ELLEN’S COFFEE SHOP, Chestertown, Nov. 29 — The waitress delivers our orange juice in clear plastic glasses; mine comes with a straw, Adam Goodheart’s does not. He leans forward and peers quizzically at the glasses.
“Is a straw a feminine thing?” he asks, obviously delighted by the discrepancy. “Why else would only you get one? Have you seen this sort of thing before?”
I am clueless. But by observing my breakfast companion’s fascination with the single straw mystery, I suspect this is how a historian approaches his subject, as a curious detective would.
Indeed, with the help of his students, Goodheart has sifted through stacks of original Civil-War era newspapers, documents and photographs for his upcoming book 1861: The Civil War Awakening, which is scheduled for release in April by Alfred A. Knopf. The research also informs his New York Times online history column, part of the Disunion series, which debuted on November 1. Simultaneously, he has been tending to his usual duties at Washington College as historian, professor, and Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.
Balancing teaching and writing was actually a plus, he said.
“The two feed each other. With students you get the gratification that comes from doing something outside yourself. Writing a book is like tossing a penny down a well and waiting to hear the clink — you write a book but will anyone ever read it? You don’t know.”
With that, I admitted (sheepishly) that I’d always found the Civil War boring, but that the Disunion blog had finally (incredibly) piqued my interest. For once it wasn’t about muskets and stuff. Goodheart’s eyes widened.
“That makes me feel really good,” he said. “You’re exactly the kind of reader I’m hoping to reach.”
While drizzling maple syrup over a stack of french toast, the author explained that sometime during the writing of the book, he had realized that his ideal reader was a woman who thought American History was boring.
“So much Civil War writing is about the battlefield. Well, that stuff makes my eyes glaze over, too,” he said.
1861: The Civil War Awakening, begins in 1860 and ends July 4, 1861, but according to Goodheart the climax is really May of 1861 when enslaved African-Americans started freeing themselves.
“African Americans were the real heroes of the Civil War. Historians don’t like to use the word hero, but in this case it absolutely applies,” said Goodheart.
Then, leaning forward, he added softly, “Look, there’s certainly no agreement on this, but the Civil War really was about slavery.”
He wrote most of the book sitting at desk #12 in the Library of Congress.
“What a privilege it was to have this space available, “ he said. “Every book in the world is there. Fifteen years ago it was hard to get a desk. Now in the morning, I may be one of three or four.”
Why are so few people coming to the largest library in the world?
“Everybody is Googling,” said Goodheart, lifting his dark eyebrows. “The amazing thing is you can order a book and have it on your desk in less than an hour. And when you need to take a mental break, there’s always something to look at. The main reading room is like a puzzle. For me the environment was grounding and uplifting.”
As our waitress cleared the table and refilled our coffees, we moved on to discussing the Disunion series, The New York Times blog that covers the Civil War as if it were a real time event unfolding today.
Employing all the tools of the writer’s craft, Goodheart brings events to life by inserting the reader into the era; so even though it’s history you feel like you’re reading a narrative about something that is happening now. His editor at Knopf is a fiction editor who edits the likes of Naipaul and Pamuk, so the writing has a literary quality. And since much of the research that informed his book also informs his blog, the style conveys.
“At first I wanted to call it a column. I was uncomfortable with the idea of blogging. But now I really like it. You can learn so much from the comments,” said Goodheart.
Recent entries include:
“Lincoln: A Beard is Born,” a look at the first image of the world’s most famous chin whiskers.
“Jim Crow on West Broadway,” a fascinating piece of detective work.
“Return of the Samurai,” wherein Japanese tourists arrive home, with fond memories of balloons, bathtubs, brothels and President Buchanan ….
And in a particularly intriguing column titled “The Bedfellow’s Reunion” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/25/the-bedfellows-reunion/, Goodheart investigates Lincoln’s close relationship with Joshua Speed, with whom he was known to share a bed. A young Abe Lincoln is even quoted as asking Speed “do you know where I can get some?” (72 comments and counting….)
Nope, this is definitely not the boring, battlefield scenes American history I was taught. This is a fresh take on the Civil War, where the focus is on people. Finally, a historian and scholar has asked, how can we comprehend the events without understanding the people who made them happen? With Disunion, Goodheart has turned us around and given us an entirely new perspective on American History.
See Adam Goodheart’s November 19 NPR interview for a discussion on blogging the Civil War via day-to-day newspaper accounts, http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2010/11/19/07
To follow the Civil War as it unfolded, read Disunion, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/category/disunion/
And if you’re on Facebook, check out the Disunion page where all the columns are listed: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Civil-War-The-New-York-Times/171184126228555