With more than 40 writers scheduled to speak during our Seminar this January, it can be difficult for a reader to know where to start. Sure, there are the classics and prize-winners, like William Kennedy’s Ironweed and David Levering Lewis’s two-volume biography of W.E.B. DuBois; and recent books like Joyce Carol Oates’s Wild Nights! and Gore Vidal’s Selected Essays. But what of the hundreds you won’t have time for? The exquisite pastime of reading can suddenly grow so stressful!
With this in mind, we’ve asked our panelists which books they would recommend from among their own works and those of their peers. We begin this recurring feature with historians Eric Foner and Jill Lepore, and novelist and critic Thomas Mallon.
• Eric Foner has been president of each of the three major professional historical organizations: the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, and Society of American Historians. He told us about two of his books:
“Number one: The Story of American Freedom (1999): The title is meant to imply that freedom is both an actual history and a mythology in this country (for what is a story anyway?), which links perhaps to the theme of history and fiction.
Number two: Forever Free (2006): Because no period of American history is more mythologized or fictionalized in popular imagination than the Civil War and Reconstruction.”
• Thomas Mallon is an Ingram Merrill Award winner, and a regular contributor to The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Book Review. In our recent interview, he revealed his favorites by fellow Session 2 panelists William Kennedy and Gore Vidal:
“Politics is done very badly– and not all that often– in American historical fiction. But William Kennedy’s Roscoe (2002), all about long-ago municipal machinations in Albany, is a terrific novel, better and more layered than The Last Hurrah (written by Edwin O’Connor in 1956), which I suppose would be its closest cousin. And I think Lincoln (2000) is the most artful of all Gore Vidal’s novels, a brilliant exercise in multiple viewpoints and tonal control. Vidal’s contribution to this whole genre is quite crucial and under-credited. He brought wit into American historical fiction– a quality it had been devoid of throughout the first half of the 20th century, when most of it was elephantine costume drama.”
• From Jill Lepore, chair of Harvard’s History and Literature Program and a regular contributor to The New Yorker whose novel, Blindspot, written jointly with panelist Jane Kamensky, is due out in December, we learned about two of her history books:
“The Name of War (1998) is a history of a seventeenth-century war that’s also a meditation on how we write about war, scrutinizing what’s at stake in how war stories are told, what truths those stories uncover, and what truths they mask.
New York Burning (2005) is an inquiry into the ‘Great Negro Plot’ of 1741, in which New York City’s slaves were tried, and burned at the stake. It looks at the asymmetry of the historical record. Can coerced slave ‘confessions’ be trusted?”