“You can either read philosophy or write philosophy.” These were words spoken to me by my advisor back in my former life as a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Maryland. I was trying to finish up my thesis, but argued that I still needed to read a few journal articles before wrapping it up. My advisor wisely pointed out that I could always read another article so it was best just to sit down and finish the thesis.
I’ve been thinking about those words recently. A number of writing opportunities have opened up for me over the past few years especially since I completed my M.A. in history last May at the University of Richmond. I am supposed to have a completed Crater manuscript and an essay on civilian morale in Virginia during the second half of 1864 finished by September. In addition, I need to plan a short trip to Spartanburg, South Carolina this summer to research the family of John C. Winsmith. I know all of this and yet I can’t tear myself away from my books. Here is what I am currently reading:
J. Matthew Gallman, America’s Joan of Arc: The Life of Anna Elizabeth Dickinson
Brian D. McKnight, Contested Borderland: The Civil War in Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia
David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World
In addition, I am reviewing a new collection of essays written in honor of Emory Thomas, titled Inside the Confederate Nation. The problem is that there are just too many first-rate Civil War studies out there to read. I don’t mind admitting that I enjoy reading about the Civil War much more than I enjoy writing about it. I find writing to be incredibly difficult and I constantly struggle with balancing the benefits of my voracious appetite for books with the likelihood that anything I ever publish will make a bit of difference to the field. The other problem is that as a high school teacher I simply don’t have the time to devote to research. I thought about pursuing a Ph.D which would clearly provide more time for serious research, but I now realize that I am first and foremost a high school history teacher.
All four of the books cited above are exceptional studies written by incredibly talented historians. To borrow from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin I am definitely a hedgehog in the sense that I enjoy reading about a fairly narrow subject. In contrast, the fox is someone who jumps around between subjects. While I am ultimately interested in the full range of human experience I have consciously chosen to examine it through a fairly narrow range of themes that fall within the broader subject of 19th century American history. I tend to think of history as a puzzle and the four studies cited above certainly make it easier to think of the ways the individual pieces fit together. I am beginning to make some sense of the period, but readily admit that I have a long way to go. Luckily there does not seem to be any let up in the range and quality of Civil War/American history.