tv [untitled] CSPAN June 29, 2009 5:00am-5:30am EDT
ng of these sessions is not allowed. now, to the matter at hand, our panel -- our title today is at the gates -- a biography of the gates of the 20th century. i have to admit i'm a little bit mystified as the authors you have today don't really have works necessarily that were at the gates of the 20th century but it bridges the 18th and 19th. roberts most recent work is set in the civil war. and richard has written so prolificy that he stands at the 20th century than stands at his gate. a big gate. let me make a few introductions and then we'll open it to the panel and i'm going to try to reserve some time to get some questions. first, to my immediate right, paula giddings.
paula is the author of when and where i enter, the impact of black women on race and sex in america and also in search of sisterhood, delta sigma and the black sorority movement. her most recent book, ida a sword among lions. it was called the best book of the year bit "washington post" and the "chicago tribune" and although it notes here that it was a final -- well, it was a finalist for the national book critic award it notes that it was a finalist for the "los angeles times" book prize, i'm happy to report to you that as of 9:30 last night it is the winner. [applause] >> paula also holds the elizabeth woodson chair and is the editor of the academic
journal. she's a journalist who has been published in the "washington post" and among other publications. at the far end of the panel robert roper, we're here today, obviously, to take about biography and related topics. but, in fact, most of robert's published books are novels or story collections. he's written for magazines such as national geographic, outside and men's journal, for newspapers including the "new york times," "chicago tribune," "san francisco chronicle" and happily the "los angeles times." he's alsok# been publishing ess in the american scholar and he teaches writing and -- teaches in the writing and the film departments at johns hopkins. he's, i'm told, at work -- just written a new novel and a work on a second and in search of another biographical book.
finally, richard reeves who probably needs no introduction to any of you. richard is the senior lecturer at the annenberg school of communication at usc. he's probably best known for his presidential biographies of john kennedy, richard nixon and ronald reagan. his latest book, however, was a biography of new zealand physicist ernest rutherford in which he repeated the experiments that lead to the atom. he describes that as a labor of love designed to show his graduates that he was not as dumb as he thought he was. [laughter] >> so to begin, i wanted to invite each of our panelists to make some -- to offer some opening thoughts. and sort of thought we'd start with the question of, you know -- we're here today to talk about biography and history and i wonder if you would each talk about some of the challenges of telling history through the development of characters.
paula, you're award winner. you want to go first? >> thanks a lot. [laughter] >> well, i think the greatest challenge -- it took me a long time to write this book. and for many reasons, of course, lots to do with research and the fact that you have to have a full-time job as well write. but also i had to learn about biography specifically. i'd written books about history before. but not a biography before. and so so many of my first drafts were really the history of ida wells' life rather than the story and the narrative of her life? so it took me a long time to understand the difference. and, you know, my first drafts of the -- of the life of ida b. wells, if any of you know very much about her it's just an exciting person. she starts the first anti-lynching campaign in 1892. she refuses to leave a first
class ladies car in 1883. she's a settlement house founder. she's embroiled in all kinds of controversy 'cause she's a transgressive woman and coming up in a victorian period. and with all of that, those first drafts were -- made her life dull. boy, this is really something that i can make ida's life dull. [laughter] >> and that's because i was writing the history rather than the narrative so that was my -- that was my big lesson of how to and, of course, the great challenge of integrating of her personal life with this tumultuous and defining period of the late 19th and early 20th century and she's an exciting figure because her life actually -- one reason why ida wells launches the first antilynching campaign and if we think about lynching, that
really begins in the revolutionary war years. it's not until 1886, however, the number of blacks lynched exceed the number of whites lynched. coming at precisely the time when blacks are making such huge advances. i mean, just a generation from slavery making huge advances because this was the people who believed that citizenship rights had to bevearned. and they did so. literacy, you know, drops dramatically so much so that 200 black newspapers are being published every week by the 1880s. this is when the churches develop. this is when all the social institutions begin to develop. and so it's a mystery to many blacks as well particularly of why is lynching increasing at this very moment when blacks seem to be fulfilling the social contract of this great idea of american progress which is
almost evangelical idea in this period of time? and so it is wells really who figures it out and figures out that there's another way to think about protest, which blacks are often -- the black elite are very reluctant to do in this period of time. they had terrible experience during reconstruction, of course. and they're very internal at this point. let's develop our communities. let's not worry about what's going on in the outside. and protest is just an anomaly to many of them. so wells' task is twofold. she has to convince her white allies, potential white allies and opinion makers in the north particularly that blacks aren't guilty of the crime that they're accused of. the lynchings of the -- the rationale for lynchings is that black men are raping white women and wells calls this a new cry because it's -- this has never emerged before so she has to deconstruct that.
which she does through using the new methods of the social sciences that are developing in this period and she also has to convince blacks to mobilize and protest using modern methods like civil disobedience, for example. she creates a railway strike long before rosa parks. and other means and also immigration, et cetera, et cetera. so she has a two-task -- a twofold task of which she does with great drama, with great meticulousness and intellectual acuity and with great courage. >> robert, you've written across various genres, various styles. what about telling history through biography? what are -- what are your experiences in that regard? >> well, all of my books are
about people, characters but i feel like i was in some ways i've been stalked by walt whitman for a long period of time. it began when i was in high school and forced to read o captain my captain. other bad poems of whitman's. [laughter] >> then when i was in college, i stumbled into a class where we were reading a lot of whitman and again, we read a lot of the poems of the o indiana, o nebraska school. and when was the excitement about this guy? and it wasn't until some years later that i realized that we were reading poems exclusively out of the death bed edition. many of you know whitman was this rare poet who appeared to
write the same book over and over again. couldn't get it right. but he was editing out his poetry as he went so that the death bed edition that he signed off really on his death bed was in many ways the least exciting and most censored version of leaves of grass. so i went back and read the first edition in 1855 and i was electrified. the guy is speaking right to you. he's leaping off the page. he is so hungry to make human contact with you. it's a powerful force. and the 1860 edition which i think is the greatest -- another early one is replete with very, very vivid and moving sexualized
poetry, which walt then began to banterize himself and hide. so i think maybe there's something to this guy. and i began to read with great intensity and excitement and then i learned somewhere along the line that he had been a nurse in the civil war hospitals and whitman is always careful to claim he was a nurse. he was a nurse. he assisted with amputations, he helped with bed pans and sat with probably hundreds of young men as they died, wrote thousands of letters to bereeved parents. these are civil war hospitals all in washington, d.c. many of them were terrible houses. i was very moved by that and i began to work on it at the time when the iraq war was really going bad. i was very worried about the
soldiers at walter reed. the guys who were coming back and i was -- i felt like there was more and more i wanted to learn what whitman had done. not that i discovered it but i stumbled on the fact that he had a brother who was an ordinary soldier who had written probably hundreds of letters to walt and to their mother in brooklyn and walt was a very, very faithful correspondent. wrote to this brother many hundreds of letters. so there was a body of correspondence. and it opened the door into the family that was a great and exciting discovery for me. so i suddenly felt that although whitman has been written about, there was -- there was this great potential story about this family, this family enduring the war and experienced it in many different ways and now this brother george whitman was not just an ordinary soldier.
he was an extremely capable and fierce soldier. walt was described by a friend as a great tender mother man. george, who adored walt -- they were very, very close -- george was a very ardent soldier, a very effective soldier and a killer. and his letters to their'ia mot back in brooklyn are kind of really threw me back. he would write to his mother saying, mom, we were a little dust-up a couple days ago. i don't know what they're going to call it but it was close to a little creek called antietam and then would follow a brilliant five-page description, a very careful recreation of the battle. george is in the thick of the fighting and afterwards would walk the grounds of the battle to really understand the forces that had come to bear. so anyway i thought these different kinds of manhood were
very interesting and i thought there was a book there. >> did you ever consider writing just on walt whitman in the war or is it in the course of the research that you expanded it to include his family? >> no, it was the parent -- when i realized they had written so much to each other and taken -- had such different experiences of the war that i thought there's something here. >> so that was part of the genesis of the book itself? it >> yes. >> richard, obviously, we all know you through your political work. this latest book technical, scientific? what special challenges did that pose and what are your thoughts on telling history through biography? >> well, i think that if you're going to tell the history of science, which i think is the least well-told story of the 20th story you almost have to do it through biography since much of the material that scientists
produced or discovered in the period, which we now call the heroic age of physics is too complicated for most people to stick with. so that it is not an accident that people like einstein become public figures and interesting figures in their own right because it's the only way you can tell the story of what these people did. and i picked -- and i love the title they gave of the 20th century because i would argue and it's part of the reason i did this book and i'm doing a second book on a second scientific biography on tim's lead the inventor of the internet is that it was science that drove the 20th century. the wars after all, you could certainly construct a historical construct showing the wars but the wars in the end were about machine guns, good gas, about
atomic bombs, about the airplane. the history of the 20th century would have been totally different if it had not technologically advanced in a certain way. ernest rutherford then presents himself to me, born in 1871 on the frontier of new zealand. 10 miles from the next nearest house. built his own bicycle of wood and traveled and became the first colonial scholar accepted at the laboratory where he later came to head. in much of science, einstein is an example of this. men or you make their great discoveries sometimes when they're teenagers and then spend the rest of their lives refining it.
rutherford was an exception to that rule probably because -- possibly because he started a little later in life because of where he came from. but between 1911 and 1932, rutherford and einstein were the two greatest -- two best known scientists in the world. rutherford was the great -- the greatest of experimenters with the possible exception of michael fairaday and einstein was the greatest theorist of his generation and his century. they were friends and rutherford had a good deal to do with getting einstein out of germany and into the united states. which may have been a mistake on you rutherford's part because once einstein became part of the great american public relations engine, he did this very, very
that period younger, niels bohr who was a+n student and assist of rutherford. and then in 1932 with three students, though, you'd never know this reading american history, with obsolete equipment and hands in the small winding corridors of the laboratory in cambridge, they were the first to split the atom before the -- before the americans were able to and the germans were able to and both of them were putting hundreds of times their resources into trying to do it. but with old equipment and three young men, rutherford split the atom in 1932. another reason i was interested in writing about him and will write about tim burners lee. he was the anti-edison.
thomas edison invented for money. it was a business. it was america. rutherford was of the english school as later a young man named tim burnerslee who felt that all scientific publications should be open. that the way science -- rutherford never had a patent in his life. the way science advanced was by open dissemination of information because you could bet there's some kid in new zealand who would read this and figure out the next step. and that's the kind of science i wanted to write about. when rutherford died, he died rather early. in the late '30s, his bank account was 7,000 pounds. which was exactly his own noble prize money in 1911. i'll end by talking about the -- the "new york times" once had a
very brilliant science editor named comfort. and in 1936, he wrote what these people did. einstein, rutherford, bohr, clunk, the heroes of the heroic age of physics, and this is what he said they did. suppose that nobody on earth had ever a piece of music and then suppose that beethoven's fifth symphony is played over and over again by invisible mugs. the physicist problem is develop a apparatus that will sift out one note and analyze and infer what invisible instruments produce the sounds, deduce the rules in following determining what notes should be played and how long and how loudly. it's not likely that he would succeed in imagining violins and clarinets or even musicians blowing into horns. he would postulate vibrating
bodies. these would meet his requirements. even with this simplification the odds of his completely solving the mystery of beetho n beethoven's fifth would be heavy. solving the invisible atom which emits heat and light and other forms of energy in more intricate ways than sound is emitted by musical instruments is infinitely more difficult. and that is what these men and that was the 20th and that's why i wanted to write about the gateway through which they came, science. >> i'll go back to you for a minute, robert. barely an episode in american history more chronicled than the civil war. your book on lincoln seems pretty much every year. what -- what draws you -- what do you think draws so many of us to this civil war is this period? and specifically drew you to that period?
>> it's a great question. i discuss that a lot in my book because walt had an idea about the civil war. walt was steeped in the war because he nursed these thousands and thousands of soldiers. he really knew what was going on. he saw the wounds. he knew. and he visited battlefield, too. but walt had an idea that pretty soon this war is going to be over. please god the union will be preserved. and we'll forget about these stupid battles. we're not going to care -- what he called the military minutia and we're not going to care about the battle of feebleman's gap was fought on december 20th or whatever it was. what we will remember is the suffering of the men. the suffering and the caring. because those are spiritually
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