Interviews with Historians: Carol Berkin

BerkinCarol Berkin is Presidential Professor Emerita at Baruch College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She received her bachelor’s degree at Barnard College. In 1972, she received her PhD at Columbia University, where she also worked on the Papers of John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. Her dissertation on Jonathan Sewall won the Bancroft Award for Outstanding Dissertation and the subsequent book, Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Loyalist, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. She then spent her entire teaching career at Baruch College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her most popular works include A Brilliant Solution (2002), which has been translated into Polish and Chinese, First Generations: Women in Colonial America (1996), Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for American Independence (2005), and Civil War Wives (2009). She is a pioneer in early American women’s history and also the author and editor of numerous textbooks, readers, and teaching guides for women’s history including Women of America (1980), Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives: Documents in Early American History (1998), In the Words of Women: The Revolutionary War and the Birth of the Nation, 1765 – 1799 (2011), and Clio in the Classroom: A Guide to Teaching Women’s History (2009). She is also the editor of History Now, an online magazine published by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. She has appeared in numerous television documentaries, including Founding Brothers and Founding Fathers on the History Channel and Ric Burns’ New York on PBS.

JUNTO: Where are you from originally and what were your early educational experiences like, especially in history?

BERKIN: I grew up in Mobile, Alabama—needless to say, the educational system there in the 1950s was abysmal. Laughable. They had no idea what to do with kids who were intelligent so I spent much of elementary school drawing seasonal pictures on blackboards in all the classrooms and in middle school. A few of us were simply told to go home after lunch. I thus spent many happy hours in the public library. History in high school was a hoot! It consisted entirely of “the coming of the Civil War”—or rather, the “War of Northern Aggression,” a battle by battle, skirmish by skirmish account of the war itself, and then the tragic aftermath [according to the illustrious Miss Forehand] called Reconstruction. Miss Forehand recited every battle, how many men and horses were killed or wounded, etc . . .  and the next day we had to write back what she said, word for word. This did not inspire a deep and abiding love of history. But, then, I went to Barnard and life changed. I had three of the most extraordinary history professors—Sidney Burrell, Norman Cantor, and Annette Baxter. The first was the most amazing teacher I have ever met; the second, one of the most brilliant men I have encountered; the third, the woman who inspired me to believe women’s history was important. After encountering these professors, graduate school became inevitable. And happily, Columbia was in New York City.

JUNTO: Can you give us a sense of what it was like to be a female graduate student in History at an Ivy League university in the late 1960s?

BERKIN: Oh, this would take a complete memoir.  Let me just say that neither Columbia’s faculty nor its predominantly male student body was committed to feminism. You can fill in the rest for yourselves.

JUNTO: In the 1970s, you were at the forefront of the advent of early American women’s history. Can you give us a sense of the excitement that you felt at the time?

BERKIN: You can’t imagine how exciting, and scary, it was. My dissertation on an American Loyalist had won the Bancroft Award and I was, as my advisor Richard Morris put it, on a good career path. Friends suggested I not jeopardize that career by pursuing something as quixotic as colonial women’s history. But, in 1974 the nation came down with bicentennial fever and American Airlines asked me to write a piece on women in the American Revolution. Thus began my first venture into women’s history—published in a magazine that sat right next to the airsick bags on every American flight. There was nowhere to go but up from there! Happily, a small and very talented group of women were overcome with the same desire as me: to add women to the historical record. We could meet in a phone booth, of course, but, hey, when your companions in arms are Mary Beth Norton, Linda Kerber, and Catherine Clinton, you are in very good company. The rest, as they say in the trade, is history.

JUNTO: You received tenure at Baruch College in the CUNY system and stayed there for the rest of your career. What was it about Baruch, specifically, or CUNY, more generally, that you enjoyed?

BERKIN: Easy, it was in NYC and I never ever wanted to leave Manhattan! But it was also important that CUNY was a public university that served first generation college students, like I had been. I believed I could do some good in a school like this, and I have never regretted remaining at Baruch. I can honestly say—though it sounds corny—that I loved every moment of my time with these kids. And, the same goes for my years working with PhD students at the CUNY Graduate center. Looking back, I would have to say I have been very very lucky in my career.

JUNTO: What was your biggest challenge teaching at such public city university?

BERKIN: Well I could mention the absurd teaching load, classes that were too large, too few resources, no research assistants, little travel money, a dreadful sabbatical system, and a very modest salary, but, why quibble? Adversity makes you stronger (or something like that).

JUNTO: In the 1980s and 1990s, you made a turn toward synthetic and narrative history, while still incorporating analysis. Your two books on early American women’s history (First Generations and Revolutionary Mothers) are probably the most widely read books on the topic. What was your impetus for attempting to synthesize the scholarship on women in early America and what was the hardest part in doing so?

BERKIN: Why did I decide to attempt a synthesis of the scholarship on early American women? Simple. The late and wonderful Arthur Wang of Hill and Wang asked me to do just that in the late 1980s. It took me almost a decade—largely because of the birth of 2 children (Edward Gibbon and George Bancroft did NOT change diapers, right?). But this “diversion” proved a blessing in disguise because so much remarkable scholarship emerged in those years that I might not have included if Hannah and Matthew had not come along. So, when the book came out in 1996, it actually had a lot to synthesize. I am enormously proud of First Generations—and delighted that the scholarship that came out after its publication often confirmed all my “perhapses” and “maybes” that reflected still remaining gaps in our knowledge.

JUNTO: In the 1990s, you published one of the most popular narratives of the Constitutional Convention, A Brilliant Solution. What inspired you to undertake such a project? 

BERKIN: As I said in the preface to the book, two events prompted this book: 9/11 and the Gore-Bush disputed election. The latter gave me my 15 minutes of fame: I was on CNN, NBC, and even Fox, and interviewed on radio stations all across the country answering sometimes idiotic questions about the founding fathers and elections—(sample: “Who do you think Ben Franklin would have voted for in this election?” Answer: “I don’t know, he’s dead.”). I realized that even seemingly intelligent Americans (excluding, of course, those on Fox News) had no idea about the Constitutional Convention or, for that matter, eighteenth-century ideology or realities. And, 9/11 made me realize that most of the people I met in the bank or grocery store assumed the US had always been the most powerful country on the planet, admired and/or hated by the rest of the world. Or as a student once put it, “Ever since the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, America has been the greatest nation on earth” (Happily he was not a history major—or, for that matter, a sailor). So, I decided someone had to set all the records straight. And I knew the story was a good one. I wrote the book so quickly—it just poured out of me after years of teaching this subject. I have gotten scores of letters from readers, from 8th graders to middle-aged lawyers and judges, who have said they loved the book.

JUNTO: I think the thing that has always struck me (and others I’ve talked to) about your writing is just how “easy” it is. And, of course, by that I mean it’s very concise and just easy to read, while also conveying complex narratives and analyses of something like the Constitutional Convention. Is that something you spend a lot of time on or does it come naturally?

BERKIN: I wish I could say that I labor over writing, but, like Washington, I cannot tell a lie. Writing has always come ridiculously easily to me. When I write, it feels like flying. I think it comes from all the reading I did as a lonely kid in Alabama. My mother and I literally read through our public library, A to Z, when I was young, so I was introduced to Faulkner and Agee and Austin and Tolstoy as an 11-year-old. I didn’t understand some of these novels, but I fell in love with words, with their rhythms, their cadence… Or, perhaps my writing skill is just damn good luck.

JUNTO: We hear a lot in the profession about how historians need to write with a broader audience in mind and you’ve done that very successfully for a long time. And your books are read both by general readers as well as undergraduates. What advice would you give to a graduate student or junior historian who wanted to reach a broader audience like you have done?

BERKIN: First, write some standard academic research-laden books, published by university presses. Then, get tenure. Then, decide if you truly want to reach a general audience, if you have something you truly want them to know—and decide if you are willing to write to them with respect rather than a patronizing tone. Proving to the reader you are smart is an academic obsession; general audiences want you to prove you have a good story to tell and a good argument to make. Then, get an idea for a book. And finally, get a good  agent. Remember: trade book publishing is different from academic publishing. You have real deadlines. You cannot cry “writer’s block” and take 3 more years. But also remember that you will reach—and add to the knowledge of—more people than you can imagine. And, you will get a few marriage proposals as well! [Hint: do not reply to emails from these suitors]

JUNTO: You recently published Civil War Wives and, in February, you have a biography of Betsy Bonaparte coming out called Wondrous Beauty. Is there something specific about women in the antebellum period that has attracted you recently?

BERKIN: Well, if you recall, my first encounter with history was the Civil War, the whole Civil War, and nothing but the Civil War. So, writing about women in the Civil War era was inevitable. Betsy Bonaparte, on the other hand, was just too fascinating a woman to pass up. Born in the early national era, she lived through Reconstruction. She married Napoleon’s youngest brother—he abandoned her and her son—and instead of slinking back to Baltimore, embarrassed and ashamed, she went on to have a remarkable, exciting life on two continents. She dazzled men but refused to marry again. She invested her money brilliantly and died a very wealthy woman. She was witty, sarcastic, charming, bitter, and locked in a lifelong battle of wills with her father that Freud would have drooled over. Who could resist writing about her?

JUNTO: What do you think is the biggest gap in the scholarly literature on women in early America today?

BERKIN: I continue to be committed to researching and reconstructing the lived experiences of early American women. For me, gender theory is valuable only if it illuminates rather than dominates this difficult and delicate process of reconstruction. I worry we are moving too far away from the fundamentals of history and too deeply into the satisfactions of intellectual prowess for its own sake.

JUNTO: Finally, for years, you’ve done speaking engagements all across the country as well as participating in GLC seminars for secondary history teachers. Can you tell us why that kind of work is important to you? 

BERKIN: I believe it is my professional obligation to share what we, as scholars, discover with the teachers who labor in the classrooms. Actually, I believe it is the obligation of all academics to reach out to elementary and high school teachers. I can assure you all that the involved is a two way street. From the teachers I have worked with over the past decade and a half,  I have learned how to listen not just to lecture; how to build an analysis slowly, patiently and steadily; how to recognize a teachable moment rather than bemoan a student’s confusion. And, I am certainly not alone in making this commitment to teachers; many of the leading historians you know—from Eric Foner to David Blight to Joanne Freeman and many more—have reached out through Teaching American History Grant programs, through the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and other organizations.

DISCLAIMER: Carol has been a mentor/unofficial advisor (and advocate) of mine since I took my first class with her as a sophomore at the City University of New York. Over the next two years, I took three more classes with her including a graduate seminar on women in the era of the American Revolution and a course on the links between rock music, culture, and politics (yes, it was as fun as it sounds). I have benefited enormously from her advice and her no-nonsense approach to, well, everything. She is an excellent role model for graduate students and  junior historians, both as historians and academics, more generally. Over the years, we’ve had numerous conversations on the topics above and I found them so useful that I hoped to share such a conversation with our readers in the hopes that they would find it as useful as I have.

3 comments on “Interviews with Historians: Carol Berkin

  1. Brad says:

    Excellent interview. Thanks.

  2. […] A possible sketch of a 1776 map of New York is found in Britain, h/t Michael Hattem Also, Hattem interviews Carol Berkin. […]

  3. Je suis plus positif où Vous l’obtention de votre info , mais bonne sujet.
    I doit passer un moment trouver plus ou comprendre plus
    . magnifique info je l’habitude d’être à l’affût d’
    info pour ma mission .

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