An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Resurgence of Historical Books?

Mar 5, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Elder, there seems to be a plethora of historical based books currently available. Have you ever observed a similar period in history, when the populace seems to be interested in historical themes and our Presidents?

The only other comparable time in my experience was back in 1976, the year of our bicentennial. Even the time period immediately after 9/11 did not result in such a keen interest in books on American History in general and presidents in particular.

2) Let’s work backwards if you will—-One book—” The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher- from Grocer’s Daughter to Prime Minister” seems to chronicle the time frame in which Margaret Thatcher provided leadership for Great Britain. Any thoughts as to why Americans are interested in this topic, or even why we should study this period of British history?

We have always had a love/hate relationship with the British throughout our history. We reject many things about them, but we have always had an interest in their leaders. Queen Victoria’s husband, for instance, received a very enthusiastic welcome immediately prior to the Civil War when he visited the United States.

3) I suspect that the movie with Meryl Streep may have had something to do with the book on Margaret Thatcher. In this current time period, do movies seem to spur an interest in historical time periods or historical individuals?

Without question, a good movie about history can awaken interest in a subject among the general public. “Saving Private Ryan” clearly spawned a number of books on World War II, and led to the HBO series “Band of Brothers.”

4) I realize that British history is not your forte, but what do you see as Margaret Thatcher’s contributions?

Margaret Thatcher had a tremendous impact on Great Britain during her years as the Prime Minister. Most historians give her high marks for helping Britain recover economically from a marked downturn in the 1970s, and she was clearly an implacable foe of the Soviet Union. She stood up to Argentina over the Falkland Islands, and helped institutions of higher education. But many critics deride her for her policy of deregulation of business and her opposition to trade unions, and they decry the fact that she did not oppose the apartheid regime in South Africa. Finally, when she opposed the creation of the European Union she lost political favor, and a vote of no confidence removed her from power.

5) ” Killing Lincoln ” as you know revolves around that time period, of the Civil War and chronicles the events that seem to have led up to Lincoln’s assassination.   Often ” Hollywood ” if you will, tends to glamorize things, and takes extreme liberties with what actually happen. How accurate is the book on “Killing Lincoln” and are there better more historically accurate chronicles of the assassination?

Bill O’Reilly is a gifted writer, and his book is a very interesting read. Unfortunately, it has numerous errors (in fairness to him, a later version corrected a number of them), and I can’t recommend it as the best book on his assassination. I would say that “Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln” by Edward Steers, Jr., is the best book on his assassination.

6) Another book that seems to be appearing in bookstores is on “Cain and Gettsyburg”. Can you briefly fill us in on Cain, and his role in Gettsyburg?

Actually, the title is metaphorical. It is implying that just as Cain slew his brother Abel, we were slaying our own American brothers during the Civil War.

7) Why does Gettysburg still seem to evoke interest in contemporary Americans?

Gettysburg was the biggest battle in the most important war in our history, so for the last 150 years it has loomed large in our national conscience. Throw in the gripping twists and turns that could have caused the battle to turn out much differently, and you have a ready recipe for a story that will continue to fascinate us.

8) Are there historians, say at West Point and Annapolis, who seem to specialize in military maneuvers, and military battles, and are those books relevant to today’s military endeavors, or are they just of historical import and interest?

There are many books that have been written by purely military historians. They are usually not as interesting to read as books by novelists or professional writers, but serve a usual purpose. They, unlike writers with an untrained eye, can show how elements of weathers, geography, topography, etc. influenced outcomes of battles.

9) Now, there is also a book on George Washington.  In your mind, was it his leadership or his personality that seems to endear Americans to our First President?

Washington was a man who literally towered over his generation. He guided the American cause through extremely dark days during the American Revolution, and provided very effective leadership during our early days as a nation. He was not an outgoing individual, but everyone who knew him respected him as a brave and able leader.

10) What are YOU currently reading and what are some of your recommendations ?

I just read “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery” by Eric Foner. It is an excellent look at how Lincoln’s handling of slavery changed during the Civil War. I also recommend “1861” by Adam Goodheart.

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