part three of three
We’ve been talking with ECW’s Brian Matthew Jordan, whose book Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War was chosen as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History last month. In the final part of my interview with Brian, I ask him about his writing process, and how being a writer relates to being a historian.
CM: Tell me more about the writing of the book, because I think it’s a beautifully written book. Aside from the fantastic history, as a work of literature, I think it is a wonderful book.
BMJ: I believe very strongly in the power of narrative, and that being a good historian means being a good writer.
I was fortunate to have a number of really great mentors along the way. I did my undergraduate work with Alan Guelzo, who I think is one of the finest writers in the profession today. I think it’s fair to say you can hear his voice echoing as I was writing, as somebody I deeply admire and have tried to emulate in my writing.
I think David Blight, certainly. He hasn’t commanded the popular audience that Alan Guelzo has, but there’s another very talented writer.
And one of the key moments was when I took a graduate seminar with John Demos, who is a historian of Colonial America at Yale. The thing he emphasized to us the most was that our prose had to sing. That was more important in some places than argument was. Just taking time to care about writing, and taking time to care about specific verb choices and character development and really painting on a very broad tapestry.
And I think those three guys—Guelzo, Blight, and Demos—really made me care about writing. Not that I didn’t care about it before, but I think they instilled in me a sense that our craft is fundamentally about that. There’s no reason for a poorly written history book. It’s the most exciting subject I know, and it’s our obligation to tell it in a compelling way. Those three guys had a profound influence on me.
CM: It does seem like you do concentrate on more than just conveying information, but conveying information in a way that’s captivating. You sound very much like a fiction writer when you talk about things like “character development” and “verb choice” and things like that.
BMJ: It’s interesting. when you look at the number of reviewers and even some of the listservs that have cited the book as an example of this kind of new trend toward “history of emotion”—an “emotional history.” And that was something I hadn’t consciously thought I was doing, but I think it was probably a byproduct of the writing because this was not a story I could tell or would ever want to tell in a flat, academic way. There was such dimensionality to my characters, and such pathos and tragedy that I had to write it that way.
I remember Blight telling me, when I had decided to draw the chapter epigraphs from Homer, he said, “You’re a little sure of yourself there if you’re drawing your epigraphs from Homer.” (laughs) By the end—probably one of the best compliments I got from him—he said, “I think you deserved, by the end, to draw your epigraphs from The Odyssey.”
CM & BMJ: (laughs)
CM: So, as a historian, as a writer, how has this process helped you learn? How are you changed? How are you different?
BMJ: Gosh, that’s a good question.
I’m going to teach a class on historical methods in the next academic year, and I think the book has really made me think a lot more seriously about the nature of our craft and that it’s really all about—it really sounds terribly simplistic, but it really is—all about these people of the past and about our power to breathe life into their lives that are no more. Right?
I think it’s taught me that we should always have empathy for the people of the past, no matter what. We should have empathy and do our best to put ourselves in their shoes.
You know, this was the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done. The most exciting research I’d ever done. But it was also the most heartbreaking work I’d ever done. I think it also—I have a tendency to get really excited about the Civil War and make it all about the drums and trumpets and go out onto the battlefield and make it all about that. But reading about their stories, and then trying to narrate them, I think it really kind of confirmed what I really already knew, but in a more profound way: the degree to which we sanitize the war and how easy it is to forget about the human dimension of it and how important that human dimension is.
CM: So what’s next?
BMJ: I’m working on a number of things. I’m working on a book of essays that I’m editing on Civil War veterans—Union and Confederate veterans, white and black, north and south—so that’s the immediate project. The big project is a full-scale life of Benjamin Butler. It’s probably three or four years away. I’ve got most of the research done, but very little writing so far. He hasn’t been seriously done since the mid-60s, and I want to take another look at him, especially look at his postwar career and his career during Reconstruction, which I think have been slighted. by the previous biographers. So, a big, sweeping life of Ben Butler is the next big book.
CM: Well you’ve certainly chosen a colorful subject for yourself!
BMJ: Exactly! Exactly!
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[Since this interview, Brian has also agreed to write a book for the Emerging Civil War Series on the Battle of South Mountain and the capture of Harper’s Ferry in September 1862. We’re looking forward to more great reading from Brian ahead!]