Category Archives: People

Two Giants of History Remembered: Phinizy Spalding & Carl Vipperman

Dr. Deaton remembers two UGA history professors–both of them outstanding scholars, teachers, and gentlemen–who profoundly influenced his decision to become a historian. Learn more about the lives and careers of Phinizy Spalding and Carl Vipperman in this Dispatch. 

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.

Dispatches From Off the Deaton Path: Alexander Stephens

Dr. Deaton looks at the life of Alexander Stephens,  one of two Georgians memorialized in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol in Washington DC, the Vice President of the Confederacy and the author of the infamous “Cornerstone” speech. 

Q&A: Reading and Writing with Drew Swanson

Drew Swanson is Professor of History at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, where he teaches classes in environmental history, food, 19th-century America, and public history. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Georgia in 2010. Born in rural Virginia, he worked as a farmer, zookeeper, and natural resource manager before turning to academia. Dr. Swanson’s research examines the intersections of nature and culture in the American South. He is the author of three books: Beyond the Mountains: Commodifying Appalachian Environments (University of Georgia Press, 2018); A Golden Weed: Tobacco and Environment in the Piedmont South (Yale University Press, 2014); and Remaking Wormsloe Plantation: The Environmental History of a Lowcountry Landscape (University of Georgia Press, 2012), which won the Georgia Historical Society’s Malcolm Bell, Jr. and Muriel Barrow Bell Award for the best book in Georgia history in 2013. Dr. Swanson also won the inaugural John C. Inscoe Award in 2017 for the best article published in the Georgia Historical Quarterly the previous year. He currently serves on the GHQ Board of Editors.   

Drew Swanson, PhD

What first got you interested in history?

Biology, strangely enough.  I majored in biology in college and was working as a naturalist in western North Carolina, and in that job I discovered that the human history of the region fascinated me at least as much as its natural history. When people would point to a tree and ask me what species it was, I would find myself rambling on about how people used to use its bark to dye leather. That realization propelled me back to graduate school and the study of history. I ended up an environmental historian, which fused the two interests.

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

I got in trouble in school in the second grade. Once I finished my work I started talking and disturbing others. My teacher began requiring my parents to send me to school with a book that I could read once I completed my assignments, and that got me hooked on the Hardy Boys. From there I turned to science fiction–Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Ursula K. Le Guin–and then westerns. There’s still a set of the complete works of Zane Grey somewhere in our barn, I’m pretty sure.

And I was voracious, reading at every available moment. I know I looked like the typical sullen tween, with my head down all the time, but it was usually because there was a book hidden under the edge of the desk or table.

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

This is tough.  I’ve got a couple of shelves in my office full of books I never intend to read again! Jacques Derrida is probably brilliant, I’m just not quite smart enough to be certain why.

There were plenty of books to love, though. Two that I regularly return to are Brian Donahue’s The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord (Yale University Press, 2007),and Michael Wayne’s Death of an Overseer: Reopening a Murder Investigation from the Plantation South (Oxford University Press, 2001). Donahue is a brilliant example of how crucial it is to really get to know a place in order to better explain its past, and Wayne’s book reminds me of the value of curiosity and good story telling.  The past is a mystery, and we shouldn’t downplay that.

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

I read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (LSU Press, 1980)again not too long ago. It always pulls me in, although it is hard to put a finger on exactly why. If I had to guess, I’d say it is the way his caricatures remind me of real people more than most of the “realistic” fiction out there. It’s hard to exaggerate just how quirky humanity is.

For nonfiction, I thoroughly enjoyed Stephen Heyman’s new biography of Louis Bromfield, The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution (Norton, 2020). Partying with Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway in France, hanging around Hollywood with Humphrey Bogart, experimenting with local food and agricultural improvement on his Ohio farm, and, oh yeah, writing some of the most popular novels of the early twentieth century: Bromfield’s life is almost too bizarre to believe, and Heyman tells it well.

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 love how-to manuals. Masonry, carpentry, small engine repair, plans for building garden sheds, cookbooks, and the like. I think it’s a form of procrastination—I can read about doing these things rather than actually get up and accomplish something.

I avoid poetry.  It has never made sense to me. (My dad’s a poet, so there may be something psychological involved here.) I deal with 19th-century sources in my work, and it was an age in love with poetry. Every time I strike a poem in a source I’m reading I groan a little inside.

As far as guilty reads go, I love a good detective procedural. The more atmospheric European serials tend to hook me, like the work of John Harvey, Henning Mankell, Tana French, and  and Arnaldur Indridason.

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

I’ve tried to cut down on my news consumption in recent months. The danger of being uninformed seems less than the hazard of being overwhelmed. It’s a trade off, to be sure, but I’m attempting to focus more on what’s going on in my local community. We still get a local newspaper, the quirky but excellent Yellow Springs News (independently owned since 1880!), which is chock full of village shenanigans, combative editorials, and actual locally relevant news stories. Not to mention an infamous weekly police blotter.

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

Nodding off in the evening to one of those aforementioned detective novels.

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

It would be a stretch to describe it as unknown, but I love Wendell Berry’s essay collection,  Home Economics: Fourteen Essays (North Point, 1987). In his unification of home and work life, philosophy and practicality, Berry appeals to me. This collection tends to be overshadowed by The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (Sierra Club, 1977) and The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (North Point, 1981), but in my mind it is one of his best. And damn, can he write. There’s a power and grace in Berry’s language that I’d love to emulate, but I can’t.

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

I have a lot of field guides left over from my previous work.  If you want to identify a mushroom you found in the Pacific Northwest or skim through the Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas, I have you covered.

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

I have less patience for the sort of jargon I could stomach in graduate school. I’ll stop reading a book that I should probably finish if it is unnecessarily dense. The linguistic gymnastics that once impressed me as signs of insight now just make me wish for a well-told story. Historians lament that general readers so rarely find and read our work, but we’re not doing as much as we could to help them out.

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?

Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (Viking, 1989). It seems obligatory, and I’ve been trying to read it for more than ten years. I start it and then always lose the thread.

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

It never hurts to read more Flannery O’Connor. She had a remarkable talent for tackling tough, divisive issues in an empathetic way. Race, religion, sex, disability—she wrote about it all in a way that still seems fresh and moving.

I’m also a huge fan of Tiya Miles’s Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2015). It’s a powerful dive into what titillates us about the southern past, and, as O’Connor observes, the truth isn’t always pretty.

And Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (Riverhead, 2015).  He was a couple of years ahead of the curve on the trouble with cancel culture.

What do you plan to read next?

A lot of agricultural history! I am on a book prize committee for the Agricultural History Society, and a pile of new titles is stacked by my desk. In my reading so far I’ve been really impressed by the excellent recent work in the field. America’s small farmers may be struggling, but historians are doing a great job of explaining how they reached this point.

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

A history of the consumer culture of American hunting since the Civil War. There is an irony at the heart of the project: We like to think we go to the woods to “get away from it all,” but we sure take a lot of stuff with us. I’ve found a pretty fascinating group of characters who helped create this trend, the sort of people we might today be tempted to call “influencers.” I won’t give away too much, but they include an alcoholic ex-librarian holed up in the Great Smoky Mountains, bow hunters chasing lions in Tanzania in Ford Model-T’s, and Ted Nugent. I’m having fun with the process.

When and how do you write?

I do all the things I tell my students not to do: I write in short bursts, I write in the bleachers at my kids’ swim practices, I write with the television on in the background, sometimes I write after I’ve had a beer. It’s a matter of necessity more than preference, but I’ve also discovered that my focus seems sharpest in short blocks of time. If I know that I have 45 minutes to write, I will really bear down. Give me a day set aside to do nothing but write, and I’ll end up staring out the window.

For me the most important thing seems to be to get words on paper, to make steady progress. That keeps me from feeling like I’m falling behind on a project. It also means I spend a lot of time revising and editing, and I’m okay with that.

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

Anthony Bourdain, Alice Waters, and Donald Link.  I’m taking the “dinner” part of the question seriously.

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.