The World as He Knows It
H.W. Brands' "The Age of Gold" is his 16th book in 15 years -- and he has only just begun
By Tim Walker, Fri., Sept. 13, 2002
For more than 100 years, readers of literate nonfiction have gravitated to the brand names, the household names, of the historical profession (well, at least in the households of those who buy and read expensive hardback books). These writers carry the stories and lessons of history far beyond the classroom -- and forever give the lie to the wrong-headed notion that history is boring -- by fusing rigorous research with narratives as compelling as any novel.
One hundred and thirty years ago, this group was led by the great Francis Parkman. Thirty years ago, it included Samuel Eliot Morison and Barbara Tuchman. Today, we think of Stephen Ambrose, Joseph Ellis, and David McCullough. With a lengthening string of popular books on various facets of American history, H.W. Brands is earning his way into this pantheon. So please forgive the pun, but if Brands isn't already a brand name of history on par with Ambrose or McCullough, he's only a step or two away.
He doesn't look like a major historian. Tall and rail thin, he walks into the Kerbey Lane Cafe in sneakers, shorts, and polo shirt. He has bicycled in on a hot day from his house several blocks away. He sticks out his hand: "Bill Brands." His intelligence is as unmistakable as his good humor, and both are well in evidence within the first few moments of meeting him. Clues to his success as a writer pop up as he tells one story after another. He's an expressive storyteller, constantly mobilizing his hands to emphasize a point. He's prone to broad grins that make his light eyes and taut features glow with enthusiasm.
Talking to Brands, and surveying his works, also suggests a fine, canny sense not only about the facts and nuances of historical scholarship, but about the business of writing and publishing as well. The more he talks, the more you realize that his is a mind able to pick apart a problem and address it term by term, whether it's historical, political, or mathematical (more on that in a minute). This canniness seems to cross over to an awareness of his circumstances, of how to take the next step in a career that has brought him to the lofty heights of the historical profession from unlikely roots as a traveling salesman of cutlery.
"I was raised in, and presumably to, the cutlery business," he explains. Growing up in Portland, Ore., he worked in his father and grandfather's cutlery business from grade school on, including summers while he was an undergraduate at Stanford. "I really didn't think that that's what I wanted to do for a career. But I felt a certain obligation to give it a try."
So the Stanford graduate became a traveling salesman. "Basically, I had the marginal accounts from Oregon to Colorado, which gave me plenty of time to travel around the American West, and plenty of time in small motels in small towns in Nevada and Wyoming to read the history of the American West. That's one of the things that got me interested in this whole 'westering' business."
This refers to the latest in Brands' long line of books, The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream (Doubleday, 550 pp.). While those hours in remote hotels might have given him his introduction to the secondary literature of the American West, he followed his usual method of getting right to the original sources when he returned to the topic a couple of years ago.
"As quickly as possible, I get to the primary sources," he says, "because one of the things that I really want to find are voices and eyewitness descriptions." Unlike novelists, who can make up the dialogue that draws the reader through the story, historians don't get to make up anything that goes between quotation marks. So how does the historian get inside his characters to craft a compelling narrative? "It's hard to get in the head of somebody. The closest we can get is through the words they've left behind, either their contemporary correspondence, or after-the-fact memoirs."
Before he started plumbing archives in California and elsewhere, Brands did enough background research to know what he was looking for. "I knew that I wanted to trace the journeys of particular people to California, and to describe the experiences of the people in California, but I needed to find people who had voices that were engaging." He went through many volumes of memoirs, diaries, and letters to find apt firsthand accounts from European, Australian, South American, and North American "argonauts," with the goal of letting those accounts have the greatest leverage in driving his narrative.
Brands knew he would have a varied wealth of sources to choose from: "There are hundreds, there are thousands, of these personal accounts of the Gold Rush. They come from very ordinary people, they come from very literary people. They come from people who would become quite famous, and from people who would die and you never would have heard of them otherwise." In fact, the volume of this primary material was one of the things that drew him to the project: "One of the reasons I wrote a book about the Gold Rush is that I knew there were these sources available."
This observation reflects his savvy approach to building a book, which extends to his skill in tailoring his different books to their audiences. "I think the most important thing for any writer, and I stress this with my [Texas A&M] students all the time, is: Know what audience you're aiming for. With my first few books, I was aiming at an academic audience, basically to get tenure. You can presuppose a certain amount of knowledge, you can expect that there is this common background." Ultimately, he says, academic readers are wondering how the book they're reading plugs into the existing literature: "What's the theory here? What's the analysis?"
With a general audience, though, the emphasis has to be on the story, and this is where narrative technique comes in. As Brands says, "When you tell a story, there are imperatives of structure, of style, of pacing and all of this, that are there simply because you want to make it a good story. When do you introduce your characters? When do you put them onstage, when do you take them off the stage? How do you weave the different threads of the narrative together?" In the case of a story that's been told many times before -- like the Gold Rush, or the life of Theodore Roosevelt -- Brands believes that his job is clear: "I've got to tell this story in a more compelling way."
But a good history book -- even one for a popular audience -- has to be more than a good story. "If you'd simply want to tell a good story, you can write a novel," Brands says. He adds that, as a historian, "I do feel compelled to leave my readers with a different understanding of things than they started with." In the last section of Age of Gold, Brands distinguishes his account from the many other retellings of the Gold Rush by making the case that, as he says, "The Gold Rush was an important chapter in world history." While offering caveats on the dangers of calling any historical event the "first" of something, he says, "This was arguably ... the first real chapter in modern world history, in the sense of involving almost the entire world." With his typical good humor, he adds, "I'll be the first to admit that people can take or leave this particular interpretation. ... Everything in history is partly continuity and partly change, and I'm emphasizing the change here."
In support of his argument, Brands points out that "San Francisco was the point on the surface of the planet that was about as far from New York City, or the American East Coast, as you could get, in terms of travel in those days." He elaborates: "The obvious way to get there was around Cape Horn, and that's 16,000 nautical miles, so it was a lot closer for people to go to San Francisco from Australia, from China. In fact, the immigrants from China, from Australia, beat most of the Americans there." Some of the earliest prospectors to reach the gold fields were Chilean or Peruvian, because the ports on the west coast of South America allowed for the shortest trip to California. And Brands notes that the mixing of peoples that was a byproduct of the Gold Rush meant that "from the very beginning, California was the most cosmopolitan state in the country."
It was not until later that many North Americans began making the trip overland, a trip that Brands made himself -- on highways, in his car -- during his year representing the family business. He says that that year of traveling means "I've been across the Great Salt Lake Desert -- in fact, I've been all along the Humboldt River, I've covered essentially all of the trail."
During that same year, he soon confirmed that the cutlery business wasn't for him. Casting about for a job, Brands went back to his alma mater, Portland's Jesuit High School, and talked to his old principal. With a broad smile on his face, Brands recounts their conversation in rapid fire: "I said, 'Do you need any teachers?' He said, 'Well, what can you teach?' And I said, 'What do you need?' And he said, 'We need somebody to teach math.' I said, 'I can teach math.'" The job was his. By the time his five-year stay at Jesuit was through, he had also taught a couple of years' worth of history classes there, and earned a master's degree in history at Reed College.
By 1980, UT's history department beckoned, but events intervened when his then-wife became pregnant with their first child. Because of the insurance plan the family was on, they were faced with staying in place and paying a few dollars for the whole pregnancy, or moving to Austin and paying a few thousand dollars. Brands deferred entry into UT for a year, and they stayed in Portland, where he capitalized on the delay by earning a master's in mathematics at Portland State. He even considered following up his eventual history doctorate with one in math, but then discovered just how abstruse Ph.D.-level math research can be. Brands figured that such narrow specialization would make it hard to impart broader meaning to mathematical work. "It's very difficult to make it relevant to more than a very small handful of people. And at some point, I don't know exactly when it was, I decided that I wanted to have a larger audience than that."
Brands' students at Texas A&M make up the first audience for much of his writing. He has insisted in teaching all levels of students -- from freshman to Ph.D. candidates -- throughout the 15 years he has been there, and he thinks that the mix is tonic to his writing and thinking. "I enjoy engaging students and having them engage me," he says, and adds that he wouldn't give up teaching to write full time. "Writing is a field in which the feedback is long delayed," he explains. "I drafted chapters of The Age of Gold two years ago, two and a half years ago, and only now am I starting to get feedback from anybody besides an editor. When you give a lecture, you get immediate feedback: They fall asleep, they laugh at your jokes, they look really interested."
This is even more true of the freshmen he teaches than with his graduate students. "It's easy to get kind of lazy" with advanced students, he says, "because you can assume a lot of knowledge on their part." With his classes of bright but often historically uninformed A&M freshmen, though, he has to work harder. "If I talk about the Civil War, I have to be able to summarize the issues and explain the issues -- what the questions were -- in a relatively short space of time. And it makes a person think really hard about, well, what is important in this?"
Brands' unusual commuting arrangement between Austin and College Station came about this way: After finishing his history Ph.D. and working for a year on an oral history project at UT's law school, Brands took a temporary position with Vanderbilt University. When he went to A&M to interview for the permanent position he now holds, he flew into College Station directly. He had never driven there from Austin, so he didn't realize how long the trip would take.
His first drive to College Station disabused him of the notion that he could make the commute in an hour. The worst of it came in the first semester, when he taught a full slate of Monday-Wednesday-Friday classes. He reasoned that he could put up with the arrangement one semester at a time, but adds that once "my kids got plugged in to schools and everything [in Austin]," he decided that it would be easier for him to make the commute -- which, he notes, is at least a pleasant drive -- than to uproot them. Since that first semester, he has also lightened his burden by scheduling only Tuesday-Thursday classes.
Brands still lives in the same South Austin neighborhood, though his household grew after he married Ginger Savely 10 years ago. They each brought two children to the marriage, then had another son together. Now they have two 22-year-olds, two 19-year-olds, and one 9-year-old. Brands has always written almost exclusively at home, but until his children started heading off for college in the past few years, he lacked a proper desk or office. For a long time, he lugged around an early laptop computer, along with the books and papers he needed at hand, in a milk crate. He would work at the kitchen table or whatever other part of the house was free.
But how has he been so productive? "One of the things that has served me well is a rather short attention span," he says. "And so, if I've got 10 minutes, I bang out a paragraph, and then I can go on to something else. ... So, largely because of having the kids around all the time, I just write when I can."
This man has published 16 books -- several of them very long -- in 15 years. This doesn't count the four books he has edited. The first 10 books Brands wrote -- between 1988 and 1995 -- centered on his academic expertise in the history of U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century. He turned his UT dissertation into Cold Warriors: Eisenhower's Generation and American Foreign Policy, then followed up with works on the United States' relations in the Third World in general, and in India, the Philippines, and the Middle East.
Other books addressed topics both narrow (e.g. the work of Loy Henderson, a midcentury State Department official who helped formulate the Truman Doctrine) and broad (as in his general history of U.S. foreign relations, The United States in the World). But he entered the field of popular history in 1995 with his 11th book, The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s. After that came an acclaimed biography of Theodore Roosevelt, T.R.: The Last Romantic; a highly regarded study of 20th-century foreign policy, What America Owes the World; a survey of business tycoons, Masters of Enterprise: Giants of American Business From John Jacob Astor to Bill Gates; then The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and The Strange Death of American Liberalism, a slim volume in which Brands argues that the end of the Cold War spelled the end of general support for New Deal- or Great Society-type liberal policies among U.S. citizens.
His big biographies -- T.R. and The First American run about 800 pages apiece -- took him into topical areas well outside his scholarly specialty, but this doesn't worry him. "I'm the first to admit that I'm an amateur on many of the subjects that I've written about," he says, "and so I'll be the first again to admit that I'm probably going to get some stuff wrong." He asserts, though, that this is no reason not to write the book you want to write. "If you wait until you're absolutely sure you've got everything right, you will never publish a word. So, you do the best you can, acknowledging that, okay, I'm going to get some stuff wrong here, and I just hope it's not crucial to the argument, or crucial to the story, for that matter."
With each of these books, Brands says, he hopes that readers will acknowledge that some things might be wrong, but focus instead on the books' strengths. He knows he will need this forbearance especially on the book he's working on now, which covers the Texas Revolution.
"It is with some hesitancy, with some diffidence, that I've taken this on, living in Texas, because I'm fully aware of how seriously people in Texas take their history." He adds that he has wanted to write such a book for a long time, simply because "the origins of Texas is a great story ... it just begs to be told." The idea stayed in the back of his mind, though, until his editor in New York suggested it. Brands was quick to agree, and is now enjoying the change -- after traipsing out to archives in California for The Age of Gold -- of working with materials that are close at hand.
He knows that some Texas history buffs will pick up his book, turn to the section on the battle of the Alamo, and look for Brands' verdict on where Davy Crockett died. He knows that if they don't agree with him, they'll put the book down. While the prospect is daunting, Brands says that "it's actually very attractive to think that there's an audience for history that's so engaged as this."
So what's next for Brands, apart from the Texas Revolution? "At some point, I think every American historian who thinks in big terms has to deal with the Civil War. And so, at some level, in some way, I'm going to write about the Civil War." As in the case of the Texas Revolution, though, Brands regards this topic with trepidation. Dealing with the Civil War means dealing with military history, and that means dealing with an audience of aficionados who will eat you alive if you put a regimental stripe on the wrong sleeve of a uniform.
He also mentions in an offhand way that he's doing a small book on the foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson, and that he'd like to do something one day on the evolving notions of equality in American public discourse. And he's finishing up an article for The Atlantic Monthly in which he addresses what he sees as Americans' unhealthy reverence for the Founding Fathers. With his typical energy, he declaims, "The one thing that [the Founders] did have was an audacity to challenge conventional wisdom ... the least we can do is amend the Constitution, for Heaven's sake!"
It seems apparent that Brands won't be running out of ideas or the energy to convey them anytime soon. If he keeps writing such good books, he seems certain to earn that household name among readers who appreciate the appeal of well-crafted history.
H.W. Brands will be at BookPeople on Oct. 10 after returning from his U.S. tour.