Interviews with Historians: Edwin G. Burrows

Edwin G. Burrows, Brooklyn College

Note: This post initiates one of our first special features, “Interviews with Historians.” The series is meant to give established historians a chance to discuss their work and share their thoughts on a range of topics with the next generation of early Americanists. The Junto would especially like to thank Ted Burrows for agreeing to be the subject of the series’ first interview.

Edwin G. Burrows is the Pulitzer-Prize winning co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, a narrative history covering the city’s founding by the Dutch through consolidation. After receiving his BA from the University of Michigan in 1964, Burrows received his PhD from Columbia University in 1972, where he worked with Eric McKitrick. Soon thereafter, he took a position in the History Department at Brooklyn College, where he has remained for the last forty years. Over the course of two decades, he co-wrote Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 with fellow Columbia PhD, Mike Wallace, which won them the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1999. In 2008, his second book, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War, was published by Basic Books and won the 2009 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award for the best book written each year on the American Revolution. In the interest of full disclosure, Ted served as my “faculty mentor” in the CUNY Baccalaureate Program for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies.

JUNTO: Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of Gotham

BURROWS: The short version of the story is that Mike (Wallace) and I, fresh out of grad school, had been grinding away on a general history of capitalism. No joke. We made good headway, but eventually it dawned on us that this might be a bigger project than we had bargained for. Around the same time, we had both started to develop undergraduate courses on the history of New York City (Mike at John Jay, me at Brooklyn) and were lamenting the lack of an up-to-date book on the subject. One thing led to another—this is now the early 1980s—and we decided to turn the capitalism book into a succinct single-volume survey of the city. Not a bad idea, either: how and why New York became the ur-capitalist metropolis of America are important questions that needed answering. The result, fifteen-plus years and a couple of publishers later, was Gotham, which requires some 1400 pages to move the story only as far as 1898. How’s that for irony?

JUNTO: Gotham was published by Oxford University Press in 1998 and won the Pulitzer Prize in History the following year. Did you have a sense while working on it that it had that kind of potential? 

BURROWS: Sometimes, when I went back to re-read stuff we had written (often years before), I came away thinking it was pretty damn good—maybe not prize material, but nothing to be ashamed of. Other times, though, I got the night sweats thinking I had signed on to an epic, career-wrecking folie à deux that would never see the light of day. Or, if it did, would be greeted with hoots of derision (in fact, one reader for a prominent academic press said we weren’t up to the challenge and advised against publication). Typically, when I learned it had won the Pulitzer, my first thought (just for a second, mind you), was that the prize committee was (referring) to another book of the same title.

JUNTO: What did you think of Ric Burns’s “New York: A Documentary History?” Were you disappointed that the pre-1800 period was covered so briefly and, if so, is there a topic you thought merited more attention?

BURROWS: Like many early Americanists, I was quite disappointed. By condensing nearly half the city’s history into one quick segment, Burns had to fall back on platitudes and generalities that simply don’t reflect the current state of our knowledge. I thought the brief, Anglo-centric handling of the Dutch period was particularly unfortunate—the sort of nonsense you’d expect from, say, Washington Irving. As an historian, I also have to believe that even events 300 or more years ago can help us understand the present, that it’s important to get the facts straight, and that we can’t privilege the more recent past just because it may feel more familiar.

It has been a while since I looked closely at that particular segment, but I remember wishing for a fuller treatment of how slavery shaped the colonial city, culturally and socially as well as economically. This is no small matter. During the Revolutionary War, for example, the long British occupation of Manhattan and Long Island helped spark black defiance of white racial prerogatives, setting the stage for the subsequent adoption of gradual emancipation. You simply can’t understand how that happened if you marginalize the African-American presence. Nor do I think you can fully understand the process of capital accumulation that preceded nineteenth-century industrialization. Likely as not, the money behind those banks, insurance companies, canals, railroads, and all the other capitalist enterprises can be traced back to slavery, locally or down South. But Burns isn’t the only, or even the worst, culprit here. It never ceases to amaze me how so many historians have written about the Revolution in New York without even mentioning that one out of every four or five New Yorkers was enslaved.

JUNTO: In Forgotten Patriots, you came to the conclusion that many more American insurgents had been captured by the British than had previously been believed and that when added to the known military deaths, it appears that the Revolutionary War, at least among patriots, had a similar death rate as a percentage of the population as the Civil War. How do you think that changes or should change the way we think of the Revolutionary War, or even the Revolution in general?

BURROWS: Well, no sooner had I published that than demographers raised the number of Civil War dead to around 750,000—pretty much knocking a hole my attempt to equate the severity of those two conflicts. So I’ll have to do some revising in the next edition, if there is one.

That said, the fact remains that, for most people who lived through it, the Revolution was not anything like what we see in one of those grand canvasses by Stuart or Trumbull. The carnage and brutality were horrendous, though historians have tended to minimize that dimension of the story. Instead, as you know, we have a mountain of books about the leading characters—Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton—and still know comparatively less about what happened to ordinary people, the uptick of interest in social history to the contrary notwithstanding. In writing about prisoners of war, I was trying to chip away at this bias and make a point about how their experiences, especially in occupied New York, helped shape the course of the conflict. Seen from inside one of the Wallabout prison ships, as it were, the Revolution bears only a passing resemblance to the grand heroic narrative that most Americans are familiar with. I should add that in writing Forgotten Patriots I found myself quarreling with some eminent authorities who have, in my estimation, greatly underestimated the actual number of these prisoners. Time will tell if my reading of the evidence stands up.

JUNTO: Indeed, it is quite striking that, even following the social history boom of the 1970s, particularly all those colonial community studies, and the subsequent cultural turn in early American studies, the experience of the violence of the Revolution and its effects on ordinary people and their communities, remains largely unexplored. Why do you suspect that is? 

BURROWS: I don’t think there’s just one reason. It’s partly the predictable result of how our attempts to reconstruct the past are skewed in favor of people who leave a paper trail. Mostly, though, I suspect there are still plenty of historians out there who just don’t see how the experience of ordinary people has much to tell us about the nation’s founding. It’s so interesting to me that there’s this huge discontinuity between colonial and revolutionary historiography. Once we get to 1776, the conversation typically switches to the handful of Founders and Framers who launched the nation; little else matters. Consider, for instance, Joseph Ellis, a brilliant writer who believes that “social history” is irrelevant to our understanding of the Revolution and Early National periods. Sure, he’s an extreme case. He’s not unique, however, and he has sold an awful lot of books.

JUNTO: You’ve taught at Brooklyn College, a small, very diverse, commuter college in the CUNY system, since 1972. What did you enjoy the most about teaching at a school like that? 

BURROWS: That’s easy: my students. Most of them are the first in their families to attend college, many are first or second-generation immigrants from all over the world, and they all approach college with well-placed, street-savvy skepticism. From them I learned everything I know about teaching. I can still remember, as if it happened yesterday, how awful I was in my first job. I eventually got better, if I do say so myself, precisely because I had to learn how to make some pretty dull subjects important to 18-year-old kids, many of whom work 20 hours a week and all of whom have to manage parental expectations that they will become accountants, dentists, or lawyers. They also made me much more aware of how important it is to write accessible history if you want to be read by more than a handful of other academics, who more or less have to slog through whatever you might put to paper.

JUNTO: Your “History of New York City” course was one of the most popular courses offered at Brooklyn College for very a long time. Why do you think that was and what was the main idea that you hoped students would take away from that course?

BURROWS: I think people are naturally curious about the history of the place where they find themselves. It’s a basic way of making sense of the world, after all. In many ways, too, the history of the city provides a framework for grasping the whole of the American experience. You really can’t say that about any other place in the country. Boston? Philadelphia? I don’t think so. Besides all that, I hope my students learn something about how historians do what they do—and why we all have such fun doing it.

JUNTO: You first came to New York in the mid-to-late 1960s to do your PhD at Columbia and you’ve never left. What is it about the city for you that it has played such a central role in both your personal and professional life?

BURROWS: Well, I met my wife in New York City and raised two kids in the suburbs, so in that sense it has been central, Looking back, I can’t imagine how things would have turned out in, say, some drowsy Midwestern college town. Career-wise, New York City has given me so many fascinating subjects for historical research as well as an unequaled array of libraries and archives. The only downside is that colleagues in other fields get to travel to exotic places like Paris or Cairo. Me, I get to ride the subway.

JUNTO: When did you begin to focus on early America as your field? How did you come to be an early Americanist?

BURROWS: Honestly, I’m not too sure. I guess I sort of stumbled into it. Probably McKitrick’s seminar helped push me in that direction. Early America just seemed more interesting than other fields.

JUNTO: While still in graduate school, you wrote a very interesting (and lengthy) article, also with Mike Wallace, for the 1972 volume of Bernard Bailyn’s Perspectives in American History entitled, “The American Revolution: The Ideology and Psychology of National Liberation.” Can you tell us how that article came about, both its conception and its publication?

BURROWS: That article was really about the way everybody used familial metaphors to work through issues of power and authority in Anglo-American relations. It was really the colonists who said they were like children who had grown up and should be allowed to leave home, not Mike and I, but we thought that way of putting it said something about how they felt. The same goes for the British and Loyalists, who had their own versions of the metaphor. We wrote it up and sent it off to Bailyn, who accepted it on the spot despite its length (of just under 140 pages). His work on pamphlets and opposition ideology was still the hot topic, so it was very exciting.

JUNTO: How did you find the experience of doing such a large amount of co-writing with a partner? How does it differ and what are the benefits from writing with a partner as opposed to doing it alone as you did in Forgotten Patriots?

BURROWS: If you really trust your co-author and you are both equally committed to the work, you can cover a lot more ground. Frankly, Gotham would have been impossible for one person to do alone, There’s just too much stuff to digest. The downside is that you can’t always have your own way and need to be prepared to compromise. Mike and I had only few major disagreements, and none so big that one or the other of us ever threatened to walk away from the project. I have to say, too, that Mike is a brilliant historian. I always knew that if he had an opinion about something, I’d better listen up.

JUNTO: You’ve used Edward Countryman’s The American Revolution as a sort-of touchstone text in your “American Revolution” course. What are the benefits of using that book with undergraduates?

BURROWS: Part of the answer is availability; there are any number of quite good books like it that are now out of print. Another part of the answer is that Countryman’s book is always very readable, by which I mean it’s well-written, its arguments are clearly laid out, and it manages to cover a wide range of topics. I don’t always agree with it, but it’s eminently teachable, and that’s no small achievement.

JUNTO: In your American Revolution course, what are the one or two things you hoped undergraduates would take away from it? Also, what did you find to be the most common misperception that students brought to that course?

BURROWS: First, that the Revolution is a deliciously complicated subject; and second, that they should never think anyone has the last word to say about any of it. Which in my experience is the single most basic misconception students tend to bring to every history course: that there’s nothing left to be said or discovered.

JUNTO: You’ve been an OAH Distinguished Lecturer. How important do you think it is for academic historians to engage the public, either through writing or speaking? 

BURROWS: I think nothing is more important than sharing what we know with non-historians. What’s the point of doing history if all we do is talk to one another? Anything that gets lay readers to pick up a history book is okay by me—even those endless tank battles on the History Channel, a bad movie like The Patriot, or a potboiler like McCullough’s 1776. Intellectual snobbery is counter-productive and distasteful. If you want people to buy your books, write books that people want to read, damn it. That doesn’t mean dumbing them down, either.

JUNTO: Do you have any thoughts on how the field has developed in recent decades? Or any piece of advice for a junior early Americanist?

BURROWS: I’m about to retire from college teaching and often think of myself as the last of the dinosaurs because the field as I first encountered it 40 years ago has virtually disappeared. Good thing, too. It’s more inclusive, or tries to be, and it’s more open to new ideas and new subjects. I expect the pace of change to pick up, thanks to the impact of new technologies. The downside—and not just for early Americanists—is that the conditions of employment will continue to deteriorate as higher education becomes more and more heavily influenced by corporate values and expectations. Some newly-minted PhDs are already looking at full-time jobs with no prospect of tenure, with heavier course loads, and with bloated class sizes, assuming they can even land a full-time job. The exploitation of contingent faculty is a national embarrassment, as we all know. Young historians nowadays need to be aware that higher education as we know it probably won’t survive another generation. What that means is this: don’t give up doing what you love, but keep your eyes open and your powder dry.

JUNTO: So you don’t think that the tide corporatization of higher education can be stemmed (or even reversed)? 

BURROWS: Nothing is inevitable except death and taxes, so I’d like to think we could save higher education from the bean counters. It’s more likely that we will see a two- or even three-tier system emerge. At the top, a comparative handful of elite private schools, say 20 or 30, will continue to provide a traditional liberal arts education for those who can afford it. Meanwhile, soaring costs force smaller, less well-known privates to close their doors. Lower down the pecking order, among beleaguered public schools, you’ll see increasing emphasis on vocational education. We’ve already got something like this, of course, but I’m fearful it will get a lot more rigid and systematic. I can see PhD programs tailoring their curricula accordingly—skipping or watering down the dissertation requirement, say, for degree candidates destined to spend their careers in second- or third-tier institutions where they will teach five or more courses per semester without the expectation (or opportunity) of publication.

JUNTO: Finally, where would you like to see the field go over the next decade in terms of scholarship?

BURROWS: I just hope it continues to attract creative young scholars who bring fresh ideas to the table. What those ideas will be is anyone’s guess.

7 responses

  1. This is a really fascinating conversation. The one thing I’d be curious to hear more about is the process of co-writing that Burrows and Wallace employed. I’m guessing given the length of the book and the way he describes it here that they did not simply divide chapters (but who knows).

    I guess the other question is whether he would ever consider doing it again, and if so, whether he would do it with someone with whom he was already a friend.

    • Joe, they divided the work up chronologically with Ted responsible for much of the stuff from settlement to the conclusion of the Revolution and Wallace for the 19th century, though each had input and did some writing/re-writing on the other’s sections.

  2. I really love this dialogue. I am fascinated by the intracacies of putting together courses and how academics approach their job, and the profession as a whole (highly recommend the fairly new bio of Hugh Trevor-Roper for the English perspective).

    I didn’t notice it mentioned but does Prof Burrows ever plan to bring Gotham up to date with a book on 20th century NYC?

  3. I am very glad that you all are enjoying this interview. I mentioned it in the piece but Ted was my faculty mentor as an undergraduate at the City University of New York beginning in my sophomore year. Not only is he an exemplary historian from whom we can learn much, but we could also learn something from his generosity as a mentor. I imagine we all remember what it felt like to be taken seriously for the first time by an estimable and admirable historian. Ted took lots of time to talk with me over those three years and offered lots of good advice and encouragement. I can say, without even the slightest hint of exaggeration, that without Ted (and my two other undergraduate mentors, Carol Berkin and Daren Staloff, as well) I certainly would not be so incredibly fortunate to be doing what I’m doing today. I’m especially grateful to not only count them as mentors but friends and I hope that one day I get a chance to pay it forward.


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