington, James Madison, and the Creation of the American Republic (University of Virginia Press, 1999); Stephen F. Knott & Tony Williams, Washington & Hamilton: The Alliance That Forged America (Sourcebooks, 2015); and Edward J. Larson, Franklin & Washington: The Founding Partnership (William Morrow, 2020).

This list barely scratches the surface. For those who wish to delve into Washington’s own writings, those continue to be published by the University of Virginia Press in multiple editions, in letterpress books and digitally: the Colonial Series, the Revolutionary Series, the Confederation Series, the Presidential Series, and the Retirement Series, along with his Diaries. Digital editions of the content of all 73 volumes published thus far are available on three different platforms online.

As to Flexner, five total volumes on Washington would be work enough for a lifetime for most writers, but he was prolific, authoring 26 books before his death in 2003 at age 95. The New-York Historical Society holds his papers.

If you’re interested in George Washington, James Thomas Flexner’s volumes are still perhaps the best place to start. But if four volumes on Washington aren’t enough for you, there’s always Douglas Southall Freeman’s encyclopedic 7-volume biography of Washington, published between 1948 and 1957. Flexner relied on it heavily and calls it “as close to being a primary source as such a labor can be.”

As mentioned, I love multi-volume sets and Freeman sits right beside Flexner on the shelf. That’s an elephant for another day.

Q&A: Reading and Writing with Alexander Byrd

Alexander X. Byrd is an Associate Professor of History at Rice University. In 2020 he was appointed Rice’s first Vice Provost for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Dr. Byrd’s area of expertise is Afro America, especially Black life in the Atlantic world and the Jim Crow South. He received his Ph.D. in History from Duke University in 2001. His study of free and forced transatlantic Black migration in the period of the American Revolution, Captives and Voyagers: Black Migrants Across the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World (LSU Press, 2010), received the 2009 Wesley-Logan Prize in African Diaspora History. Dr. Byrd teaches courses in African-American history at Rice, where he is a four-time recipient of the George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching. He is currently co-editing the Oxford Handbook of African American History with Dr. Celia Naylor.

Alexander X. Byrd, PhD

What first got you interested in history?

The first blame must go to good teachers who were also good story tellers. Well-stocked school and public libraries and the librarians who staffed were also at fault. Also, the stories on which I grew up that most sparked my imagination were historical in nature—between Alex Haley’s Roots and NBC’s Ba Ba Black Sheep—that had to have had some effect too.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

As I child in Colorado Springs, I read every book in the school library on World War II. Maybe I missed a few. Still, when I moved to Houston (at about eleven years old), there were no books on the subject at my school or in my branch of the public library that I hadn’t already read. I recall having to re-read The Battle of Britain. By the sixth grade, I was on to Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) but by then I was also falling out of reading about war.

What book did you read in grad school that you never want to see again—and what book was most influential?

There are ways in which I’m still wrestling with Melville J. Herskovit’s The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), Sidney Mintz and Richard Price’s The Birth of African American Culture: An Anthropological Approach (1992), and Nathan Huggins’s Black Odyssey: The African-American Ordeal in Slavery (1977). Mary Karasch’s Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro, 1808-1850 (1987), Jan Vansina’s Paths in the Rainforest (1990),and George Brook’s Landlords and Strangers: Ecology, Society, and Trade in Western Africa, 1000-1630 (1993) were also quite influential. Wait, you said one book. There were so many great books! 

What’s the last great book you read, fiction or non-fiction?

I am a fan of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016).

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?

Uh oh. Everything I read is related to my work. But I stream with the captions on. So I count that as recreational reading, and lately I’ve leaned toward sci-fi, alternative history, and super heroes on screen: Black LightningRaised by WolvesThe ExpanseThe Man in the High CastleLuke Cage. I should stop answering this question.

What do you read—in print or online—to stay informed?

The AtlanticThe New York TimesThe Washington PostThe New Republic, the Houston Chronicle, and the New York Review of Books. But I still feel terribly under informed and uninformed. Maybe I don’t read the news as carefully as I used to. But I also have this feeling that there is news out there that I can’t find—that there is a universe of online writing that I haven’t and can’t tap into. 

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

All day in a full house of Byrds with brief stops for espresso, some stretches, sweets, and maybe a pizza. 

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

I assume that I’m always a few years behind everyone else.

What book or collection of books might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

To save the other Byrds from embarrassment, I can’t say. I don’t think that people would suspect, though, that I had Robert Alter’s translations of the Hebrew Bible here and there. 

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?

Writing is hard. I try to be patient with writers. So when I put a book down, it’s usually less out of disappointment and more out of my schedule getting out of hand. There’s a good book barely under my bed, and another on my night stand that I need to return to. 

What book would you recommend for America’s current moment?

This is not a bad time to pick up Cathy Park Hong (Dance Dance Revolution, 2007, and Engine Empire, 2012) and Hanif Abdurraqib (The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, 2016, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, 2017, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes on a Tribe Called Quest, 2019, A Fortune For Your Disaster, 2019). 

What do you plan to read next?

Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020).

What is the next book you’re going to write? 

A story of three Houston schools that speaks to the inequities and promise of public education now. I’ve been writing this book too long (and it’s too short to have taken this long). But I also think that parts of it are pretty good. It’s a book about schools, but to write it, I’ve done more research on parking garages than I ever thought I’d have occasion to do. 

When and how do you write?

Not enough. But I’m learning to fit it in however and whenever I can. It’s taken me too long to learn this lesson.

With which three historic figures, dead or alive, would you like to have dinner?

I never have a good answer to this question. One of the great things about being a historian is that one is forever having dinner, or coffee, or breakfast with historic figures dead or alive.

Q&A: Reading and Writing with Lisa Lindquist Dorr

Lisa Lindquist Dorr is a Professor of History at the University of Alabama and Associate Dean of Social Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 2000. Dr. Dorr is the author of several books on Southern and Women’s history, including A Thousand Thirsty Beaches: Smuggling Alcohol from Cuba to the South During Prohibition (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), and White Women, Rape, and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960 (UNC Press, 2004).

Lisa Lindquist Dorr, PhD

What first got you interested in history?

When I was five, my parents took me to Colonial Williamsburg.  I was already fascinated by what we called “the olden days” and literally thought that the re-enactors were people still around from 200 years ago.  I remember being so excited that they were still here.  So I think I always was drawn to history, and when I told my childhood friends I was headed to grad school in history, no one was surprised in the least. 

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I read all the time as a kid, or as my mother expressed with much exasperation, I “always had my nose in a book.”  There was even a time when we were spending several days cleaning for a big party that she actually hid my book so I wouldn’t disappear to read.  I read books over and over when I was young; the Little House on the Prairie books, the One-of-a-Kind Family books, Madeleine L’Engle, E.L. Konigsberg, Lois Lenski.  That said, my own children turn up their noses at pretty much anything I suggest.  I just leave books around and let them find them on their own.

What book did you read in grad school that you never want to see again—and what book was most influential?

The book that nearly killed my cohort was Stephen Skowronek’s Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920 (Cambridge University Press, 1982). Its cover design should have warned us; no one got paid to put any thought into that cover.  Of course, after I had taught the second half of the US survey a bunch of times, I was a little more appreciative of his contribution.  The most influential book is hard—it varies so much based on what I happen to be interested in at the moment.  But Carol Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (W.W. Norton, 1987) is a contender.  It was a powerful moment when I realized how long it took historians to analyze why most people accused of witchcraft in the colonial period were women.  Astounding.

What’s the last great book you read, fiction or non-fiction?

Anxious People: A Novel by Frederik Backman (Atria, 2020)  I laughed, I cried, I was left gasping and gutted at one revelation late in the novel.  The book has so much warmth and heart, humor and kindness that it was the perfect book for this moment.

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 am always reading and listening to fiction—I find I can weed my garden for hours or actually clean the kitchen if I listen to a novel.  I have been keeping a list of books to read since 2013 (it’s now seven pages long, with two columns per page), and have found that I don’t like epic multi-generational sagas or fiction about women in World War II.  I am also wary of fiction related to my area of expertise—too many irritating historical errors.  My guilty pleasure is a regular helping of thrillers.  I consider them the fast food of literature.

What do you read—in print or online—to stay informed?

I am a diligent reader of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker online as well as Tuscaloosa’s local paper, the Tuscaloosa News. I am mystified by the idea of getting my news through social media, which I think makes me old.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

I like nothing better than to curl up on my couch with a good book, with views of my birdfeeders in the back yard.  And nothing is more indulgent to me than reading a novel for three or four hours in the afternoon; I don’t let myself do it much.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

Rickie Solinger’s book, The Abortionist: A Woman Against the Law (Free Press, 1995).  It will blow your mind about how common and accepted abortion was well before Roe v. Wade.

What book or collection of books might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I have several shelves of Young Adult historical fiction.  One of the most satisfying classes I ever taught was for secondary social studies education students on teaching history using historical fiction.  There are so many terrific books out there, and fiction can hook K-12 students in ways textbooks most surely can’t.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

Since graduate school, I make a distinction between reading for work and reading.  Since I became a dean, I read less for work, which bothers me.  With fiction, when I was younger, I tried to read only “good” books, meaning critically acclaimed novels.  At this point in my life, I rarely want to work hard reading fiction.  I steer away from books described as lyrical or surreal or dreamlike.  I need a plot line I can follow.

When I was in my twenties, I was enthralled by stories of great and overwhelming love, which the protagonist dropped everything to pursue.  Two examples:  Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (Doubleday, 1971) and Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith (Putnam, 1988).  When I read those books years later, I found I could no longer relate to dropping everything for love.  There were other loves that competed and outweighed romantic love, especially love for one’s children.  I realized how much where one is in one’s life shapes how we understand the characters in 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?

Again, I have to go to fiction here.  I am much more diligent about reading all that I am supposed to when I read history.  I either mine it for what I need or read it all to consider it as an entire work.  Which novel have I tried to read twice and can’t despite a torrent of accolades?  The Overstory: A Novel, by Richard Power (W.W. Norton, 2018).  Everyone says it is truly a great book, but I find its stories so sad I can’t make myself finish it.

What book would you recommend for America’s current moment?

Something about the importance of thinking about the common good.  But other than that, I would refer you back to Anxious People.

What do you plan to read next?

Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic, by Richard A. McKay (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

What is the next book you’re going to write?

A book on abortion in the South from 1920 to Roe v. Wade. The history of abortion is a good example of how the past is not like people think it was. And my hope is that understanding the past better will help people think a little differently about the present.

When and how do you write?

Juggling scholarship and “deaning” is a challenge.  I have become completely tethered to my email calendar.  There are always small bits of time when I can think productively about research, so I make sure that there are small research tasks I can do when I have 30 or 45 minutes free.  My writing mantra is that you should always do several hours of your own work first, before you get distracted by students or meetings or life. So when I am writing, I write best in the first couple of hours of the day, which I religiously block off on my calendar.  When I feel like I have run out of things to say (or have a meeting approaching), I always leave a few notes about what should come next to make it easier to pick up and get back into the writing flow when I return.

With which three historic figures, dead or alive, would you like to have dinner?

Ella Baker, because I would want to talk with her about organizing and strategy for movements. And the Obamas, because I am really, really sure that if we met, we would all be best friends.

Dispatches From Off the Deaton Path: Christopher Morley

In this Dispatch, Dr. Deaton remembers the life and works of the one of his favorite writers, Christopher Morley, born 130 years ago today.