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Old Lions Department: Historian Bernard Weisberger at Age 95


Bernard Weisberger, 95, progressive historian and BillMoyers.com contributor, has been called “truly a mensch” by his friend of 58 years, Walter Nugent, and dubbed “a history doyen” by HNN, which ran a tribute to him a few years ago in honor of the example he set as a public historian. Bernie, as his friends call him, taught American history at the University of Chicago and the University of Rochester, where he was chair of the department. His 1959 article in the Journal of Southern History, “The Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography,” received the Charles Ramsdell Prize and is considered a standard in the study of the Reconstruction period. He has written many books and worked on documentaries with Bill Moyers and Ken Burns. For a decade he wrote the In the News column for American Heritage Magazine, where he did what we try to do at HNN: put the news into historical perspective.

Bernie took some time out of his day to answer some questions. Here are his in-depth and candid responses:

What indispensable tool did you use throughout your career that helped you most of all.

Well, curiosity and imagination ought to be in every historian’s toolbox, but for me the most important tool has simply been my ability to write clearly and, within the limits of sticking strictly to facts as far as they can be known, colorfully and provocatively enough to hold a reader’s attention. I have made no new contributions to the field, no fresh interpretation, no discovery of long-buried source materials, but I have tried to connect the general public audience with the panorama of history, combining what skill I have as a narrator with my academic training (nor do I claim to be the only historian trained in that way to   do so.) It’s not part of any larger intellectual purpose—the only reason for “doing history” for me is that given by Herodotus centuries ago: “that the deeds of men be not blotted out by time.” So, writing well gave me access to editors and publishers and through them to the big world “out there” to tell historical stories that had interested me and I thought might interest them. It wasn’t for pure entertainment any more than a good novel, play or movie is pure entertainment, but provokes thoughts and reactions that become incorporated into individual personalities, lives and understandings. That’s what art does and I think of writing history as an art—one of the “humanities” rather than a “social science.”

Take me through the best day of your life as a historian.

Well, as I’ve been writing history since my first article around 1950,  that amounts to  thousands of days doing what historians usually do, sitting in our offices or in libraries, reading things written by the people I’m studying—the fun part—or by other historians about them.  I’ve never made exciting discoveries of new materials or had any adventurous research travels. My best days are when I find a thread around which to organize the material I’m collecting. OK, then, I’ll pick the day in 1987 when I was working on my biography of the LaFollette family, was temporarily living in Washington in a rented room with a family, a few blocks’ walk from the Madison Building of the Library of Congress.  So on this particular Spring day, after I rose, took my breakfast and did a 5 mile run on the Mall, I settled down with a lot of folders containing the family correspondence. They were all fabulous letter writers and most importantly, saved them all—there were around 25,000 of them if I recall and I intended to read them all. My method of research was and still is  highly disorganized—I just wade into a pile of manuscripts or documents and begin reading and taking notes without quite knowing where I’m going until themes begin to emerge.  On this particular day the light bulb suddenly went on.  

Robert La Follette the elder saw himself as a crusader against the evils in the world, especially corrupt politics. His wife Belle shared that faith, and both of them imparted it to their four children, two daughters and two sons. The oldest, Flora (called “Fola” after a childish mispronunciation became habitual) tried to express the family sense of mission in theater; the two sons followed “Dad” into politics, one, Robert Jr.,  eventually inheriting “Old Bob”’s seat in the Senate and Philip occupying the post of governor of Wisconsin for two terms, just as  “Dad” had done before his own move to the Senate. Mary, the youngest, was never directly in politics, but like the older siblings, was touched and transformed by her childhood training of “forging armor for the struggle.”  All four were marked and guided to their sometimes sad ends by the wish to emulate their parents, whom they virtually worshipped. Once I saw this picture, it was a breakthrough. OF course I still read everything, but I knew where each piece would fit into the story as I saw it, and the book emerged with title THE LA FOLLETTES OF WISCONSIN: Love and Politics in Progressive America.  It’s still one of my favorite “children.” So on that day I walked home murmuring to myself “I got my story; I got my story,” had a drink and dinner at an Italian restaurant on SE Pennsylvania Ave, and went to bed happy.

Of  all the events in world history which one comes to mind now as one of the most important, intellectually stimulating,  eternally relevant events?

Oh, boy, you’re talking to a member of a generation that has seen an awful lot!   When I was born, commercial radio and aviation, movies and mass produced automobiles were still in their infancy. The first World War was just over, having knocked the idea of a permanently improving and progressive future on the head, plus opening the exhausted nations of the world, the losers and winners alike, to revolutionary currents that produced totalitarian Fascist and Communist states.  My parents’ generation in the U.S. in 1918 thought we had seen the worst, and little did they suspect what lay in store for them and the world only 21 years later.  More and more devastating war and chaos, the Holocaust and the Bomb. These last two are not  exactly “intellectually stimulating” in any positive sense, but they have certainly provoked  deep and serious consideration of the future of humanity  and its capacity for evil, for discovery and mastery of Nature, and what the possible combination of those two may produce for us if we don’t or can’t reform some of our basic institutions. So I’ll nominate those two—and omigosh, how could I forget the landing on the moon. BUT for the “true sense of awe”  I want to go on to the next question.

When was the last time you experienced a true sense of awe towards something that happened in your life or witnessed? 

I think that the most awe-inspiring happening in my lifetime was the breakthrough in genetics to discovering the DNA code, putting the power to clone or modify the natural characteristics of species of made-to-order plants and animals and human beings.  It has amazing potential, but it frightens me terriblly. Prior to the DNA era, plants and animals  could already be modified by selective breedings over many generations. Trying to apply those early techniques to people, however, opened a door that should have remained locked.  There was a widespread belief that bad behavioral traits like crime and laziness  were caused by mental deficiency, which could be inheritable. Hence there arose a pseudo “science” called eugenics that argued in the following way: “Intelligence” could be objectively measured by tests. When low intelligence was  found in the second or third generation of families, then such “idiots” or “morons” or “feeble-minded” should be sterilized and eventually only intelligent and productive and forward-looking humans would be left.  

I’m sorry to say that many Progessives believed in this, just as their conservative adversaries did, and just as almost all white Americans in every walk of life and shade of thought  believed that there were entire “races”  hereditarily doomed to inferiority and menial employments. In the event, laws were passed in many states and thousands of innocent men and women suffered mandatory sterilization. Only after the Nazis enthusiastically embraced this “race science” and used it to try to exterminate not only the Jews, but other groups of the “unfit” like gypsies and homosexuals, did the practice of sterilization wither away in the United States although it had been upheld by the Supreme Court as constitutionally allowed in a case in the 1920s. And that  is why I don’t want to trust humans with decisions about how to use these new powers.  It is argued that they can work towards the good by providing cures for many diseases that afflict us, but I hate to contemplate the genetically created Frankenstein’s monsters that a mad dictator could unleash. No thanks.

I pause to add a short genuflection to the invention of the computer, which has increased the mathematical and intellectual capabilities of the human mind in the way that the Industrial Revolution multiplied the force of human muscle.  Instantaneous communication has already brought us the Internet with its whole train of consequences, and has enormously reduced the time  needed for the calculations that underlie space travel, which I personally don’t think of as very useful, but that’s neither here nor there—it’s dazzling like a high wire act, but I can’t see it as more than entertainment, sorry. Moreover I am scared of the possibility of weaponizing space, which come to think of it is already in progress with ICBMS.

When was the last time you read a historic work that truly impressed you?

Let me think. In my freshman year at Columbia we read Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War.  The tragic mistakes of Athens and other city-states recurred in my mind during our  hubristic misadventure in Vietnam. Then, in grad school in the late 1940s, for a paper on historians and historical methods, I chose to read Francis Parkman’s  multivolume history of the  17th and 18th century battle between Great Britain and France for control of North America that ended in victory for the British in 1756. It was, and is, beautiful reading and I guess he is still something of a role model to me in style, even as it is stuffed with Parkman’s 19th century upper class Bostonian prejudices against the Catholic religion and the Indian “savages” who fought bravely and cruelly for both sides. That’s the last time, and here I am more than 60 years later.  

There are a couple of multi-volume works I think I’d still like to read if I can organize myself enough to do it in faithfully observed quotas of pages every day.  My model here would be a friend who got through Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by an hour every morning before starting the day’s activities. I think I might like to emulate that, or another more local classic, Henry Adams’s History of the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison. I’ll see if, starting soon, I can do that first. Both qualify as “impressive” for the power of their analysis (even when they show the prejudices of the era in which they were written,) the ways in which they provoke meditation, and of course the simple grandeur of old fashioned beautiful English, of which I am unashamedly a fan.

Is there an idea, proverb, fundamental concept, or even a good old fashioned hunch, that gives you a sense of calmness about the world (and modern society) as it is moving forward into the future?   

I wish I could say that with conviction but I can’t. The resurgence of right wing fanaticism in places in Europe remind me too much of what I watched in the press and listened to on the radio in the 1930s is troubling enough, and the emergence of a version of it here is, to put it mildly, shattering. Yes, I know that Donald Trump actually got a smaller percentage of the popular vote than Clinton, and I don’t like the Electoral College either, but his win is legitimate under the rules. I take no comfort in the truth that almost half of the electorate voted for this totally unfit narcissist, bigot, et cetera, et cetera – you can fill in the rest—for their nation’s leader.  It makes a mockery of our long self-image as, at root, a sane and compassionate people. And when I see what Trump, with the help of a Republican Party taken over by the reactionary Tea Party, is inflicting on us already—the destruction by fund slashes of the agencies of government devoted to scientific discovery chief among them, the appeal to racial hatred not even disguised as dog whistles, the sword-rattling and public attacks on other nations, even those allied with us—I just can’t go on with the list. 

Yes, I know that Congress is denying him some of his cherished objectives like full repeal and replacement of ACA, but he’s not through fighting yet by a long way,  His administrative disarray may make some commentators think he will self-destruct but that means absolutely nothing to his loyalists and even if enough Republicans finally got the sense to abandon him and the Democrats flipped Congress in 2018 (highly unlikely) he will have done enough permanent damage to our institutions to prolong our slow hemorrhaging of democracy.  I didn’t know I would spend my last years watching it happens (and doing what little I can to resist.)

BUT, having said that I do have to acknowledge proverbs such as “this, too, shall pass” (but not necessarily for something better!) I agree with the fundamental concept that no one can really see far into the future. No, I have no “hunch” that calms me in the face of our present disaster, and quite the contrary think we are in for as much as a decade or so of subjection to the vile ideas implanted from many sources in the minds of the Trump-loving millions.  Ideas change slowly, and even more so do prejudices that stem from our guts and upbringing, and not our thinking minds. But looking beyond twenty or thirty years?  Nobody knows. Assuming that the planet is still sustaining some form of existence that doesn’t involve constant suffering from the miseries of natural disasters, which would tend to strengthen the flight to would-be strong man saviors—a big assumption – things might shift back in the direction of intelligence and freedom.  That, I guess, is what keeps me from spending moments of banging my head against the wall and screaming  until the attendants with the straitjacket come to take me away and give the neighbors some peace.

Do you have any humorous stories to tell about the intersection of history and old age in your life?

Well, the big time loss of short term memory among us very senior folks (as opposed to occasional lapses) is the source of endless jokes about seniors who start to do a job, see that they’re missing the tool, go to the garage and find the tool but then can’t remember what they needed it for, see the car and are reminded of an errand at the drug store, drive there, can’t remember what the errand was, and so on and so forth, come home and park in their neighbor’s garage—you can fill in the blanks. Sometimes they’re just short and pithy like “My grandfather is losing his memory, which can be annoying if he opens the door to urinate, especially when I’m driving.” I guess you can make a case for comedy when it happens to an historian who is always living in the past and can remember the dates of Roman emperors or American tariff laws but not where he or she left the fountain pen they  put down five minutes ago.

What continues to drive you today?

It may sound odd, but I think the word is “habit.” I have spent my life as an historian and writer, and though I am far from a workaholic and likewise a sinner in the matter of procrastination, somehow the notion of just sitting back and enjoying the latter part of my life without any obligation, even self-imposed, can’t  sit comfortably with me. At the moment I am certain that I will not undertake another full-length book; too much of a long slog.  But I’ve got to write something  every day to feel that I’m not entirely “over the hill.” I dream of long days of listening to music,  practicing and playing my recorder privately, reading voraciously, writing long reflective letters and enjoying good meals (cooked by someone else!) plus wines, beers, and whiskies in moderation.  Travel is beyond me now (without regrets)—moving around in airports and cities is just too physically demanding. I can’t walk more than a couple of miles without fatigue, and curbs and staircases are a challenge. I try to enjoy what I have and not whine about what time takes from me.  

BUT I need the feeling that there’s something that ought to be a duty.  So I make up  assignments. The major one is to get as far as I can with a personal memoir of my life at least in the first twenty-three years after 1945, until the turning point of a divorce and relocation to New York. I try to do that for at least a couple of hours a day (and often fall short). I likewise continue the study of Spanish on my own and fix a schedule for myself of reading a Spanish novel for at least an hour five days a week—and then discussing it with a Spanish tutor and friend.  I try to set aside a specific hour for correspondence, and right now am contemplating a specific hour of reading some classical historical work (see my answer to Question 4). I obviously can’t achieve all these goals while going through the ordinary motions of living like eating meals, shopping, entertaining visiting relatives with my lovely wife of 25 years (second marriage for both of us)  doing necessary errands and repairs, and so on down the unexciting list. But I really do need a schedule of “duties” to propel me into a day.  And to get back to writing, it’s clear that answering this questionnaire is  turning into a partial autobiography and I love it.  I also love writing posts for Bill Moyers’s website—about the only website for which I write now—and get the same kick out of seeing my name and words, as readable and memorable as I can make them, in print (or digital characters) just as I did when I published my first short story in my high school magazine in 1936, when I was fourteen.

What advice do you have for the younger generation?

Uh-uh, I won’t bite on this one.  Every May and June at literally thousands of Commencements across this broad land, speakers are giving mainly platitudinous advice to the graduates.  Sometimes when the speakers are professional entertainers, which happens when, in a recent development, students are allowed to pick the orator of the day, the advice is funny.  I can’t add anything original to the pile. I suppose what I might say if forced, would be “You never know where life is going to take you.” As I told HNN Editor Rick Shenkman long ago (he was my student at Vassar), “Life is crazy and people do damn fool things.” Don’t be cruel, don’t be greedy, play fair, try to be the best person you can be. Regardless of gender, be a mensch.  If you don’t know that Yiddish word, I’ll supply my own definition. A mensch  is someone who does the right thing even when nobody’s watching and there’s no reward of any kind attached.”

Are you often concerned with how you will be remembered as a historian?

Really not very much.  I did write an article on Reconstruction that was considered important enough to appear on many required reading lists, which was pleasant for me to think of. But it was back in 1959 and many newer interpretations have surfaced since then.  It’s the natural way historical study works. I’ll be happy to be included in lists of young historians emerging in the nineteen-fifties, and just as happy if perchance some of my writings give instruction and pleasure to nonprofessional readers.

End of Q&A

If you are a historian who receives training in your mid-20s, chances are you won’t be honing your skills and interpreting the past as you see fit for another eighty or so years. As demonstrated by their continued scholarship for online publications, Bernie continues to remain active in the discipline that helped shape and mold the way he sees the world.

Bernie, an old lion of history, may be “long in the tooth,” but his long-standing devotion to history keeps him roaming the savannah, scanning past and present terrains. The late Australian historian Lorna McDonald, at 100, told The Morning Bulletin, "there's always something new to learn. You're never too old to learn."

The same goes for Bernie Weisberger, age 95, and Vaughn Bornet, age 100, I wager. (I interviewed Vaughn here.)