On Being an American Historian
by David Herbert Donald
I was furious. After all, the book that I had written was not about some worthy but obscure 19th-century American figure, like Thomas Hart Benton or Benjamin Harrison. It was about Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest American President. In leading the North to victory in the Civil War, in abolishing slavery, and in preserving peace with the European powers during that conflict, he became a figure not merely of national but of international importance, admired by men as varied as Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King, Jr.. Leo Tolstoy called him "a Christ in miniature, a saint of humanity."
After brooding over my insult for several weeks, I grudgingly Conceded -- though only to myself -- that my snobbish London editor did have a point -- one which, unhappily, the miserable sales of the book in England reinforced. The problem with interesting a large foreign audience in a book on Lincoln was not, as the editor had thought, so much the subject as the presuppositions I had made in writing it. Addressing primarily an American audience, I had tacitly assumed some acquaintance with important events in U.S. history, like the Missouri Compromise and the Dred Scott decision, or at least a willingness to explore the intricacies of such issues as the Emancipation Proclamation or the Thirteenth Amendment. These expectations proved unrealistic.
I thought I had written about these matters as a historian, one who belonged to an international fraternity, which held a common set of assumptions and practiced much the same techniques, just as scientists of all nations do. I discovered instead that I was writing as an American historian. Indeed, I have concluded that all my books have shared this same trait: They are American books, written by an American historian.
It is not easy to define exactly what makes my writings distinctively American. The most obvious way is to point out that, with hardly an exception, they are about American subjects: the struggle between nationalism and sectionalism in 19th-century America; the American Civil War; the process of Reconstruction after that war. And all of my biographies have been about Americans, some of whom have had reputations so local that it is hard to think that they could interest any except American readers. William H. Herndon, Abraham Lincoln's colorful law partner and one of his earliest biographers, was a minor figure. Salmon P. Chase had only limited fame as an antislavery Ohio politician until he became Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury. Charles Francis Adams had perhaps a larger reputation as U. S. minister to Great Britain during the Civil War, but even he is remembered, if at all, as the son and the grandson of American Presidents. Charles Sumner, the powerful Massachusetts abolitionist Senator, longed to resemble a British aristocrat, but few Englishmen today could be expected even to recognize his name.
Still, the choice of a subject does not necessarily reveal a historian's nationality. After all, one of the best early biographies of Abraham Lincoln, which still has value, was written by an Englishman, Lord Charnwood. And Basil Liddell Hart, Colin Ballard, and G. F. R. Henderson -- all Englishmen -- have written some of the best military studies on the American Civil War. A massive work by an Italian historian, Raimondo Luraghi, is one of the best general histories of the Civil War.
Perhaps my use of language is a better indication that I not merely write about American subjects but that I am myself an American. I hope that I mostly use standard English -- but when the occasion arises I delight in distinctively American words and phrases. For instance, Lincoln in one of his messages to Congress spoke of secession as "rebellion sugar-coated" and said that in a certain engagement Confederate troops "turned tail and ran." Senator Sumner scolded him for debasing the English language -- but I quoted his lapses with great pleasure. I also take delight in some American neologisms. When Herndon wrote of Lincoln's complicated courtship of Mary Todd and of their off-and-on-again plans for a wedding, he headed his chapter "The Marriage Embrigglement." I have always thought that a better, and more distinctively American, word than "imbroglio," and I used it repeatedly. Similarly, whenever I can, I like to quote the vernacular language of uneducated Americans, which often has a force and a clarity that would be lost if they followed the rules of English grammar. I find something direct and compelling in a statement like that of Dennis Hanks, Lincoln's country cousin, who instructed Herndon on what to include in his Lincoln biography: "Now William Be Sure and have My Name very Conspikus and the work will gaw [i.e., go] of well."
In yet another way my American upbringing has affected the way I write history. An impartial observer, given the unenviable task of reappraising my long list of publications, which stretch from the 1940s to the present, might reasonably conclude that there has been no clear, coherent pattern in my books. In my early days as a historian, I was fascinated by the possibility of linking my discipline to sociology, and in a series of essays, published as Lincoln Reconsidered, tried to analyze the social origins of 19th-century American reform movements and of the Southern defense of slavery. Then I became deeply interested in psychology, and especially psychoanalysis, with the result that my biography of Charles Sumner became what one reviewer called the most completely Freudian biography he had ever read. About this time, though, I was attracted to new developments in quantitative history, and in The Politics of Reconstruction attempted to chart that period in a sequence of graphs. After this, I began reading literary criticism and wrote my biography of Thomas Wolfe, the 20th-century Southern novelist. Some of my colleagues have found these repeated shifts in subject matter and methodology confusing and even disturbing. My dear old friend, Arthur S. Link, who spent his entire distinguished scholarly career retracing the career of Woodrow Wilson, once chided me for frivolously changing my point of view. "David," he gently scolded, "your problem is that you are not a serious historian."
To this charge I must, to some extent plead guilty, because I have written about whatever interested me, using whatever tools came to hand, and I have written what I enjoyed writing, not what I -- or anybody else -- thought ought to be written. That, I think, is a distinctively American attitude. In my case it stemmed from my experiences on a prolonged bus trip, made during my years as a graduate student. Starting on the East Coast, I rolled and jostled along for hour after hour, day after day, as the bus took me and my fellow passengers across the Appalachian Mountains, through the industrial cities of the Middle West, across the interminable Great Plains, into the fantastically beautiful mountain country, until at last we arrived in California. From that adventure I date my love affair with the American landscape, in all its variety, The long trip forced me to understand the enormous expanse of our country and, in my meetings day after day with my fellow travelers of all races and both sexes, from all parts of the country, I came to recognize the infinite diversity of American life.
That diversity has extended to me -- as, of course, it has to so many other American writers -- enormous room for experimentation, in subject matter, in theme, and in method. There is no single dominant historiographical tradition; there is no one route that all aspiring historians need to follow. The very diversity of my writing is the best indication of how being an American has affected my career as a historian.
Yet within that diversity there is, I think, a hidden unity, which is also distinctively American -- or, at least, distinctive to the Southern United States, where I was born and raised. Whatever my method or subject matter -- whether I am attempting a quantitative study of the Reconstruction Congress or a literary deconstruction of the novels of Thomas Wolfe -- I have always attempted to tell a story that readers would find absorbing, with actors that they would think believable.
This tradition of story-telling has always been strong in the South. Nearly every family in my native Mississippi had its story-tellers -- its archivists, so to speak, of family memories and legends. Often, these were elderly women, whose recollections seemed to stretch back to almost the beginning of time. They knew all the family stories: how great-great grandfather had brought his wife and three children across the Appalachian Mountains into the Mississippi Valley, barely escaping marauding Indians; how great-grandfather had enlisted in the Confederate Army and had fought until he was wounded at the battle of Chickamauga; how grandfather had shocked the family by marrying a Yankee -- so called because she was born north of the Mason-Dixon line. As I was growing up, I listened to the epics the narrators recited, recounting -- in minute detail and always in the same words -- precisely what each figure in the story had worn, had said, and had done.
These early, unrecognized practitioners of oral history were story-tellers who related their tales with enormous flair and great gusto. They did not simply list facts; they constructed their stories with artistry, leading always to a dramatic climax. It was this powerful oral tradition that underlay so much of the best of modern Southern literature. It provided the basic structure for William Faulkner's greatest novels. And it was this same tradition that gives verisimilitude to Eudora Welty's best short stories.
Inevitably this tradition affected my own approach toward history -- as it has affected so many of the best historians of the South. Though I was trained in the best "scientific" methods of historical research, taught to deal with vast impersonal forces like "class," "caste," "capitalism," "feudalism," and the like, I found that when I actually sat down to write, my mind slipped into the old patterns of narration, of making readers see and understand real-life figures in the past.
Even in the mechanics of writing I find myself influenced by this distinctively American -- perhaps Southern American -- way of telling a story. I compose at the keyboard of my computer, pausing as I complete each sentence to read it aloud, making sure that both the sound and the sense convey the meaning that I want. If I have failed, I delete the offending sentence and start again. Sometimes I may sound out a dozen versions of a phrase or sentence before I get it just right. Occasionally this practice has led to amusing results. Once, when I was in my study writing my biography of Thomas Wolfe, two friendly carpenters were making repairs in an adjacent room. Presently they took a coffee-break in the back yard, just out of my sight but not quite out of my hearing.Asked the older carpenter in a worried tone: "Do you think he's all right?"
"I guess so," replied the younger, "but he does sit at that machine for hours and hours talking to himself."
I may not be "all right" -- but I like to think that my story-telling carries on a great tradition. And it is a distinctively American tradition.