How I Write - Conversation Transcript
To George Fredrickson, the best compliment he received about his writing as an historian came from a novelist: “You have a perfect expository style because it’s no style at all,” his friend told him. “No style” meant that his writing is transparent, that it carries its meaning without drawing attention to itself as writing, since that would distract from the content. “I avoid jargon so people will not encounter words that are totally unfamiliar,” he explains. “I generally avoid complicated metaphors or figures of speech . . . I try to avoid esoteric allusions to things that I think the readers might not know about, so I try to be direct and simple and straightforward.” This transparent style is complicated by the nature of historical writing, which is “to combine narrative and analysis so that you weren’t just telling a story, and at the same time you weren’t just putting forth general propositions . . . Without chronology there wouldn’t be history . . . but to demonstrate change over time you have to sort of have a narrative structure. But I think you can combine the two. It’s difficult, but it can be done. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Professor Fredrickson shares with us how he attained this style of transparent, narrative-analytical writing. When he was in high school he was on the debate team, and that helped him to develop fluency. Specifically, there was one event called “extemporaneous speaking” in which contestants drew a topic, “you’d actually have a choice of three, and you’d have a file of Newsweek and Time and so forth, and I was the state champion extemporaneous speaker, and I think the experience of having to pull together and give a speech, and it was only an eight minute speech, but you had to write an eight minute speech based on it, so I think that experience probably increased my fluency, both orally and when it came to writing.” This experience may have also helped him develop his work style of comprehensive outlining: he maps out his ideas as much as possible, working them out through his research, so that when it comes to the actual draft, he does not alter the general structure. He does revise considerably to get the language just right, but he usually keeps closely to the structure of ideas that he’s already developed.
George Fredrickson shares other insights on the ways historians develop their topics and the differences between using archives and secondary sources. He shares the accumulated experiences of one of America ’s leading historians, and all of us, historians or not, can get a glimpse at the work of a master.
Transcript of How I Write Conversation with George Fredrickson
HO: This is How I Write, a series of conversations that we’ve been having with faculty and other advanced writers around the university, this writing community. These conversations are about the processes of writing, not primarily about the topics that people write about, although of course you can’t separate that when you’re talking about writing, but we’re trying to uncover what kind of work style people have. Now, amazing things . . . I thought we’d get a wide array of how people work, but I’m totally astonished by how idiosyncratic and how different people are, and I’ll give you an example. I always open with these examples. Mary Lou Roberts who was in the history department, is now at another university doing French history, she would write 80 pages before she figured out what it is that she’s really writing about and just totally got used to the fact that she would toss 80 pages. The extreme other side of that would be David Abernethy of the political science department, who would never write anything until he’d got it all figured out. And in his last book on the history of western colonialism from its beginnings and all around the world, he would take laborious notes, and in his notes on the material he was dealing with he would then write his own commentaries, developing his argument. Because he would not write until he had things figured out, he did not write articles on the road to figuring things out, it took him 15 years to write this book, doing it during the summer, not getting grants, his CV was not very extensive, he was regarded by some as a lazy academic, having gotten his tenure and not wanting to do any research by the way that he worked. So, very very different styles of work. I suggested to Abernethy, “If you want I can show you some techniques to help you speed up the process.” “No. This is the way I do it.” Right? Very adamant. John Rickford of the linguistics department has the most amazing time management plans: he would detail everything about writing this chapter, and revising this one, while writing that one, and revising this one. Just to give various examples. And we talked with people who do different genres. Scotty McLennan, the Dean of Religious Life, talking about how to develop sermons, what the whole process of writing sermons is about. So, not everyone likes to write. Paul Robinson when I asked him, is a stylist, writes intellectual history, writes about Freud and opera and things like that: Does he like to write? No, he hates to write. It’s just something that he has to do. It’s part of the job. Other people love to write. Diane Middlebrook loves to write biography, gets deeply involved with it. So, these are the kinds of things that we’ve discovered. Or, for that matter, Eric Roberts, who is a computer scientist, we discovered, doesn’t have a computer in his home because you leave work at work. What’s more, he’s taken a religious vow never to watch TV. And spends his time as a computer scientist going home and listening to music and reading books and talks about how he brings a wide array of intellectual concerns into his writing textbooks about computer science. So, we find out all kinds of interesting things.
In any case, this evening is George Fredrickson of the History department, a recently emeritus professor, one of the renowned professors of American history, particularly with a focus on race in the country, former president of the Organization of American History. And has written numerous books, one well thumbed over by myself, The Black Image in the White Mind, came out in the late ‘60s, ’68…’71 it came out? Oh, okay, it came out in ’71. And other books, most recently Racism: A Short History, an interesting comparative study, and then developed recently a lot of comparative work, so some of the other books include White Supremacy: A Comparative Study of South Africa and the US, The Arrogance of Race: Black Liberation and the Comparative Imagination. And is now about to work on a project…why don’t you describe it…
GF: Well, a comparative study of American and French ideas about race, nation, ethnicity. What does it mean to be French; what does it mean to be American, going all the way back to the two revolutions, which started the modern idea of the democratic nation-state, so I put France and the United States together.
HO: Well, the way that we do this is that I ask a few questions, and we go back and forth and just have a conversation about the process of writing and then after a while we open it up and it’s open to you to ask questions or to raise concerns and issues that you have about writing. But, the first thing is, just, is there anything you want to say about the whole process of writing?
GF: Well, I was thinking about it this afternoon, and I've never given much thought to how I write. I guess maybe true of a lot of the people you invite here. I sat down and thought what do I really do? And I formulated some ideas. They’re not going to be terribly exciting, although it sounds like I’m a kind of a middle case between Mary Lou Roberts and David Abernethy. I like to do a lot of preparation before I actually sit down and write. Of course, part of the preparation, which is part of being a historian, is you do a lot of research, and you think you know a lot about the subject, take a lot of notes, also write down ideas as they occur to you. I sort of have some cards or even sheets of paper with things that occurred to me that I want to get in there somewhere. Then I prepare a very detailed outline. I do all this longhand, I don’t take notes on the computer, I guess because I started before computers. So I don’t actually go to the computer for the word processor until I have a fairly detailed outline. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to say. Sometimes I get ideas while I’m writing and the outline has to be revised, and sometimes what comes out doesn’t look all that much like the outline, but at least I’ve got some sense. And then I write, I guess, fairly rapidly; once I start writing, I like to lay it out, get it out there, and then do a lot of revision afterwards. So I try to write, when I’ve gotten started, when I’m satisfied with my outline, I try to do six or seven pages a day, and go right through and do a chapter, say, of a book or an article or whatever it might be. And then I do read over what I’ve written already before I go on, so it kind of slows down a little bit toward the end when I have a lot to read over before I get to it, so maybe by the end it slows down to about five pages a day; but then I go back and look at it and work it over. But I find I don’t have to revise, I mean, I have to revise the language, I do a lot of revision of the language, but generally the structure, the organization, which comes pretty much from the outline, seems to work. So I do a lot of revision.
Now, do I have any secrets? Do I have any tips that might help you? Well, I guess my writing style, I would define as an expository style, and I once received a compliment, it may not sound like a compliment, from a novelist, Cyrus Coulter, who was a colleague at Northwestern and an African American novelist, actually he started writing novels when he was about sixty but he wrote some very good ones in his sixties and seventies. And he read something I wrote for the New York Review of Books and he said, “You know, you have a perfect expository style because it’s no style at all,” by which he meant, “You’re not aware of how it is written, you just give the meaning.” And I think about that ever since, and I guess for me the primary virtue of my kind of writing is communication, clarity. And so how do I achieve that clarity, or that seeming absence of style where people are not saying, “Oh, isn’t this well-written?” or “Oh, isn’t that a strange way to put it?’ or they start thinking about the style.
Well, I think one thing I do is I avoid jargon so people will not encounter words that are totally unfamiliar, anyway. I generally avoid complicated metaphors or figures of speech. Now for some kinds of writing, literary expression, what I’m saying would not be what you’d want to do, but in my case of expository styles of writing or communicating historical knowledge or historical ideas, I try to avoid esoteric allusions to things that I think the readers might not know about, so I try to be direct and simple and straightforward.
Now, it is not always that easy because you have different audiences and I have written for a number of different audiences. I don’t think my writing style changes greatly from audience to audience, but I’ve written a lot of stuff, about 25 pieces over the last 30 years, for the New York Review of Books, and I think that was a good discipline, and the editors there have been very good at making sure you don’t go over the head of your audience. Now, the audience, of course, is a very intelligent audience, but not a specialized audience. They don’t necessarily know much about the specific subject I’m writing on, so you have to make sure you give them an adequate background. And I've found over the years that the more I know about the subject the more difficult it is to do that. And I think the most difficult review I wrote for them was one of the last ones I wrote, which was of the career of a historian whose work I know extremely well, John Higham, and I got several comments from Bob Silvers, the editor, saying “You’re assuming too much knowledge.” But when I am writing for historians, when I’m writing in the Journal of American History or another historical journal, then I assume more knowledge – I’m not sure it changes my style that much. And finally I’ve written some text book material, directed at undergraduates. I’m one of four authors of an introductory college text, which, we don’t have an introductory American history course at that level here, so it’s never been assigned at Stanford, but it’s used also used in AP American history. There we were supposed to aim for an eighth-grade level, and so you had to avoid words that otherwise I would feel free to direct at the readers of the New York Review of Books. So, you’ve got to make adjustments, to some extent, for your audience, but still the way I write to different audiences, the differences are probably not as great as you might suspect. Another thing I try to avoid is long complicated sentences, although sometimes my word processor tells me it’s a long sentence when I think it’s not such a long sentence. The word processor believes in very short sentences. So, anyway, I guess that is sort of what I was thinking about. Let’s see, I made another. . . Yeah, well anyway, those are the ideas that occurred to me when I was sort of reflecting this afternoon on what I actually do when I write.
HO: Well, transparency in expository prose, in other words, this “not noticing the writing,” of course, actually in a lot of fiction you also don’t notice the writing. Anyway, if you start noticing the writing in a history book, you might be having problems dealing with the material, so it’s a virtue to try and achieve that. But you had mentioned outlines. Is this a very detailed outlining that you do?
GF: It falls into somewhere between a very schematic outline, where everything is, you know, in a couple words, a, b, c, d, and almost a first draft. In other words, as I am doing the outline, I’m putting some things in very schematic form, but sometimes I actually write a whole paragraph. And so it is a sketch of the chapter I’m going to do on the word processor, so it’s more than a typical schematic outline.
HO: So in some places you start building it in blocks?
GF: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, the Roman numerals are important. They tend to be the main divisions within the chapter. There are usually five, it seems like…for some reason.
HO: Like a five-paragraph essay, blown up, like a monster house. Do you find then when you say, “Oh, well…” you know shifting things around? In the outline? Is the sketching rough or is it pretty clear from everything you’ve thought through?
GF: It is pretty clear. Actually, when I get to the point of revising – maybe I’m fortunate that things kind of fall in logical order for me readily – I almost never move whole paragraphs around on the word processor. Once they’re there, they pretty much stay there.
HO: Well, you know, I guess, of course, in a lot of history you have a certain narrative flow that helps organize things; but you’ve not only written narrative history, you’ve done analytical articles—so how does the analysis aspect of that fit into conceiving it?
GF: That’s a good question because I’ve always thought the trick to historical writing was to combine narrative and analysis so that you weren’t just telling a story, and at the same time you weren’t just putting forth general propositions as if you were, like, you know, a sociologist historian. Actually, a recent review of my last book by a sociologist described me as making a contribution to historical sociology, so I was quite happy to hear that, but this definitely takes me back to when I was doing my doctoral dissertation, which turned into a book called The Inner Civil War, about Northern intellectuals and the Civil War, which was published in 1965, I was working on a dissertation, but I was doing it entirely topically, I had a series of topics, things that intellectuals were concerned about with the civil war. And, each chapter would cover the whole war period—in other words, a section on ideas about loyalty to the state, and so forth, or the concepts of slavery and emancipation—each one covered the whole war. My dissertation advisor said, “You know, there’s no suspense in this; what you should do is you should find some events that will sort of give you kind of postholes for your analysis; in other words, set this up kind of chronologically, so you combine the chronological and the narrative.”
HO: So, like a key moment that brings out the question of loyalty. And then, when you do that, then you can talk in the past of that event.
GF: And so I tried to follow that more or less. Of course, it depends: if you’re simply writing an essay then you don’t have to have a narrative structure, necessarily. But, for example, the book on racism, it is divided into three chapters that cover different historical periods, and so there is a progression of movement forward. And actually, you know, without chronology there wouldn’t be history, because history is essentially the discipline of books that change over time; so to demonstrate change over time you have to sort of have a narrative structure. But I think you can combine the two. It’s difficult, but it can be done. That’s what I’m trying to do.
HO: It sounds like you do a lot of work before you get to the outlining, blocking things out, working it all out in your mind.
GF: Yes, and sometimes you write essays. Unlike David Abernethy, I do put forth some of my ideas in the form of essays or at least papers, which you give at conferences, so that you have some written stuff that feeds into the. . .
HO: So you’re working on your developing . . . Particularly, you’ve dealt with a lot of archival material. And do you mainly just generate notes or do you generate ideas about writing in the midst of the archival work?
GF: I think, first of all, anything that starts with doing archival work or primary source research, since my main work is intellectual history and cultural history, I’ve used a lot more published material, contemporary pamphlets, books, things like that. I’ve done some work in manuscripts, big collections of papers. I haven’t done much work with government archives. I’ve done some with Congressional Records and so forth. I think, even to start, you have to have some sort of working hypothesis; you have to have kind of an idea. Well, I think the process is you start reading what other historians have written about a subject or around a subject, even if they haven’t written on exactly that subject, then something close to it, and then questions come up, things that you think need to be further explored, you might develop a tentative feel of what you are likely to find; so you have this sort of framework, and then your research gives you material to either confirm or contradict the hypothesis you have; or give you the sense of an entirely new dimension on the issue that you hadn’t heard of. And that’s really exciting, because the other historians haven’t even thought about this, and you suddenly see something developing from your research that is not in the literature. Then, oh boy, then you can really take off.
HO: You mentioned writing your dissertation and then there was this wonderful moment, you said, where you got guidance about restructuring it. What was that experience like—coming up with the idea? Was it difficult for you to write your dissertation?
GF: Well, I have to say that in terms of the time it took, apparently not. I mean, I actually wrote my dissertation in – I got my PhD in three years, so I wrote the dissertation and it took me only about a year.
HO: Wow. Wait, how many classes—two years of classwork?
GF: Well, three years and a summer. But it was a personal situation, I had three children when I started doctoral work, and I figured I’d better get my degree and get out and start putting food on the table. But at that particular moment I had to neglect my family in order to do this. So yeah, I wrote the thing in about a year.
HO: Including the research?
GF: Well, yeah, but I spent a couple years revising it, but it was actually published five years after I started graduate work. In other words, I started my graduate work in ’60 and the book came out in ’65.
HO: Okay and you got your PhD in ’63 . . . So, in some ways, if I can interpret from this, writing is a fairly easy thing for you to do?
GF: I guess so, yeah.
HO: Well, let me ask you – that’s a pretty amazing thing to do, writing a PhD dissertation in one year – did you write in high school? I mean, I don’t want to necessarily say, “When did you decide to be a historian?” That’s one particular thing, but when did you get an experience where you felt that writing was an okay thing to do?
GF: Well, I think as an undergraduate. I wrote a senior honors thesis on history—well, history and literature—I was at Harvard in the History/Literature program, and I wrote 130 page undergraduate honors thesis, and I actually published one part of it, one chapter, as an article. In the honors program at Harvard you have to do a lot of writing. They had a tutorial program when you bring in a paper about every week to a tutor. I don’t know whether Stanford students now do a comparable amount of writing, or maybe not. Depends on, I guess, what field you’re in. In History and Lit, that was a field where you really did a lot of writing.
HO: When you were in elementary school, did writing come easily to you in school? Just curious.
GF: Yeah, I remember in high school doing a historical paper, and spending a lot of time in the library, and the topic was the Salem witch trials. It was an English class, actually, but they said to write a research paper on something. So, for some reason, I chose to do something in American History, and I found that a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
HO: So, I take also from this that you actually enjoy writing?
GF: Yeah, I do.
HO: Where do you do your writing? At your office?
GF: At home. I’ve always done most of my writing at home.
HO: And when you write at home are there particular hours that you like to write?
GF: I find it hard to write more than about 6 hours a day; so I suppose if I’m doing about 6 pages, I’m doing about a page an hour. So I write three hours and three hours in the afternoon, or something like that.
HO: Do you take breaks? Lunch?
GF: Yes, for lunch; otherwise, not much.
HO: So it’s basically, in some ways, a 9-5 job?
GF: Yes. When I was a graduate student and doing a dissertation I did a lot of writing at night because I felt pressure to get that done and so forth. But after that, partly because I discovered I had a problem with insomnia if I worked at night, I tried to compress my writing into 9-5.
HO: You would write at night? You’d get up and write?
GF: No, no, but when I was a graduate student doing my dissertation I would write until 11 o’clock at night.
HO: Oh, and then you’d be wired. And now, in your office, working the 9-5 kind of thing, do you have a particular writing ritual? Do you know what I’m talking about? Do you have to get everything all cleaned up before you write?
GF: No. I’ve been using a laptop for a long time to write. And some people say, “Don’t you need a bigger keyboard?” What I like about a laptop is that there is a lot of room on the desk to pile up papers. Increasingly, actually, I have worked—I suppose it’s a sign of laziness or just an ability to deal with a mass of material—I have files full of photocopied stuff and books, so I’ve worked right out of a lot of sources, materials, that I have right there at hand. So, to do that, there’s not much room on the desk. I guess there are ways to organize it.
HO: Room on the desk . . .
GF: You have a lot of stuff that you can reach for, because in history you do a lot of quoting.
HO: Do you listen to music?
GF: For years I was a heavy pipe smoker. And when I decided to give up pipe smoking about 4 years ago I figured that the one time it was going to really be a problem was that I wouldn’t be able to write any more because that was part of my writing ritual.
HO: For example, Mary Lou Roberts likes to listen to light rock when she’s writing, but she hates it. Because she hates it, it makes her concentrate. There’s a logic to it. Some people can’t stand any kind of noise. You basically have a quiet house. How did you write with the kids?
GF: It’s been a long time. I’m trying to remember. I did a lot of my work in the library.
GF: Got away from the house.
HO: Alright, well, let’s open it up for other people’s comments. I have a lot more I could ask about, but let’s open it up now. What we’re doing is we’re putting this on videotape, and hopefully we’re going to get all of these transcribed and streaming video, if it works out, or at least clips, so that you could look on the URP’s How I Write website and be able to look at past discussions as well, even pull out if you wanted to look at how George Fredrickson outlines things, you’d be able to pull that out. All of these learning tools, all the different ways that people write, just to explain why we’re doing the videotaping. And that’s why we want to get your voice. Speak right in to the mic.
A: When you decided to rewrite your thesis, did you find new ideas as you were doing that?
GF: I probably did, yes. It’s been a long time, 40 years since I did that. My memory is a little dim as to how I actually worked in those days, but yes, I think to some extent. I think the main ideas were there, the main points I wanted to make had occurred to me, but in dealing with them in relation to specific events, I think I was able to go much more deeply into them and make them a lot more compelling.
A: When you start writing, do you start from the beginning to the end, or do you focus on the section that you feel most comfortable or that’s most developed in your mind?
GF: No, I pretty much do it from the beginning to the end. If I’m writing a book, and I guess I’ve written seven now…or is it 8? Depends on how you define them, but anyway—well, actually two of them are books of essays, you know, collections of essays, but for the 5 books that I’ve written as a sort of, you know, single thing, I would first make a chapter outline, in other words I’d have an outline of roughly what’s in each chapter, but then before doing the chapter I’d make a more detailed outline, but pretty much, you know, do the thing in order, yeah.
A: So, I missed Paul Robinson’s but it sounds like he suffered from a lot more angst than you do in your writing, and I’m wondering with your graduate students who you’re working with on their dissertations or theses or whatever it is when they’re suffering from that when it’s something that’s still outside of your experience how do you counsel them, what advice do you give them or do you just talk through where they’re stuck or how do you help your students?
GF: Well, it’s, you know, it’s hard to generalize because I think every case is different. And, you know, for example, some graduate students will assume that every note that they take and everything they know about subject has to be in the dissertation. And so you’ll get these incredibly long chapters that, you know, I’ll say, “We don’t need to know all of that” or “that’s more than we need to know;” and it gets too detailed, and so I tell them to cut back. And in some cases, you find the reverse, it’s too schematic, you’ve got to fill in more details. I just couldn’t generalize about that because I think that every case is different. And some graduate students find it much easier to write than others, some take a lot longer to do their dissertations. It’s very idiosyncratic, just like you were saying about the people who come here, they all do it differently, no graduate students are just the same.
HO: Well, you know, along those lines, do you ever get stuck, well, not writers’ block in a serious kind of way, but you’re at a point and you’re not sure how to go?
GF: Well, I suppose in my outlining process. You know, if it happened it would happen before I actually was typing and word processing, and so no, I don’t really have that problem.
HO: So you haven’t had that experience.
HO: To me it sounds like so much of your writing happens before you get to the writing. You know what I mean? You’ve worked things out and if you’re stuck on something you’re working it out before you get to the keyboard or even to the pencil.
A: This is more of a—kind of a personal question, but you mentioned Northwestern--was that your school?
GF: No, I taught there for many years. I did my undergraduate work at Harvard, and then I was away for four years on a Fulbright to Norway, and then 3 years in the Navy, and we talked about this before, between wars—1970s, and then I came back to Harvard and did my graduate work there, and then after finishing my graduate work and teaching for a couple years at Harvard I went to Northwestern and I was there for 18 years. I've been now at Stanford for 19 years, so just now I’ve been a little longer at Stanford than I was at Northwestern, but I’ve pretty much divided my academic career between those two institutions.
A: While at Northwestern of course you came in contact with professors—and anything in the speech department?
GF: The speech department – I had something to do with the speech department before I went to college, which was I went to a summer institute there—actually, one thing I should mention auto biographically that contributed tremendously to my ability to write history was being a high-school debater, and doing research on debate topics, preparing to argue one side or the other, taking notes, and making arguments, and I went to Northwestern, where they had a summer institute for high school debaters in about 1951.
A: This is marvelous because I was at Wake Forest college just about 20 miles north of you, and we had a great speech teacher, and a couple people—I suppose I could include myself, but I was a Mickey Rooney in those days, so you know—but at the same time, this speech teacher—I learned how to write from speaking, and Northwestern, we used to debate you, of course—and you know all about that.
GF: The other thing, in high school—it was part of debating but it was extemporaneous speaking, and we would draw a topic, you’d actually have a choice of three, and you’d have a file of Newsweek and Time and so forth, and I was the state champion extemporaneous speaker, and I think the experience of having to pull together and give a speech, and it was only an eight minute speech, but you had to write an eight minute speech based on it, so I think that experience probably increased my fluency, both orally and when it came to writing.
HO: So there is a connection, a lot of people have commented about that. I was wondering what about preparing lectures? Is there a difference, do you feel? Or, to what degree has preparing lectures, for example, helped to develop books you have written?
GF: Well, not individual lectures, but I have occasionally taken lectures and turned them into articles. Maybe a lecture I would give in class, then I would give it as a lecture at a university, or I would be invited to give a lecture, and then it would turn into an article. And I would say that my lectures look very much like my outlines, or my sketches of chapters, so it isn’t that difficult for me to move from a lecture I’ve been giving in class to something more formal and publishable. But not too many of my lectures have made that direct transition, but a couple of them have.
A: I think a lot of writers when they’re writing are in a constant state of dissatisfaction, and when you are in school you have the five paragraph essay, or the ten-page paper, or the 100-page thesis. How do you know when you’re done? When you’re writing do you set boundaries for yourself? At what point do you stop and say, “I can’t write anymore about this” or it’s to the point where—
GF: Well, as I think I mentioned, but maybe didn’t say enough about, I do revise language extensively. In other words, the first draft is in the right order and maybe the basic ideas are right, but I do a lot of playing around with exactly the way I express things. The first book I wrote on a word processor was probably—I think the first four books I wrote were all written on typewriters in the old days. And I used to leave six lines between each typed line. So I’d end up actually rewriting the whole thing between the lines. So, revising the language is something I do extensively. It’s mysterious—at some point you just say, “Okay, well that’s as good as I can get it.”
A: After you have published something, do you ever go back and read it, and realize that you could have done more, or do you just not look at something after it has been published?
GF: Yeah, occasionally I go back; the worst thing that usually happens is that you find embarrassing typographical errors, or you misspelled the name of an author of a book you footnoted. It’s my test of how careful people’s scholarship is when they’re writing on subjects that I’ve written on is whether they spell my name right because it’s eccentrically spelled. F-R-E-D-R-I-C-K, there’s no E after the D, and when people get that right I say, “Yeah, they were pretty good,” but I don’t know, no I think I feel when something is written it’s written, and I might revise myself sometimes, I’ve actually gone back and said 'well I've rethought this, and I don’t look at it quite the same way; but for the most part when it’s done it’s done and you go on to something else.
HO: I had the odd experience of reading something, and I didn’t notice until partway through that it was mine.
GF: I think one of my funniest experiences was when—this was at Northwestern, this couldn’t have happened at Stanford. At Northwestern I assigned students to write book reviews, and I gave them a list of books they could write book reviews on, and one of them came in and I started reading it, and I said, “Oh my gosh, this isn’t theirs,” and it turned out it was a review that he had—
HO: He’d written a review of your book?
GF: Yeah—no, no, it was a review I had written of another book. And there it was. And I called the student in and I said, “Look, do you know what plagiarism is? I mean, how dumb can you be to plagiarize from the professor himself?” And he said, “Oh.” He said, “I did read your review; I guess I was so impressed by it that it got fixed in my mind and I couldn’t . . . ”
HO: That’s extemporaneous speaking right there.
GF: It also occurred to me at that time that, my gosh, this kind of an assignment is a kind of invitation to plagiarism, because you sanction students to write a book review and they go find some review that somebody’s written, so I actually stopped—and this was at Northwestern, something like this would never happen at Stanford, it didn’t happen that often at Northwestern, too, but that particular kind of assignment, you know, you ask them to review a book in 5 to 6 pages and then there are all these journals where there are reviews of that book and it’s maybe too much of a temptation.
HO: Let me ask you then, kind of to follow up on what you had asked: How do you find undergraduate writing? I mean, the papers that you’ve read and things of that sort – the quality in terms of Stanford students?
GF: Well, I think mostly the papers I have read recently have been senior honors theses, or fairly advanced students; but generally speaking I think the writing is pretty good; much better on paper then it is on class exams. You know, they’re written in longhand and you can’t read the writing.
HO: Well you did a freshman seminar, didn’t you?
GF: Yeah, I have taught a freshman seminar, and—
HO: And the writing was—
GF: Well, you know, there was a range obviously, but generally speaking I thought it was pretty good. It was a self-selective group. I mean, I gave a freshman seminar for several years, and I may come back and do it again even though I am retired, but I enjoyed doing it so much. It was on Abraham Lincoln: “Abraham Lincoln: Myth and Reality.” And I found that most of the students who were in there had some strong interest in the subject to begin with, it was kind of a self-selective group, intended to be for students who had had a lot of American history already.
HO: And consequently a lot of writing.
GF: Uh-huh. Yeah.
A: Could you tell us a little more about your archival experience and how you do your research?
GF: It varies a lot with different projects. The first book, The Inner Civil War, was about a group of northern intellectuals, many of them literary figures – Emerson, Whitman, and others as well, clergymen and so forth—and in order to do that I did have to go and consult the readily available collections of manuscripts and the most exciting thing there was to discover in one collection was a letter, I thought. And I said, “Well, I wonder what the recipient of this letter thought about it,” and I went to another collection and actually found it, so I put together the parts of the correspondence. And so I found that, you know, very exciting to do work with what literary scholars do a lot—collections of correspondence mostly, and so I did a certain amount of that with that project. The second book, one of the ones that you have here, The Black Image in the White Mind, there I was mainly concerned with what had been written and published about African Americans by whites predominantly over a period of about a century. And there I did a lot of work in the library of congress looking at obscure pamphlets and books and to some extent I used the congressional record, speeches made in Congress and so forth. So there was a lot of primary source research. I did go into some collections of letters there as well with some of the more notorious ideological racists of the nineteenth century. That project – I could have done a lot more research, obviously, so you have to limit it in some way. I was mostly working in 19 th century published material in the Library of Congress, and I think probably what has happened is that I have gotten more into comparative history since then and have used archives less. I’ve used them only when I’ve really found that the secondary literature, these writings by historians didn’t answer some urgent question that I had to answer. Historians write a lot, as you can imagine, and the building blocks for ordinary history are archival materials; but for comparative history, the building blocks are the monographs, in other words, the specialized studies that other historians have made, and putting together a lot of them. So since I’ve gotten into comparative history it’s been more the use of secondary accounts of very detailed things, and trying to put them together in a larger pattern. In a sense, maybe I have become a historical sociologist, because one of the things that historical sociologists do is read a lot of books, but they don’t do much archival research; but if you’ve done archival research, you at least have a sense of how reliable a particular study might be.
HO: You know, there’s one thing that you had mentioned earlier that I wanted to raise—this thing about graduate students who put in too much, and in some ways letting things go-- there is this desire, I think, that maybe some graduate students have, but also autodidacts have, who want to prove themselves or show everything or they love everything—a lot of biographers do that, they love everything about their subject and they want to throw everything in. So, how did you develop the sense of what to put in and how to let things go?
GF: Well, again, I think you can also over-research. You can do more research than you have to do. My dissertation advisor, who, by the way, is still alive, he actually has not published all that much himself, but he was a wonderful mentor, his name’s Donald ---, a historian of American science primarily, and he was a wonderful mentor and one of the things he said in addition to having a chronological development, the other thing he said was that at a certain point you could go out and do more research, but if you’ve got enough to make your case, then go ahead and make it. And that’s what I try to tell students that as well, that if they’ve got enough to make a strong argument, they don’t really necessarily have to cover everything there is on that topic. In other words, at a certain point—and I find this in my own research – diminishing returns, where what you’re finding is just reinforcing what you’re already saying. So I think there’s a tendency to over-research, that’s not exactly a writing problem, but well, it’s related to writing.
HO: It’s related because it gets reflected in the writing. So, knowing when to stop doing research, when to write things, so, it’s something that you need to know. I always tell students to basically put out an argument or write something even before it is developed, and then develop it later, just to begin the process. Well, I think we’ve basically come to the end of our time. . . And let me tell you, I had four kids and I was a professional writer, and it still didn’t take me a year and a summer to write my dissertation. Took me longer than that! That’s amazing.