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What I’m Reading: An Interview with Eric Foner

Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. He received his doctoral degree at Columbia under the supervision of Richard Hofstadter. He is one of only two persons to serve as president of the three major professional organizations: the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians. He has also been the curator of several museum exhibitions, including the prize-winning "A House Divided: America in the Age of Lincoln," at the Chicago Historical Society. His book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery won the Pulitzer, Bancroft, and Lincoln prizes for 2011. His latest book is Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

What books are you reading now?

I just finished Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion by Gareth Stedman Jones which came out last year, and I’m also reading—it actually hasn’t been published yet but the publisher sent me a copy—Richard White’s book coming out this Fall called The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (Oxford History of the United States).

What is your favorite history book?

That’s a tough one. Certainly, E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. Like many people, that had a very profound effect on me when I read it a long time ago (about half a century ago back in the 60s, I guess). W.E.B. Dubois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 is another one. I’m thinking of books which really helped to shape my thinking and how I write about history. Those two probably had a bigger impact than any others I can think of.

Why did you choose history as your career?

Well, there’s two reasons, I suppose. One is I actually started out in college as a science major. I wanted to be an astronomer, I was taking a lot of physics, advanced calculus. I guess, to be honest, I ran out of ability at some point. Advanced calculus kind of did me in. But more than that, I was in college and then graduate school in the 1960s, in the midst of a lot of social turmoil and anti-war protests and activism in the civil rights revolution. Like many people at that time in my generation, I sort of wanted to figure out where this had come from in American history because the turmoil in the streets couldn’t be explained—let’s put it that way—by the kind of history I had been taught in high school which was all very much the “consensus mode” which sort of argued that there hadn’t been any real conflict in American history. So one wondered where all this came from if that were the case. Also, my father and my uncle Philip Foner were both historians. I grew up in a household in which history was talked about a lot and so I had imbibed that interest in history early on, although as I said, my initial aim was to be a scientist, but subliminally I guess I was always programmed for history as well.

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

I think the number one thing is open-mindedness, actually. Intellectual curiosity, the willingness to go down paths that you maybe didn’t expect and haven’t yet researched. The willingness to change your mind or to reconsider or entertain new ideas, even ones that contradict some of your preconceptions. Second of all, unfortunately, there’s just no alternative to really hard work and a lot of time. There’s no substitute for in-depth research, whether you do it in the old-fashioned way like I wrote my first books—going to archives, writing notes in pencil—or nowadays, searching the internet and databases. It doesn’t matter how you do it. It’s the depth of the research, the extent of the research. You have to really be willing to spend time… and that’s not the whole story, you have to have insight also, but without that dedication, so to speak, to the craft, you’re not going to be that successful.

Which historical time period do you find to be the most fascinating?

Most of my historical writing has been on the Civil War period, defined broadly. In other words, my first book was on the Republican party before the Civil War. I had written a lot on Reconstruction, Lincoln, emancipation. I bridged out, I wrote about Tom Paine and the colonial era, the Revolutionary era, and of course I wrote a textbook on American history which required me to learn a lot about the eras and issues that I hadn’t really studied in great depth. But I certainly find the mid-19th century, the Civil War, slavery, Reconstruction, not only fascinating but eternally relevant to our society today.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

There were two that I had when I was an undergraduate and then a graduate student at Columbia. And they’re very, very different which is why I choose two. One was James P. Shenton who was a magnificent lecturer and classroom teacher—not a very productive scholar, someone who really devoted himself to teaching, to students, to encouraging students, and really an example of how a teacher can inspire students’ interests. The first course I ever took in history at the college-level was his year-long seminar on the Civil War era, the coming of the Civil War, Civil War reconstruction, and I’m still studying that, so it shows you how Shenton had this influence on me.

Then of course there was my PhD supervisor Richard Hofstadter who was not as, how shall I put it, dynamic a teacher as Shenton. He wasn’t a great lecturer but he was a magnificent writer. I learned an enormous amount about writing and about formulating historical ideas from Hofstadter, and the kinds of issues that I have devoted my career to are Hofstadter issues: Political culture, political ideology, the relations between politics and society, I mean, that’s the kind of thing which Hofstadter inspired me to study, so somehow the combination of the two of those would be my favorite teachers.

What are your hopes for world and social history as a discipline?

There is no single way to study history, that’s one of the wonderful things about history as a discipline. There’s no single, true way of doing history. There are many, many legitimate ways to study it, but my hope is that history will remain relevant and history will continue as it should and has in the past to inform the citizenry about our society, about our history and our problems, about our future, and to reach an audience of both students and people outside the academy. I think historians have an obligation to try to do that, and I hope we can continue along those lines.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I have thousands of books in my office at Columbia. I’ve got three or four thousand. They’re not rare books, they’re not collectible books, probably just about every book I own is also in the Columbia library—it’s a great library. I do have a collection of these artifacts, but artifacts of a peculiar kind. Students give me things, often in a humorous way—little bobbleheads of historical figures: Lincoln, Grant, Thaddeus Stevens—souvenirs from places they’ve visited that I’ve talked about in class. I have a boll of cotton someone sent me from Mississippi. I have souvenirs from Native American reservations, and so I have a little collection of stuff. None of it is valuable but it’s sort of just little artifacts of American history that take up a shelf or two in my office. I have pictures of when I visited Graceland down near Memphis when I lectured at the University of Memphis. I was taking a tour of Elvis’s house in Graceland, so things like that, little memorabilia of Americana.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

I think what is rewarding is that some of my books, anyway, seem to have had a significant impact on how people think about American history, both in and out of the profession in the academy. What’s rewarding is to feel that you have actually—you know, I’m sort of at the end of my career in the sense that I’ve just retired from teaching recently—that you’ve made a difference, so to speak, in how people think about the areas of American history that I’ve written about, and particularly my book on Reconstruction. I find it very rewarding that many people who are inspired by it in some way, particularly people who are activists trying to improve race relations in the United States today, deal with some of the deep problems we have. Very frequently I hear from people who have read Reconstruction and they tell me that it inspired them try to take action today, which I think is great.

What’s frustrating, of course, is that most people in this country, although often very interested in history, don’t have a very clear sense of our past (and I’m not blaming them, maybe it’s the fault of historians that we haven’t communicated better), but there’s a pretty wide gap between how historians understand the American past and how ordinary people do, and probably Reconstruction is the best example of that. There’s really a very wide gap between popular ideas—if any—often it’s just ignorance about Reconstruction and the way scholars talk about it, and so bridging that gap is something I think is always a challenge.

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

Enormously, in the sense that my PhD was written half a century ago, basically, and so since then, I’ve seen the rise of a whole new range of historical subjects: social history, labor history, African American history, the history of women. Of course, these existed in a much smaller way before, but now they’re major areas of historical study. In other words, the “cast of characters” that people study in American history has greatly expanded from when I was in college and graduate school. The kind of source material available to historians, thanks to the internet and digitalization, has exploded. There’s been far more accessible stuff than there used to be.

In a certain sense, maybe things haven’t changed quite as much as we might suggest. There’s still, as I said before, no alternative to the hard work of research, writing, conceptualization, etcetera. The computer won’t do that for us. Yet. I hope it never does. The thinking and writing about history probably isn’t all that different, even though the subject matter of history has changed and the source-base of history has changed.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

There’s a couple of things that I often repeat to my students. Oscar Wilde, I believe, said, “The only obligation we have to history is to rewrite it,” which I think is a good one. Ernest Renan, the 19th century French historian, said something to the effect of—this is a rough translation—“the historian is the enemy of the nation.” I often ask students, what does he mean by that? “The enemy of the nation.” Does that mean we’re traitors? No, what he’s saying is nations are built on myths, historical myths, and then the historian comes along and if he’s doing his job, shatters those myths, and often that makes the historian very unpopular. People like their myths but “myth” is not a good way of understanding how the society developed to where it is today.

Another saying, this goes back to Carl Becker, “History is what the present chooses to remember about the past.” In other words, he’s trying to tell us that history is created by the historian in a certain sense, the historical narrative is the creation of the historian. The facts of history are out there but the selection of facts and the merging of the facts into a narrative is an act of the historical imagination. It doesn’t just exist out there independently in the past.

My own saying, I don’t know if I invented this—perhaps I did—which I tell students is that “nothing is easier than finding what you are looking for.” In other words, that’s my plea to be open-minded. When you go to an archive, you have certain presuppositions but it’s very easy to find what you’re looking for and to ignore those things which don’t fit your assumptions, and you can’t do that. You have to, as they say, be open-minded enough to be willing to change your mind when you encounter countervailing evidence. Those things were on my mind because as it happens, I used to teach seminars, etc. I would start off the first session with a list of these quotations about history and ask students to discuss them and what they tell us about what we’re going to be doing that semester.

What are you doing next?

That remains to be seen. As I said, I retired from teaching pretty recently but somehow I’m very busy. I don’t know why, I don’t feel retired. I’m giving lectures in many places. I spent the whole month of March in China lecturing at universities there. I’m not sure what my next scholarly endeavor is going to be but I seem to be pretty busy just going around. Now we’re within the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction, so I receive many invitations to lecture at places about Reconstruction and why it’s important to American history. I also write book reviews and Op Eds and things, so I’m still poking along and I’m sure will turn to another book in awhile, but not quite at this moment.