Monday, April 20, 2015

Cokie Roberts on women's history, the Civil War, and "heavy old toads"

All of us who listen to NPR grow to be familiar with the voices of the anchors and journalists whom we hear regularly, but perhaps none is as well-known as that of Cokie Roberts. She is also no stranger to audiences of ABC News, where she has been broadcasting for more than 25 years. And, as though her career as a journalist weren't impressive enough, she is also an accomplished author, having written, among other things, two books of the history of women in the late 18th century, Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty. Now she's written a new work about the women of Washington D.C. during the years before and during the Civil War, called Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868. We're absolutely thrilled that she's coming to be coming to Porter Square Books next week, and will be doing two events with us – a tea at the Charles Hotel from 4 to 5:30, and then an evening at the Regent Theater in Arlington at 7. We hope you'll come to one or both. In preparation for the visit, PSB owner David Sandberg had a few minutes on the phone with Cokie last week, the day before publication day, to talk a little about the book.

DS: You work simultaneously as a journalist who is concerned with what's happening right now, and as a historian who's doing a very different type of research and a very different type of reporting. How do you navigate the back-and-forth?

CR: I actually don’t think it's that different. Even though I can't interview dead people, I can read their mail, which I can't do with living people. But it is the same kind of trying to know them and know what they were thinking. And for that, you read what they've written, both in letters and diaries -- and these women, a lot of them, published as well. And then the newspapers at the time -- and that is really the great serendipity of this book. I did not realize that I would have access to the same news they were reading. Now the entire New York Times archive is online, and there are a couple of excellent websites that give you newspapers from the early 19th century on. And the whole newspaper, where you see the ads and all of that, which are so interesting and so much fun. So I feel like in some ways it's not all that different. The one way that is different that is great is that they can't argue with you.

DS: In terms of the availability of sources: you moved 70 years further in the future with this book. Did you have a lot more available to you?

CR: Yes, absolutely yes. For two reasons: one, there just is more available from that period and as I say, also, these women did do some writing themselves. But the other reason is that because I wrote the earlier books, the university libraries and historical societies and historical homes now are acquainted with my work, and so they are very, very helpful. And digitization is the other huge thing. So it's both a difference in time that I'm researching, but also a difference in time in the time that I'm writing.

DS: So in terms of the former, do you think women made a lot of progress during those 70 years?

CR: Well, they certainly did during the war, which is the thesis of the book. But in the course of those 70 years it was kind of back and forth because the Revolutionary women were out there, and had to be, and then there was kind of this 19th century "be delicate and be at home." They were still politically interesting and interested, but the war certainly turned them into activists in a huge way.

DS: But history, though -- looking who's writing the books. I think most of the books you just mentioned, as well as yourself, Jill Lepore, Megan Marshall -- most of the people writing the history of women in this country are still women. Doris Goodwin writes about men, but most male historians don't write about women. Does that have to change also?

CR: Probably yes. Yes, I do think that has to change. There's an exception in Paul Nagel who wrote about the Adams women, but he didn't really like them.

DS: You must have contemporary historians whom you admire, or whose work you rely on. Who do you think are some of the people writing the best history today?

CR: Well, it depends on the subject, but I certainly relied on both Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals and James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom for this book. This book is set in Washington and there are also two very good books that are about Washington in the Civil War, one is Ernest Furgurson's Freedom Rising and the other was the classic, which is Margaret Leech's 1941 book Reveille in Washington. But she cites no sources, which makes me crazy. Because now I know so much about it, I can figure out where most of that sourcing is, but that doesn’t do it.

DS: Part of the point of all three of the books, the history books that you've written, is that these are people who are really important to our history and yet their stories don't get told.

DS: How are we doing? How many more books have to be written before you feel that the women's stories are viewed with the same status [as those of the men]?

CR: I actually do think we're doing better. When I wrote Founding Mothers, aside from a couple of good Abigail Adams biographies, there really weren't modern, good biographies of some of these women and since then there's a good Martha Washington, an excellent Dolley Madison, a few on Elizabeth Bonaparte -- there's a lot more happening. But is there forever to go? Sure. It's just unbelievable. We've essentially said that half of the human race doesn’t count in our history. Which means we've distorted our history.

DS: And what about fiction? When you're reading for entertainment and not work.

CR: You know, it's interesting because working on this book -- I'm always late. And I was doing so much research that I didn’t really allow myself to read fiction. The only fiction I read was that fiction -- you know, Capitola and The Hidden Hand. Written by E.D.E.N. Southworth -- her name was something like Emily Danielle whatever, and her byline was E.D.E.N., each with a period after it. Of course the huge, the enormous, enormous, enormous best-selling fiction at the time was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But, you know, once I finished and I sat down and said Oh, wow, I can actually read some fiction, how much fun, I immediately went to Ellen Gilchrist, because she had some new short stories out and I love her work.

DS: So this book is about Washington, but the last two books dealt a lot more with Boston. What's your favorite Boston story from the colonial period that we might not be familiar with?

CR: Actually, let me tell you one from this period, because I have a lot of unpublished letters of Abigail Brooks Adams -- this is Charles Francis Adams’ wife, so she would be the granddaughter-in-law of Abigail, the daughter-in-law of Louisa. And she is in Washington and he is in Congress, in that very infamous Secession Congress, the 36th Congress, before he went off to London to be the Union ambassador to the Court of St. James. And she writes these hysterically frank letters from Washington home to Henry Adams. She calls Buchanan, the president, a "heavy old toad". And she's furious with Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, who's her friend, but she gave him "a piece of my mind -- he expects us all to go out and show ourselves and entertain and work all the time for the cause and he did nothing, not a thing." This is my favorite: "I would advise any young woman who wishes to have an easy quiet life not to marry an Adams." And she also says "The Senate behave like children, and silly ones at that."

DS: Certainly you can tell whose grandchild-in-law she was.

CR: Yes, the strongest men in each generation did marry these very strong women.

DS: One last question -- what are you working on next?

CR: That's like asking someone who's just had triplets when she's going to have her next one. I'm not going to do more Civil War. I did not get this book in until February, so I am still suffering the after-effects of getting up at three o'clock in the morning and writing for fifteen hours straight, to make it into the stores by the end of the sesquicentennial of the war.

DS: OK, so then we'll let you go back to your day job.

CR: Thank you. There is a presidential election coming up. You might have noticed that.

DS: Good luck with the launch, and we can't wait to see you.

CR: I'm so looking forward to that.

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