Richard and Claudia Bushman are the AAS Distinguished Scholars in Residence for the 2014-2015 academic year. Richard is Gouverneur Morris professor emeritus of history at Columbia University and the recipient of many honors, including the Bancroft Prize. His new book, which he plans to finish while at AAS, is on American farming in the eighteenth century. Claudia is professor of American Studies emerita at Columbia University and is at work on a new book about Harriet Hanson Robinson.
Past is Present: I guess we’ll start out with your new projects. Could you both describe the projects you’re working on here?
Claudia Bushman: What I’m doing is an extension of a project I began my scholarly work with, which is a study of Harriet Hanson Robinson, second echelon reformer who spent a lot of time in Boston. I have her 1870 journal, and when I wrote about her before, because I was writing a full biography of the family for several generations, I felt I had to skip over things very briefly. What I’m doing this year is expatiating, expanding, and explaining this 1870 journal, which I think is just pure gold. We’re really using her words. That’s what I love–her voice, her style, and how she talks about the period. I’m telling many stories.
Richard Bushman: I’m working on a story of American farming in the eighteenth century. I came to it because 80 percent of the population in British North America lived from the soil. It’s a very large project and I’ve been working on it for a number of years, really bringing it to a culmination now. AAS is terrific because any time I need a book I just whistle and it’s there. It’s a fabulous place and especially because there’s a very stimulating atmosphere to work in, too. You just really get rolling, and I think I’m going to be able to finish it up by the time I leave this summer.
Past is Present: How do you generally become interested in a project? We know that you, Claudia, wrote a biography of Robinson, but how did you first become interested in her life?
CB: I believe that everything I write, which is quite varied, is autobiographical, so I come upon things and then I just know I have to do them. When I began graduate school I was already an older person and I decided that I would do female studies. I never knew anyone who had studied anything like this (that’s how far back I go). I wanted to do women’s work, domestic and paid, and take both seriously. I right away became aware of the mill scene, which I had never known anything about since I’m from California. I read the books, did all kinds of things, learned to spin, and then I found the book Loom and Spindle, which is by Harriet Hanson Robinson, her memoir of her time working in the mills as a young girl. It was certainly the best thing that I’d read. It was just illuminating and wonderful. I was so pleased by those spunky mill girls. When I discovered that all of her papers were in the Schlesinger Library, which was a 15 minute bus ride from my house, without even looking at them, I said, “This is my dissertation.”
Past is Present: Richard, same question for you. How do you first become interested in a project? You have two strains in your work, one on American life and culture more generally and one on Joseph Smith and Mormonism.
RB: It’s that double life that lies behind this project. I’m basically an early American historian, but from time to time I’ve been asked to do something on Mormonism, so I got involved in writing about Joseph Smith. As I was looking for a new project on the early American history side, I thought I ought to do something that would interact with the work I was doing on Joseph Smith. His family were farmers, so I thought, “Well, I’ll see what I can find out about farmers.” And it worked out well. The two halves fed into each other. I use the Joseph Smith example, his family, in the farm work and the other way around.
Past is Present: We were on the topic of graduate school earlier. Richard, I know you worked with Bernard Bailyn. What kind of influence did he have on you? How has his being a mentor affected your work? I’m sure you still hear things that he said to you as you write.
RB: I really had two major mentors. He directed my dissertation, but the book was published by Oscar Handlin in his series. Oscar was really the one who line-edited it. They were quite different. Bailyn was very critical. He would cut you apart. You’d give him a chapter and it would come back in shreds. Handlin was very permissive. He would say, “OK, that’s interesting. Give me more.” So you sort of were off doing your own thing. And, of course, both of those ways of responding are useful, and so I’d say I learned a lot from both of them. As you go along, of course, there are other people who come to influence you. As I was writing the biography of Joseph Smith, and this is true for all my writing, I like to have close at hand the writing of someone I admire. It may not be on my topic, but I like to hear the rhythms, the structure of their sentences. I like very much the writing of Ron Chernow, who writes biographies. I kept his biography of John D. Rockefeller on my desk while I was doing Joseph Smith. And then Walter Jackson Bate wrote a biography of Samuel Johnson that I admired, because it was so compassionate and so deeply penetrating into the character of this man. But of all the historians practicing today, I think William Cronon is the one I admire because he writes so well and is so lucid in his explanation of how things work. So that’s meant a lot to me. There’s an English historian, I believe now dead, W.G. Hoskins, who wrote a book called The Midland Peasant, which had a kind of gritty texture to it, rooted right in the way people were really living, that I just loved. So that’s been kind of an inspiration for the farming book.
Past is Present: As teachers yourselves, what is your strategy? Do you take the Bailyn route, or do you take the Handlin route when you’re critiquing students’ work?
RB: I tend to be more Handlin. I think people have to learn it themselves. I think there’s very little gained by being hard on students. I think mainly you have to teach them to think for themselves. Students so often come in with a set of questions they’ve learned in seminars or from theory and they want the material to answer the questions they bring. But you have to realize it’s a dialogue, that you have to say, “Here it is, this is what they left, what does that mean?” The most telling historical question of all time is “What’s going on here?” And then other kinds of ideas fit in. Students have to learn to develop that confidence that, without an interpretive structure already in mind, they can create an idea out of the materials.
CB: I try not to be hard on my students. You want to put them in a position where they can learn things. What I tell them is, “Yes, you can go search for that idea, but if you’ve got a short period of time and you’re looking for just this, you’re not likely to find it.” What you want is a body of information. If you have any body of information, you have a paper, because there is something there. I worked a lot with continuing students, people who are just really eager to get back to school and are so thrilled to have the chance and so scared that they can’t manage to do it. To see them find something that they really love and continue on with it, that’s really a thrill. I don’t want to hold a whip against those people. It spoils the wonderful experience.
Past is Present: I guess one more question. If there’s one book that you could write that you haven’t written yet, what would it be? One topic that you would love to cover.
CB: Well, I have two projects. One is [an oral history project on Mormon women]. The other one is my autobiography. I’m doing this for lots of reasons, but one is that women don’t write their autobiographies and they always apologize for doing it. They say, “I wouldn’t have done this, but my children, my neighbors asked me.” Because that’s the way we feel. Women shouldn’t, we’re just not important enough to write about ourselves. So I decided that that would be one of my final women’s studies projects, that I would tell my own story, and I’m about halfway done with it, I guess. I have plenty more to do. Seeing as I was not apologizing for it, I would give it an in-your-face title. So the title is, I, Claudia. So you take yourself seriously, but not too seriously. Will anybody ever publish it? I don’t know. My family can publish it. See, now I’m already apologizing! That’s bad. We just don’t want to apologize for ourselves, because it’s so important to have women’s autobiographies. Those that we have we value so much. I don’t dare think of another project until I get those done.
RB: I think I have one more substantial book. I’m going to go back to the other side of the equation and do something that’s Mormon, but it’s really American culture. I am calling it Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates. I’m writing about the plates, which at this point are purely imaginary. No one knows where they are. Even the believing Mormons don’t know. They just have to be imagined, yet people go on imagining them, not just Mormons, but critics of Mormonism are always fascinated with the gold Bible and what it means. It has actually become a cultural resource for American artists. You may have heard of the play Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play. It’s based on the Joseph Smith legend. The hero of the story is visited by an angel, like Joseph Smith was, he’s led to plates that are buried under the tiles in his kitchen, he’s given them by the angel and told that he has a message to take to the world. Of course, in Kushner’s case, Prior, the hero who receives the plates and who is disgusted with the universe, gives the plates back and says, “I don’t want anything to do with them.” The plates turn up all over in novels, not by Mormons but by everyone else under the sun. I’m coming to realize that the gold plates, because they’re so concrete and yet have this divine aura and they come in the hands of an angel, are a way of exploring the boundary between the natural and the supernatural, between ordinary life and the mysterious world beyond. So people use them, and use them for their own purposes, but they become useful as a way of approaching divine questions.
Read the complete interview here!