Miller Center

American Forum - The Great Historians: With 2014 Pulitzer, Bancroft Winners

Ari Kelman,Alan Taylor
September 17, 2014
11:00AM - 12:30PM (EDT)

Ari Kelman
Ari Kelman

Alan Taylor
Alan Taylor

Television Broadcast: December 28, 2014

ARI KELMAN is the McCabe Greer Professor of History at Penn State University. His book, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek, won the 2014 Bancroft Prize, an award given each year by the trustees of Columbia University for books about diplomacy or the history of the Americas. ALAN TAYLOR is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor at the University of Virginia. His book, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for History. His earlier book, William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early Republic, won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for History, in addition to that year’s Bancroft Prize.

Transcript

 

11:08:07;19 DB: Welcome back to the Miller Center’s American Forum.  I’m Doug Blackmon.  How much does history really matter?  What history should we care about and who should decide what history gets written and what gets respect? Joining our program today to explore those deep questions about American history and scholarship are two very deep thinkers who are also among America’s most acclaimed historians.  Ari Kelman is a professor of history at Penn State and one of the 2014 winners of the Bancroft Prize for A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek, a meticulous examination of more than a century of remembrance and misremembrance of a bloody encounter in 1864 between Native Americans and U.S. soldiers in Colorado.  Alan Taylor is the Thomas Jefferson Chair in American History at the University of Virginia and winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832.  Professor Taylor was also awarded the Pulitzer in history and the Bancroft Prize in l996 for William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early Republic.  Thank you both for being here

 

Let’s talk for a big about some of these big questions in history. 

 

The event at the center of A Misplaced Massacre was an attack in 1864 by U.S. soldiers, blue coated Calvary as we would think of them from western movies and cinema, but this attack on an encampment of native Americans not far from a military fort in Colorado.  Scores of Native American women and children, exact numbers not known, according to your book were killed.  Many of them it seemed in cold blood but there is much dispute about what exactly what happened on that day.  But your book is not so much a classical reconstruction of those events but an examination of how those events have been remembered, different ways they have been remembered, why they have been remembered so differently in the hundred fifty years since then

 

11;12:19;05 AK:  Coming up with a definitive story of this event is counterproductive. It’s almost beside the point.  That an event like Sand Creek, the memories of this even in the immediate aftermath of the violence were so contested, so fractured that it’s extraordinarily difficult to come up with a single unified story of what happened there.  More broadly though, and I think perhaps cutting it a bit deeper the question of memory is a question of the way in which society is to understand itself by understanding its own history.  And so a question of, in this case, whether or not a truly horrifying irredeemable story can somehow be integrated into the broader narrative of the Civil War in the way that we remember that  war as one of our good wars.  And so again I’m part of a chorus of historians who have taken on these sorts of questions in recent years as a way I think of trying to understand where our history fits in contemporary society.

 

11:13:37;29 DB:  Alan, The Internal Enemy is more of a classical work of history.  It takes us deeper into and with more detail and granularity in the lives of slaves and in particular this misunderstood role or perhaps not even acknowledged role of enslaved African cooperating with the British and playing a much more powerful role in the in an effort to end slavery for themselves in a sense.  An ally against the people who enslaved them. 

 

AT: I’ve had many people react to the book by saying why didn’t I know about the story?  Because it’s a very powerful story about enslaved people who were claiming their freedom by stealing boats and going out to British war ships and helping them in a war.  So they are exploiting the chaos of this war to claim their freedom.  So it comes as a great surprise to most readers that they hadn’t heard about this at all.  They may have heard about slaves escaping during the Revolution but not during the War of 1812 and the scale of it is surprising to people that over 3,000 enslaved people from the Chesapeake escaped and from the whole United States probably about 5,000.  So it is, I think, similar to Ari’s book in one way which is that it’s about how we forget and how we remember things but you are quite right that in the foreground it is my attempt as an historian to reconstitute a story as best as I can understand it is what I think probably happened.

 

11L15:48;25 DB:  And how much of that is a story that in some respect we actually did know about or the historians had some comprehension of but perhaps miscomprehended or regulated to the margins of the main narrative of American history. 

 

11:16:04;27 AT:  As an historian you’re trying to decide what belongs in the foreground and what belongs in the background.  And so the story of the War of 1812 and Chesapeake has been told many times by historians and in the center of it is the capture of Washington and the burning of the public buildings, the Capitol and the White House and other buildings and then the subsequent more triumphant British attack on Baltimore and the American success in repelling that attack which inspires the writing of the Star Spangled Banner.  And so that’s kind of a set piece story and African Americans don’t really appear in that story.  One of the things I argue in The Internal Enemy is that the British would have never been able to capture Washington, D.C. without the critical assistance they received from African Americans whom they enlisted as marines, and guides and pilot and who gave them a mastery of the landscape that they didn’t have before they succeeded enlisting up. 

 

11:17:04;14 DB:  It’s also interesting that the way this fits into this larger revision of history of the role of the African American soldiers in the Civil War and where really over a pretty short span of time we have gone from a real argument and disputation over were any black soldiers playing any kind of consequential role on the side of the Union in the Civil War to one where now they are recognized as having a very significant element to the Civil War. 

 

11:17:53;13 AT:  Well the scale is much smaller in the War of 1812.  You’ve got 400 young men who were former slaves who were enlisted as colonial marines in the British service and maybe another 100-150 who were enlisted as sailors in the Royal Navy.  So it’s much smaller than the approximately 200 thousand African Americans who will serve in the Civil War.  The enlistment in the War of 1812 is not going to be sufficient to smash the slave system. Whereas the 200 thousand who are enlisted in the Civil War will make a critical difference without those 200 thousand soldiers.  It would be hard to imagine the North pulling it off in the end.  But it’s also they needed the assistance of an external force to come in and provide them with weaponry and organization in order for that 200 thousand to make that difference.

 

DB:  tell us quickly really the story of the Sand Creek Massacre

 

AK: In the spring and summer of 1864 Coloradoans were extraordinarily frightened that there was going to be a confederation of tribal peoples that was going to wipe out settler society on the plains to the east of Denver, perhaps descend on the city of Denver itself.  And there were a number of different skirmishes over that spring and summer but between settlers and native peoples on the plains.  The territorial governor in Colorado at the time, a man named John Evans wrote a series of increasingly dispatches to the Union district commander warning him that there was going to be this blood letting he and Evans wasn’t granted the right to raise a regiment of soldiers to put down hostile Indians.  Ultimately, late in the summer Evans was allowed to raise that regiment.  A regiment of so called Indian fighters.  Evans and a man named John Chivington who was a colonel in charge of this force met with a group of peace chiefs Arapahoes and Cheyennes for the most part in Denver, in September of 1864. These were chiefs who were quite concerned about the escalation of violence on the plains and worried that their people were in grave peril and were looking for some way to try and calm the waters. Chivington told these chiefs that it wasn’t really up to him in the end but if they were to go and camp near Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado that they would be under the protection of federal authorities.  That he would see to it that they would be safe, and so these chiefs moved with their people somewhere between 700 and 1,000 native people camped on Sand Creek near Fort Lyon. And then in November Chivington brought the Third Colorado Regiment and a portion of the First Colorado Regiment with him.  And on November 29th in 1864 very early in the morning attacked that encampment.  And ultimately Chivington’s men slaughtered somewhere between 150 and perhaps as many as 300 native peoples.  We really don’t have an accurate count the figures vary pretty widely.  And this became an extremely notorious episode in a notorious era for violence on the plains. 

 

DB: In the really simplistic narrative that most Americans absorb including myself through pop culture and such is that yes we all now acknowledge that there are these terrible atrocities against Native Americans but we presume that everyone was in concert around that.  That there was no real argument about it.  But you obviously there was a great deal of dispute about this and it was a terrible thing from the very beginning. 

 

AK: A few men under Chivington refused to join in this slaughter and in the immediate aftermath of Sand Creek they began sending notes to people who they knew who were well placed in the federal apparatus suggesting that what had happened at Sand Creek hadn’t been a battle it had been a massacre.  And that it had been premeditated, that John Chivington knew that these were peaceful native peoples who were camped there.  This precipitated a number of federal investigations all of which found that this had been a bad act.  So it really is very much a story of the way in which people in power had a difficult time differentiating enemies and not peaceful and hostile native peoples in this moment.  And the way in which a small group of people chose to use the confusion that often descended on the plains in this period to advance their own interests.  Chivington wanted to be a senator when Colorado moved from territorial status to statehood.  John Chivington had his own designs on a political career.  And so this is in some ways a painfully quintessential story of the era. 

 

AK: Sand Creek is a crucial episode on the road to the Indian wars because in its aftermath that confederation of tribes, that grand alliance that John Evans had been so fearful of in the run up to the massacre actually comes to fruition.  And it comes to fruition as native peoples used what happened as Sand Creek as a rallying cry and something they find as common cause.  And so Cheyennes and Arapahos and Dakotas and other so called Sioux peoples and other tribes as well come together and end up forming these sorts of grand alliances which become very, very troublesome for the federal government and for settlers in the west and lead to years and years of bloody fighting.

 

DB: The natives who were involved in all of this went away with a very specific conclusion that we learned a lesson from this.  That we actually can’t rely on the promises made by the white men or by the federal government because we went there seeking peace and then were massacred. But it’s also interesting to me that Alan that in the telling of the story that is in the Internal Enemy, is that inherent contradiction that white southerners, I guess all white Americans responded to enslaved African Americans that before the Civil War generally speaking all the way back to the time of the colonies this tremendous trepidation about the possibility of slave uprisings, this sense that slaves were a great danger to white people particularly people where they outnumbered them.  But then we get to the war periods including the two you write about in the Civil War in which suddenly they just disappear from the story.  So these enslaved African Americans in the conventional telling disappeared from the story.  So when we’re not at war and they are under great suppression they are very fierce in the American narrative and great difficulty to white society.  But then ultimately in the telling of the story of these wars in which they actually at times play really tactically important roles that is completely diminished until we have books like yours.  Why is that?

 

11:30:57;11 AT:  Well I would say they’re diminished in the secondary source history particularly is written in the later 19th century and through much of the 20th century the story of the African Americans as potential assistance to invaders, primarily the British, that is suppressed in those accounts. But if you look at the primary sources you look at the newspapers and the diaries and the letters written at the time during the American Revolution or the War of 1812 then you find there was a great deal of concern at that time.  The concern actually increases during war time because there was an understanding that if an external enemy comes into Chesapeake Bay that they can make common cause with this internal enemy that was understood to be kind of a potential enemy until there is an external enemy to come in and provide alliance and support for this internal threat.  I also think there is a difference between how Americans tended to think about African Americans in the early 19th century versus the decade or two before the Civil War.  In the run up to the Civil War people of course don’t know there is going to be a Civil War but there is a construction of a proslavery ideology that is insistent that African Americans were docile, that they were happiest under slavery, and that there really wasn’t a serious threat of slave revolt.  Now that always exists side by side with a lurking fear that maybe indeed this is going to turn out to be a danger.  Maybe they are not really happy.  But the pro slavery happy slave story surges to the forefront which is very different from what you found in the founders’ generation.  Someone like Thomas Jefferson is pretty clear that he understands that there is a great danger that slaves are unhappy and that they have a sense of grievance and a just sense of grievance and that someday they will act on it.  And Jefferson said that if there is a just God then we cannot assume that he will side with the masters on this.  Which is pretty frank.  Much franker than you would find later in the 19th century when there is this construction of this supposedly positive good argument about slavery. 

 

11:33:27;04 DB:  Well I think that’s interesting too and both of you in different ways touch on a version of this, this whole phenomenon happens in the 19th century after Darwin comes along, and after there begins to be at first in very small doses but this basic understanding of what will come to be the evolution of genetics and western society begins to shift in terms of how it views races of people.  And in both cases you have this reassessment of what is the difference between white people and black people and the difference between white people and Native Americans.  And you write at some length about way that language that sounds like to southern ears a discussion about African Americans began to be applied to the “savages” who seem to have a different genetic makeup or be a different species and that was part of the justification for why it was not such a great crime to commit these terrible atrocities against them.  Let’s come back to that in a second but talk a little more about the way the founders we esteem so enormously over the creation of these basic American principles but who did not necessarily see the enslavement of African Americans a contradiction but actually a cornerstone of the American notion of Freedom.

 

11:34:46;11 AT:  Well, the Founding Fathers were much more diverse in their view than we often assume.  And there were Founders particularly in South Carolina who quite early were saying that slavery is with us and will be with us forever and we should stop apologizing for it.  That was a minority view among the founders.  Much more characteristic would be the views of somebody like George Mason or Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson or George Washington who would quite frankly say that slavery is wrong, it’s a moral evil.  But they would also add to that a fear that there was nothing they could do in their own lifetimes to end slavery.  Mostly they would hope that sometime in the future there would be some development that would render slavery less profitable and that sometime in the future the voters of different southern states would be willing to allocate the funds, to export all of the enslaved people into freedom elsewhere in the world.  Because they could not bring themselves to think about the possibility that black and white Americans could live side by side in freedom.  Most of the Founders thought that would be impossible.  That if Blacks were freed that that they would become an even greater security problem and there would be a race war in America.  And so to head off that race war they insisted that any program of freeing the slaves would have to be coupled with a program to deporting them as colonists back to Africa.  This is a complete nonstarter.  The funds for this never would have been available.  And African Americans did not want to go back to Africa the great majority of them.  They wanted to be American citizens in equality in this country.  But it is this fantasy that is clung to all the way up to the Civil War.  Even Abraham Lincoln embraced this at the very start of the Civil War.  So it’s a fantasy that dies very hard in America.

 

11:37:02;05 DB:  I wrote a book a few years back in which I posited probably without sufficient basis, a speculative argument basically about this relationship between the Founders and the Americans really in that period and the apparent contradiction between slavery and the equality that we talk about so much.  But what I ventured as a though, I’m curious to your reaction to it, was that in some respects our notions of equality at that time, were not quite the way that we use the word today, but in fact in some dimensions were an extension of royalty to everyone.  The idea that all people had a special value in a way that royalty had once been perceived as having a particular value.  And that by extending royalty to every Englishman in America that that was a kind of equality.  A sense that every Englishman has the same rights and these other classes don’t have a special set of rights but that baked into that was the necessity of establishing that these rights don’t in fact extend to people who are not Englishmen in America and certainly not Africans who are America.  And so this idea that slavery in fact becomes very much baked into the American concept of freedom and equality.

 

11:38:24;07 AT:  Well I think there’s something to that in that the king, the monarch the sovereign and the Revolution establishes something like the people as the sovereign in the republic.  The question then becomes who are the people?  And the Founders of the republic had no problem in excluding lots of human beings from the sovereign people.  Women were excluded from the sovereign people, children were excluded from the sovereign people, poor white people who were free but did not have enough property to vote, they were largely excluded from this concept of the sovereign people, and of course enslaved people.  So it’s a minority of adults in American society who were included in the concept of the sovereign people.  And there were some people at that time, particularly Quakers, who were ahead of others and wanting to broaden the definition of the sovereign people to include, for example, African Americans but they were a small minority.  And it can be very hard for us in the present where we have a much more universal definition of who the people are to look back in the past and say why couldn’t they have thought as we do now?  And we look at the language of particularly the Declaration of Independence which declares that all men are created equal and we wonder how that couldn’t have been realized in the short term as embracing at least all men if not all adults.  So it’s a leap of understanding to go back into a time where this could be advanced as a philosophical ideal and yet the reality facing these men as statesmen because they lived in an erratically equal society and they could not imagine what the steps would be that they could take in politics in the short term to realize the philosophical idea. 

 

11:40:31;04 DB:  So as the 19th century progresses and we get more back into Ari’s timeline and science intrudes, begins to intrude into these understandings of these different kinds of looking people in America, what is going on in the minds of the white settlers in the west?  What is filtering down as an explanation as to why these different people who are already there behave differently and it’s okay to treat them so very differently than the other Americans who are there?

 

11:41;04;21 AK:  By the mid 19th century a number of people are still talking about the great civilizing mission of the United States to lift up savage nations Indian nations but more and more people are moving away from that rhetoric and are beginning to talk about Indians as a so called vanishing race.  That they simply aren’t of a hardy enough racial stock to be able to persist as individuated peoples in the face of white settlement.  But on the ground in Colorado throughout the interior west the individual experience is obviously quite different from that.  Native American peoples aren’t disappearing in the face of white civilization.  They’re in some cases fighting, in other cases resisting in other ways and in some cases simply moving to reservations.  And so it’s a far more complicated story experientially which is part of the point of the book that I wrote but it’s a thorny issue for people in the moment and what I try and convey and what I say today as well is that the overwhelming majority of people who are moving into the west don’t’ see a disjuncture between the rhetoric of American liberty and the rhetoric of equality and the process of dispossessing native peoples. They see those two things a complementary.  That their liberty hinges to a great extent on their ability to settle where they want on land that after the summer of 1862 the federal government is going to promise them as part of the Homestead Act they can have, if they improve over time, they can have that land for free.  This is a fundamental part of the Republican Party platform.  Of Lincoln of the Republican Party platform that the west will become a white man’s republic.  And the Lincoln Administration, at least in part, is offering the west as fair recompense for the kind of patriotic sacrifice that it’s asking soldiers to make during the Civil War.  And so people in Colorado view the disposition of native peoples, I shouldn’t say all, but then again an overwhelming majority of Coloradoans view an event like Sand Creek as one step toward the United States realizing, again its manifest destiny and realizing the promise of the Declaration that people are created equal. As Alan said it’s a question of who are the people?  And during reconstruction as citizenship is expanded it’s not going to be expanded to include native peoples. That’s not going to happen for quite a lot longer.

 

11:44:30;07 DB:  Is that how the Sand Creek Massacre and the Civil War connect? What you were just describing. 

 

11:44:35:08 AK:  For me the notion that Union soldiers are fighting Indians during the Civil War, for the vast majority of people who remember the war is a story they don’t hear very often.  So that’s critical.  But then on a deeper level as I say I see the story of Sand Creek as being a Civil War story because of as I mentioned earlier the Republican Party’s vision for settling the west.  I see the 1816 election as being an election that is both contested over the future of slavery but particularly the slavery in the west.  So I see the 1860 election at least in part of the referendum of competing visions of an American empire.  Whether the United States will have an empire in the west that will be founded on free labor or whether an American empire will move into the west and will use slave labor as a cornerstone of its economic development.  And then during the war itself as I alluded to a moment ago in the summer of 1862 the United States Congress passes a number of pieces of landmark legislation so the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railroad Act, the Moral Land Grant College all are passed in that same summer.  Also in 1862 the Department of Agriculture is created and so what happens is that the Federal Apparatus increases though that it has the mechanisms necessary to realize the Republican Party’s vision of western expansion.  And Sand Creek, in my view is an outgrowth of that vision.  Rather than Native Americans disappearing they are going to have to be forcibly dispossessed.  And this is just one of among many stories in which Native peoples are removed again. 

 

11:47:00:13 DB:  At the end of the Civil War there is a lot of discussion going on in America about atrocities.  We’ve just gone through this horrible carnage.  Particularly the soldiers involved have seen things that really no humans have really ever seen before probably in human history in terms of the scale of violence and the destruction left behind.  Of course there’s a lot of discussion of the behavior of certain parties over the course of the war so there’s this larger discussion of atrocities and what is right and what’s not in warfare.  And interesting it’s just after that that we begin to also see this escalation of the violence against Native Americans and I would argue that later we also begin to see that once enslavement has ended we also begin to see tremendously sharper and more vicious violence against African Americans. And some of the atrocities that you describe in detail from the accounts of the massacre sound very much though as things that were done to black men during lynchings in 1910 and 1920, the dismemberments of bodies and all that.  It’s a gruesome thing to talk about and to think about but something really does happen, this dehumanization of these two groups of people, blacks and native Americans that somehow allows white Americans to begin to behave towards them in the most harsh ways imaginable.

 

11:48:45;19 AT:  One of the ways in which I’m able to tell the story I’m able to tell in the book is that there is the mixed blood son of a white trader and a Cheyenne woman.  The son’s name is George Bent and at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century as the sense that Native Americans might actually vanish, that they are not just a vanishing race but that they might disappear wholesale and as a number of people become concerned about that particularly early generations of anthropologists George Bent begins corresponding with some of these anthropologists and ethnographers and his story, as Alan suggests, is fascinating because he really is caught between worlds.  He’s identified as native by a white settler society, he actually fought with the confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War was captured  then paroled and then moves back to Colorado where his family lives and his parents say to him you really can’t stay in Denver you really have to go and live out on the plains with native people.  Why?  Because it’s not safe.  He fought with the confederacy and Colorado is overwhelmingly a Republican territory.  And Bent writes at great length and expresses what in my view is very, very real pain about this experience of constantly being defined by others in one way or another.  When he himself is quite comfortable moving between these worlds.  But other people aren’t nearly as comfortable as he is.  And they see what we today might call racial fluidity as profoundly threatening.  That they want to be able to identify him as one thing or another and for Bent that’s just again, not, as I mentioned earlier this disjuncture between rhetoric and experience.  That’s just not his lived experience.  He’s both things at once.  He’s many other things as well.  And I think that’s quite common in the West.  It may be further complicating what you were saying earlier that that racial fluidity that may be most threatening to people.  And that causes people observers particularly to want racial definitions to be absolute and to want to place people in clear categories so that they have an ironclad understanding of exactly where they themselves fit and where the other begins. 

 

11:53:40; 26 DB:  Let’s talk a little bit about what it’s like for you guys to be celebrity historians. 

(Laughter) if there is such a thing.   In a minute we’ll talk about the real celebrity historians who are not really historians necessarily.  But Ari, you must have been asked already many times what was it like when you learned that you won the Bancroft Prize?

 

11:54:34;21 AK:  It’s a very embarrassing story, Doug, thanks for bringing it up.  I was extraordinarily fortunate in that a few weeks earlier I had been notified that I’d won another prize for this book, the Avery Craven Prize which is offered by the organization American Historians and I was quite literally struck dumb by that experience.  I really had this moment where I never expected this book to win prizes.  I’m not sure any historian, well I don’t know Alan, I’m not sure very many historians expect their books to win acclaim. We all live with a certain amount of imposter syndrome.  And so that experience of winning that first prize really was unbelievable.  

So when I got the news that I had won the Bancroft I looked at this and in my mind I thought to myself, oh I’ve won the Caroline Bancroft Prize which is a wonderful prize offered by the Denver Public Library for the best work of western history published in a given year. 

 

So I was delighted that I received this notification but I called the person thinking that I was speaking to someone about the Caroline Bancroft Prize.  And in the course of the conversation the gentleman on the other end of the line is talking to me about that they are going to fly me and my significant other to New York City and I’m sitting there thinking, it’s very early in the morning, sorry more additional exculpatory evidence on my behalf.  It’s very early, I haven’t slept well and I’m sitting there thinking to myself why is the Denver Public Library going to fly me to New York City?  This is very, very strange and meanwhile the gentleman whom I’m speaking with I think in the course of the conversation has begun to think that I’m quite dim. 

 

11:57:11;01 DB:  A mistake has been made!

 

11:57:11;20 AK:  That’s exactly right. Can we rescind this? Is there any precedent in taking back the prize in the course of a single conversation and this is going on, and on, and on and finally he mentions to me the amount of the cash award and I’m really thinking to myself the Denver Public Library just can’t have that.  This makes no sense and so I say to him, and I’m not kidding, I say wait are we talking about the Bancroft, Bancroft Prize?  And he says yes Professor Kelman, and so I walk into the kitchen and I put my hand over the phone and I say to my wife, “I think I’m winning the Bancroft Prize right now.” And my wife says to me “Oh, you won the Caroline Bancroft Prize? That’s so great!”  So that’s what it’s like to win the Bancroft Prize.  And in all honesty it hasn’t really changed all that much.  I mean it’s not, I still look at the book periodically and think how very fortunate I am that readers have chosen to take exactly what I had hoped they would and more from this book and overlook it’s many, many flaws.  But I still don’t think that I’ve quite grappled with the fact that I won the Bancroft Prize.

 

11:58:30;19 DB:  Now you are an old hand at winning Pulitzer Prizes.  How did you find out about this your second?

 

11:58:39;26:  AT:  Ari at least got a phone call from the Bancroft.  The Pulitzer committee does not call people who have won.  You don’t know you are a finalist.  What they do is issue a press release and then various press people who want to have a story to write try to contact winners of the prize or your friends are trying to contact you.  I was in Philadelphia preparing to give a talk that evening.  I did not know the Pulitzers were going to be in the house that day, I did not know I was a finalist and I certainly did not get a phone call from the Pulitzer committee.  But I just decided I needed to check my e-mail in the midst of my preparations for my talk that evening and I went to my e-mail and it just exploded with messages and most of them said congratulations and I didn’t know what I was being congratulated for.  So I then had to get in touch with my editor who was trying to provide my phone number to somebody at The New York Times and AP and it then becomes kind of a crisis management situation because there are so many people who have deadlines who have to talk with you and it’s in you best interest because you would like people to know about the book to cooperate but it meant that I probably gave one of the lousiest talks that I have ever given that night because I had no time because it was just a blur from then up until I had the good fortune to go out to dinner with a group of friends some of them who had heard the news and others were just learning about it.  So it’s obviously very nice but it is also something that seems very strange when it happens. 

 

12:00:25;29 DB:  How so?

 

12:01:11;03 AT:  The book is not a better book the day after the Pulitzer as the day before and I’m not a better historian the day I get the Pulitzer than I was the day before.  But you are suddenly dealing with a lot more tension and a lot more curiosity about the book and more opportunities about what it’s about suddenly and it’s a sudden ratcheting up  of your effort level to engage with a broader public and with the press and with your own university.  And I was making this transition from UC Davis to the University of Virginia at that time.  So half of the press stories identified me as of the University of Virginia those coming out of the press office here and those coming out of the UC Davis press office so the AP on the West Coast was identifying me as a UC Davis professor and both of them were half right.  So when I say strange I’m not complaining but it is not what you’re usually dealing with as a university professor or the author of a book but there’s a sudden intensity that will eventually pass but it is very intense for that particular day.

 

12:02:34;07 DB:  One of the first things that I did after finding out that I won the Bancroft was go and tell Alan, who’s office was upstairs from mine that I had won and he hadn’t.  But I think Alan makes exactly the right point.  The extraordinary experience of this is that as scholars we write books and there is a long intervening period after the book is published before the prize season or even before that first review where a period of in my case a decade of my life and Alan writes very, very quickly and very well so I don’t remember how long it took you, four or five years?

 

12:03:24;28 AT:  A couple weeks.

 

12:03:27;02 AK:  A couple weeks and it shows.  Alan uses a very big font.  It’s actually a tiny book it’s about 38 words.  But there’s this long intervening period where the book is out there and you have absolutely no idea what anybody thinks about it.  And again you’ve spent many, many years working on this.  Even in Alan’s case many years.  And you simply don’t know what the reception is going to be like.  And if you are as fortunate as I’ve been and Alan’s been you get this feedback which suggests that people like the book but Alan is 100 percent right, it doesn’t change anything about the book.  The book is still the book.  The words in the book are exactly the same the day of as they day before but it seems to change the way people respond at least in my case to my work.  Alan mentioned that after giving, after receiving the news that he won the Pulitzer he gave as what he described one of the worst talks of his career, I’ve given a few of those really lousy talks and people seem unwilling to tell me, people aren’t as quick as they were before to tell me when one of my talks isn’t very good.  So I can’t quite tell if that’s because of the Bancroft or it’s very hard to know if this changes things for one’s career.  He’s got more experience.  I mean he’s on the Pulitzer committee speed dial. 

 

12:05:14;19 DB:  To what degree do you think, you’re not being serious now, but your are a serious historian, about whether there’s going to be an audience beyond your colleagues for work like this and do you have any sense of an obligation to an audience that is not academic or scholarly?

 

12:05:37;16 AT:  I think that I can speak for myself that we would very much like to write in a way that is accessible beyond our fellow academics.  We would also like to do so in a way that does not sell our souls. So we’re trying to write serious books of history that are written in a way of somebody who is not trained as an historian could pick the book up and read it and hopefully will find something that they will derive some pleasure from.  Not all academic historians choose to do that and not all books should be written in that way.  There are some books that need to be highly technical and specialized and my bibliography is full of books that I’m very grateful for that were written in that way because they had to be.  But I’ve tried in the books that I have written to have a narrative in them and to develop characters but to do so in a way that is as true to the historical record and develops some ideas that I think are important for us today to understand the past better rather than just simply tell a story. 

 

12:07:08;23 AK:  I would start by saying that I may be willing to sell my soul. It’s just depends on the price. I’m not entirely convinced that I’ve written a book that’s as accessible that I might have wanted it to be.  But that was because I always found myself trying to strike that balance between writing what I thought and what was very good scholarship and also trying to, well again I should say my goal in writing the book was that my mom who’s a very, very broadly read, very well educated, but not professional historian would be able to read my book and appreciate it.  And I’m reasonably sure that I failed.  She’s told me that she likes it but that’s what a mom has to say. 

 

12:09:30;05 AT:  She told me that she really didn’t like it.

 

12:09:32;17 DB:  My mother after she read my book was the first person to call and point out a factual error. 

 

12:09:40;18 AT:  You know she read the book then.

 

12:09:41;13 DB:  How do you guys react to, and I ask this as a serious question, how do you react to that arguably the most influential historian in America right now is a FOX News guy named Bill O’Reilly?  He sold five million works of history.  Have either of you sold 5 million of your books so far?

 

12:10:01;16 AK:  Alan sold five million today.

 

12:10:04;12 DB:  That’s good.  How do your react to that?  That so much of the popular understanding of history in America and these important parts are shaped by individuals like a Bill O’Reilly who’s not a fool.  He’s a graduate of the Kennedy School at Harvard.  He’s a smart person but how do you react to that?

 

12:10:21;13 AK:  I do have days in which I find myself somewhat dismayed that Bill O’Reilly has sold 5 million copies but I’ll tell you I don’t think Bill O’Reilly is the most influential historian in the United States.  I think even if you are talking about popular history I think that most readers are able to differentiate between history as entertainment and history as scholarship

 

12:11:26:09 DB:  I looked back at the last 50 years of Pulitzers and Bancrofts Bancroft Prizes, the real one not the and there are some very interesting patterns.  Particularly that it’s not until the 1960s really that until about 50 years ago there’s not a book about, specifically focused on slavery or the narratives of African Americans that wins either a Bancroft or a Pulitzer until the 1960s.  Once we get into the sixties and we have some seminal works in the late sixties that won Pulitzers and there begins to be a real pattern particularly around race and civil rights.

Native American history in the west has come to the fore even more recently but now I was a little surprised to see that I think in the last seven years, five of the last seven years there’s been a Bancroft Prize awarded to someone writing about the west or Native Americans specifically.  So we really had a great sea change in terms of that. 

 

12:16:23;02 AT:  You are entirely right that there was a concept in the fifties and even into the sixties that real American history was about whit e people constructing the institutions of the republic.  And the stories of the disposition of native peoples and the stories of the enslaved men of African Americans were side lights that belonged to specialized subcategories.  And those specialized subcategories have come into the center of the story.  I think what I’m trying to do in Internal Enemy is not to push out political history of the early republic, a lot of this is about the political history of the early republic.  But it’s telling that political history of the early republic with society brought in and a society in which slavery is a very powerful force.  So I think in the future I hope there’s all sorts of different types of history including military history.  But I also hope that we don’t get back to the point where we think slavery is something exceptional or the disposition of native peoples is something exceptional in American history.  These are central stories in American history and you can’t understand the whole without them in it. 

 

AK:  what I’ve tried to do in this book is write about the way in which a story of dispossession, a story of massacre is not simply Native American history but American history.  That this is part of a national narrative and that it needs to be woven into that narrative as a central story rather than a peripheral story. 

 

DB:  The last thing I’ll raise with you.  We often hear people talk about the lessons of history.  If we don’t know our history then we’re doomed to repeat it, the bad parts I guess.  Historians tend to shy a bit away from that notion that lessons of history oftentimes, yet we are in a country that on the one hand has an obsession with history in many respects but at times it seems perhaps doesn’t absorb the lessons of history all that well.  Right at the moment we’re at the midst of a reengaging in an international conflict in a military way that arguably has some overtones to it of how we as a country and society don’t seem to remember how difficult it is to pacify a place of turmoil where there are different kinds of people with different value sets in a purely militaristic approach to that, may well, rather than take care of things neatly, may well set in place a hundred years of misrememberance and conflict.

 

AT:  I think historians are translators, cultural translators between the past and a present that’s constantly changing.  That often doesn’t lend itself to people who say well what is the lesson.  What’s the lesson of the Vietnam War?  I think the lesson is that situations that the United States could get involved in militarily and in another country are always going to be far more complicated, unpredictable and probably will redound negatively more than policy makers imagined or pundits imagine or could imagine.  That’s probably the bottom line prediction you could make. 

 

12;23:08;03 AK:  I’m the son of a holocaust survivor and so I grew up hearing stories at the dinner table and learned very, very young about the way in which my family had been forged in a historical moment.  And I think that’s true of all people and also of societies.  And I think that may be a lesson that can be more universally applicable because it’s a lesson that’s more dynamic and flexible because it allows people to understand that history is both individuated and individual and also can have communal repercussions.

 

12:25:31:29 DB:  So maybe the lesson of history for the present is it’s a lot more complicated than you expect it to be.

 

AK:  Always

 

DB:  This has been a fascinating conversation.  Thank you for being with us. 

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