Lisa Tendrich Frank is a historian who specializes in gender and the American South and Civil War. She is the author of The Civilian War: Confederate Women and Union Soldiers during Sherman’s March (Louisiana State University Press, 2015), which examines how warfare was redefined when the homefront and warfront collided as well as how gender guided both soldiers and civilians in one of the war’s most famous campaigns. She has also published six edited collections and dozens of articles and book chapters. Her most recent collection is Household War: How Americans Lived and Fought the Civil War (University of Georgia Press, 2020), co-edited with LeeAnn Whites. Dr. Frank is currently working on a book that explores the “domestic warfare” campaigns of U.S. generals Ulysses S. Grant, Philip Sheridan, and William T. Sherman. The book reexamines the forced evacuation of civilians from Atlanta in 1864 as part of a larger campaign to win the war by bringing it directly to the homefront. Dr. Frank’s research has been supported by fellowships and grants from various institutions, including the Huntington Library and the American Historical Association. She received her BA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and her MA and PhD from the University of Florida. During her career, she has taught at several universities, including Occidental College; University of California, Los Angeles; University of North Florida; Florida Atlantic University; and California State University, Fullerton. She has also worked as a writer and consultant for various non-profits. Most recently, she served as the lead historian for the University System of Georgia’s Naming Advisory Group. For more information, visit www.lisatendrichfrank.com.
What first got you interested in history?
I remember being bored by some history classes, but never by history. Historical fiction initially sparked my interest. I was fascinated with books written in the 20th century about historical events as well as those written in the 19th century (like Louisa May Alcott’s books). I also visited a lot of museums and historic sites around the country with my family as a child. Among other things, we went to the Smithsonian Museum of American History, visited Civil War battlefields, ate gingerbread in Colonial Williamsburg, and walked Boston’s Freedom Trail.
I became interested in becoming a historian when I took a Civil War lecture class with Stephen Oates as a college sophomore at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He was an amazing lecturer who had us all on the edge of our seats in each class and sometimes elicited applause during lectures. The books he wrote are like that, too—as I read his biography of Abraham Lincoln (With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1977), I practically yelled at Lincoln not to go to Ford’s Theater. I also loved Oates’ classes because he taught history by focusing on the individuals who lived through the events instead of solely on troop movements. His lectures and the books he assigned to the class brought the Civil War and other topics to life for me. After that semester I took some small seminar classes with him—Civil War through Biography and Mari Sandoz’s American West. I knew I wanted to learn about and write about history the way Oates did. When I decided to pursue a graduate degree in history, he helped me narrow down the programs and potential advisors who would best suit my interests.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I was an obsessive and voracious reader. I read every fiction book I could get my hands on as a child, and I read as often and as much as I could. I devoured books (but not literally!). My parents were constantly trying to get me out of the house to do something (anything) else. I used to get in trouble regularly for staying up too late reading with a flashlight (I had several extra books and flashlights stashed under my bed in case I was discovered), and one of my best friends and I would sit together during lunch at school and on weekends each reading a book. My favorite books as a child (I had a lot of them) included Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre, Little Women, The Count of Monte Cristo, The BFG, The Prince and the Pauper, Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books, Agatha Christie’s books, everything by Tolkien…. For the record, I still stay up too late reading novels and my best friend and I still talk about books together.
What book did you read in grad school that you never want to see again—and what book was most influential?
I would be happy to never see Robert William Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (1974) ever again. It’s offensive to me in its use of qualitative methods to evaluate the very human and very horrible experience of enslavement. I am still amazed at how widely read it was.
On the other hand, LeeAnn Whites’ The Civil War as a Crisis in Gender: Augusta, Georgia, 1860-1890 (University of Georgia Press, 1995) rocked my world. It gave me a model for the kind of history I wanted to do and write. It opened my eyes to how ideas about masculinity and femininity shaped the behavior of nineteenth-century Americans. That book, with Nina Silber’s The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (University of North Carolina Press, 1993), shaped the kind of history that I do. I had read other books on gender, but never anything that demonstrated to me how I could apply it to the Civil War. I read both as I was preparing for my qualifying exams and they both shaped how I approached my dissertation and everything I’ve written since then.
What’s the last great book you read, fiction or non-fiction?
The most recent great fiction book I read was Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague by Maggie O’Farrell (Knopf, 2020). I loved it. It’s beautifully written and evocative. I cried a lot. I got completely swept up in the story and didn’t want it to end even though I loved it so much that I read it too quickly.
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?
When I’m not reading for “work,” I read fiction. I have a large and always growing pile of books “to be read” and choose the one I’m in the mood for when I finish whatever I’ve been reading. I like books with characters I can imagine being friends with, and I hate books with characters I dislike. I avoid non-fiction and horror. My guilty reading pleasure is reading too many books at once.
What do you read—in print or online—to stay informed?
I read The New York Times online as well as articles from other newspapers and news magazines to stay informed.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I will seriously read anywhere at any time, but my favorite place to read is sitting in the shade on a breezy beach with my feet in the sand as I listen to the waves. My preferred reading is always fiction in book form, not electronic. I love the feel and smell of a new book.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
When I want to relax, I often read or bake. I have a nice collection of cookbooks, and I absolutely love Sweet Serendipity. I think a lot of people know about the restaurant in New York City, Serendipity 3, but they probably don’t know of this amazing cookbook. In case you’re wondering, the Goddess Diane’s Chocolate Chip Cookies are my personal favorites but everything I’ve made from the cookbook has been delicious.
What book or collection of books might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I think people would be surprised at the breadth of topics and type of books I have on my shelves. In addition to my collection of Civil War and other history books, I have a large and wide-ranging fiction collection. It defies easy categorization. It includes Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, Ha Jin’s Waiting, Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, all of Gregory Maguire’s books, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, James McBride’s Good Lord Bird, Madeline Miller’s Circe, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, all of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, The Riverside Shakespeare, Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar….
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I don’t know that my reading tastes have necessarily changed that much but my willingness to put down a book I don’t like has definitely increased. I used to feel like I had to finish every book I started, and I forced myself to do so. I will still finish non-fiction that I’m reading for work or anything that I’m reading for my book club. However, sometime after college I decided that I’d read enough to know what I liked and what I didn’t like and that I no longer needed to read books just because other people thought I should. If I start a book and don’t like it, I put it down and walk away and start another book.
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?
I practically got booed out of my book club for panning Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom: A Novel (FSG, 2010). I hated everything about it, but especially that none of the characters seemed to have any redeeming qualities. Although I’ve really liked most of Fredrik Backman’s books, I stopped reading Beartown (Atria, 2017) once I realized what it was going to be about.
What book would you recommend for America’s current moment?
You’re probably looking for a non-fiction book here, but I think fiction is always the best answer. My comfort reading and escape from reality for the past decade has been Deborah Harkness’s All Souls Series (A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night, and The Book of Life) and Time’s Convert. They are my favorite books of all time. I love them and wish I could jump into the books and meet many of the characters (especially Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont). Harkness’s novels stress the importance of diversity, multiculturalism, and cooperation—lessons that I think everyone needs or can appreciate these days.
What do you plan to read next?
I’m currently reading The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Harper, 2021) and Libertie: A Novel by Kaitlyn Greenidge (Algonquin, 2021). They’re both amazing books with complicated and relatable characters. I keep switching between them because I’m wrapped up in both stories.
What is the next book you’re going to write?
I’m working on a book on what I call “domestic warfare” during the American Civil War. I’ve always been interested in exploring the ways that the homefront and warfront connected and how 19th-century Americans understood these connections in ways that modern historians often ignore. This book is exploring how U.S. generals Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, and Philip Sheridan pursued victory with strategies that intentionally brought war to the homefront. It explores how they engaged in military occupations of towns, evictions of civilians, and invasions of homes that upended white southern households and helped end the Civil War.
When and how do you write?
I write best under the pressure of an approaching deadline. I often create artificial deadlines to keep the process moving and use small rewards to push me toward these goals. For the past year and a half, things have been unusually chaotic and unpredictable, which has made it difficult for me to find sustained and regular periods to write. I look forward to life returning to something closer to normal so that I can reestablish a regular schedule for writing.
With which three historic figures, dead or alive, would you like to have dinner?
The Civil War historian in me definitely wants to meet William T. Sherman and Clara Barton. I’ve spent so many years studying them and trying to figure out their motivations and lives, so I’d love to hear from them personally. Modern-day me would also like to have dinner with Hillary Clinton. I’m not a senator or a former secretary of state, but I feel like we’d have a lot in common and have a lot to talk about.