What They’re Famous For
Bernard A. Weisberger is a distinguished teacher and author of American history. Weisberger formerly was a professor at Wayne State University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Rochester where he was full professor and chair of the department. He has written more than a dozen books and worked on documentaries with Bill Moyers and Ken Burns. His Charles Ramsdell Prize winning article “The Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography,” is considered a standard in the study of the Reconstruction period. Retiring in 1970, Weisberger has devoted himself full time to writing both books and articles in popular history media and magazines. He is best known as a longtime contibuting editor for American Heritage. He started writing his first article for the magazine in 1955, and he then wrote the “In the News” column for more than ten years from 1989 to 1999. Additionally he published many of his books for American Heritage‘s book series
Weisberger’s area of research stretches accross the landscape of American history. His most recent book When Chicago Ruled Baseball The Cubs-White Sox World Series of 1906 recounts how in 1906, the baseball world saw something that had never been done: two teams from the same city squared off against each other in an intracity World Series, pitting the heavily favored Cubs of the National League against the hardscrabble American League champion White Sox. In honor of its centennial anniversary Weisberger tells this tale of a unique time in baseball, a unique time in America, and a time when Chicago was at the center of it all. In an interview Weisberger discussed his wide area of research stating: “I’ve stuck to one subject area–U.S. history–but within that, I’ve managed to turn out textbooks, juveniles, illustrated popular books, biographies, standard trade books, [and] television presentations.”
How did I become a historian? It may have begun on a Saturday afternoon in the early 1930s when I was about ten years old. My mother took me for diversion to a “convict ship” –one of those used to transport convicts from Great Britain to Australia–a restoration or a replica, I guess, which was being exhibited at a pier on the west side of Manhattan, where we lived. It’s my first recollection of an historical exhibit, and it was real to me–too real, in fact. It showed the shackles and the below-decks dungeons and the whips used to deal with unruly “passengers” and my imagination translated those objects into vivid pictures of actual, bleeding men being shoved into those dark enclosures lit only by what came through tiny, barred openings in the heavy doors. That’s been a lasting feature of my mind’s eye–when I write about anything historical it’s all actually taking place right in front of me; I can see it and hear it–and I try, as best I can, to get that into my writing. Why not historical fiction, then? Of that, more in a moment or two.
I can’t say that on that afternoon I decided “Gee, I wanna be an historian, Mom.” At that age , of course, I didn’t know what an historian was. What I did know that I was scared stiff by the vivid scenes I had just “witnessed” and plainly showing it. My mother thought I obviously needed an antidote. It happened that it was one of the years when the U.S. Atlantic fleet–maybe the Pacific one, too, for all I know–made a visit to New York, and anchored in its spacious harbor and also in the Hudson River for some distance. Visits were offered and encouraged; the Navy knew the value of good public relations even then. So we finished the day’s excursion by going to the appropriate pier, getting in a launch, and being shown around a cruiser by a very polite young swabby who was virtually a walking recruiting poster. I did recover from my panic attack and I did enjoy the experience.
If I’d enjoyed it even more, I might have become a professional sailor. But history won–and that was even before I got seasick for the first time in 1943, crossing the Pacific.
I loved to read and discovered some ability to write by the time I was in high school. As a fourteen-year-old sophomore, I had a short story published in my Stuyvesant High School literary magazine, the Caliper. What a thrill. I decided then that I would be a writer. In the ensuing couple of years, I wrote another dozen to dozen and a half stories. The faculty advisor to the magazine, one, Irving Astrachan, was a fine teacher who luckily hadn’t fallen for the patois about not damaging the self-esteem of adolescents. I got about two of them published, and the other sixteen he would hand back to me with a terse comment: “Burn it.” I knew his judgment was correct. I still wanted to write–but nonfiction was going to be my metier. And by college time I got inspired. I still loved history. And history furnished me all the plots, characters, and dramatic episodes that I had a hard time making up. History even forbid making things up! (And it still does!!!) As I acquired more sophisticated understanding of how historians worked, I did come to realize that there is an inescapable element of imagination, even for the most scrupulous dryasdust scribe, in recreating a past that is accessible only through the saved recollections of those who experienced it, but let that pass. History it was for a vocation, and still is.
I attended Columbia College as a subway commuter, and encountered a couple of sensational teachers, one of them Jacques Barzun, for whom, in my junior year I wrote a paper on the Paris Commune of 1871, which earned an “A” of which I am still proud and some personal encouragement. However, there were some other pressing engagements in June of 1942, and that September I was off to war. (No trumpets here; I’m one of those who “fought” from behind a desk.) Had the Japanese not attacked Pearl Harbor, I might have become an historian of France, and I almost regret that I didn’t, because it would have provided excuses to spend more time in Paris. But when I returned in 1946 and wound up in graduate school at the University of Chicago–actually marking time, because at that moment, I was equally attracted to the idea of becoming a journalist– and bang, another great teacher lit my fuse. He was Avery Craven, a specialist on the origins of the Civil War, some of whose views about its causes and consequences I never shared and never will, but that doesn’t matter. I signed up for one of his classes, he walked in, opened his mouth, and in five minutes I was a goner. He lectured from folders crammed with source documents–I never heard him quote another historian, though there were plenty of them on his reading list–and as he spoke, a parade of politicians, slaves, ex-slaves, pioneers, promoters, preachers, editors, soldiers, housewives, oh, a perfectly Walt Whitman-esque cast , strutted and fretted their little hour on the stage. (He was, by the way, an amateur artist.) I gobbled every course he offered, and it was a two-way romance, I guess, because he liked the papers I handed in. One day he asked me to sign on as his research assistant and push my way through to a PhD, and that’s how I became a Professor of American history. By the way, he never demanded “discipleship.” My subject matter and my ideas often strayed from his, and while he may have regretted my heresies, he was always a kind and supportive friend–an intellectual father in some ways, primarily as an inspiration to work always towards being the best and most honest writer of history I could.
The record will show that I “professed” about eighteen years before quitting to write full time. I enjoyed the “teaching” part of academic life–e.g., dealing with the students close up–and made some lifelong friends among them and some of my colleagues, but I cared little for any other aspect of life behind the ivied walls. So I quit, did some freelancing, worked two years as an Associate Editor, took a part-time position at Vassar (where I met Rick Shenkman) and finally took to supporting myself fulltime as an historian-writer. It reminds me sometimes of Archibald McLeish’s definition of being a poet “A hardy life, with a boot as quick as a fiver.” But I’ve loved it.
I don’t know as how I have written any “famous” books, but I think there’s a generation of historians trained in the nineteen-sixties who probably knew me through an article called “The Dark and Bloody Ground of Reconstruction Historiography,” which was reprinted and circulated fairly widely. It appeared in the Journal of Southern History in 1959, and the thrust of it was pretty much along the lines of what is now the more familiar story of Reconstruction best summarized in Eric Foner’s book on the subject. In short, it repudiated the “Dunning school” views that were common up until then– Reconstruction was a carnival of corruption and violence that forced the humiliated and conquered South to endure the revolting experience of being governed by an alliance of ignorant ex-slaves and trashy whites. What utter bunk!! I don’t get credit for discovering that–good black historians had known it for years, and Howard Beale had said as much in 1930 in the American Historical Review. But I was lucky enough to be surfing that wave at the dawn of the 20th century civil rights revolution. Well, anyway, the article won my only academic prize–the Charles Ramsdell Prize for the best article published that year in the JSH. Ramsdell was, like E. Merton Coulter whose book on Reconstruction was then a reigning favorite, a neo-Confederate who embraced the white supremacist view totally.
My first book was my dissertation, extended. My second, They Gathered at the River, was on revivalism mostly in the 19th century US, and took me to the Moody Bible Institute to consult the papers of Dwight L. Moody, the “Billy Graham” of the 1870s and 1880s (but not one who so sedulously cultivated politicians and became the White House preacher of conservative Presidents.) I was welcomed, especially after the kind folks there were reassured that I was a Jew whose interest was purely historical, and not a “liberal Christian” on a mission to write a debunking article about them. Far from it, I rather respected and admired Moody for a number of reasons, remote as was his world outlook from mine. In fact, while there were some characters in the book for whom I had pretty low regard, I tried, as always, not to criticize or mock them or their followers, but to tell their story as they might have seen it. Well, I must have succeeded because something called the Religious Book Club adopted it as an alternate choice for one month in 1958, describing it as an “offbeat” selection. And the MBI’s house organ reviewed the book, naturally focusing on the Moody chapter, and said that it was good, but added–and I have to paraphrase, having long ago lost the original–”Professor Weisberger has no understanding of the supernatural.” Which was true, to be sure–I had explained Moody’s success in practical terms from information historically accessible, and they believed it was all God’s doing. Who knows? Might be so, but an historian’s license doesn’t extend to the supernatural.
A little postscript, by the way; the good folk there (only name I remember is Bernard de Remer, at the time in their public relations office) had explained to me that my Jewishness wasn’t a bar to admission to the archives–they had missions to the Jews and in fact taught Hebrew and Yiddish courses among their offerings. (This is all fifty years ago, I have to note; I have no idea what the Institute is like now.) For a while after I left I did get mailings urging me to recognize the mistake I had made in not recognizing Jesus as true heir to Judaism, until I finally told them that much as I’d enjoyed my excursion into evangelical Christianity during the writing of the book, I could not be persuaded out of my Jewishness.
I’m pretty proud of both the above stories–that concerning the Ramsdell Prize because I don’t think that “objectivity” stands in the way of a forthright expression of one’s own values even in a carefully documented and fairly written piece. And that about the MBI, because if history is worth anything, it is because, if studied rightly, it teaches you to recognize that even your most cherished opinions need to be recognized as open to question, and based on life experiences that are transitory.
In some ways my favorite ‘teaching’ experience was the ten years I spent writing a column for American Heritage (1989-99) finding historical parallels for events that were then current “In the News,” which was the column’s title. My ‘class’ consisted of general readers of every kind, bound together by enough interest in history to buy the magazine. I was, and still am, trying to spread theword that history, and by that I mean sound, well-researched, thoughtful history, with all the virtues of perspective that it brings, is out there to think about and enjoy, even for the non-professional reader. And I don’t mean by that to disparage all academic historians. Nor the academic undertaking in general, but it has to keep an awareness of its connection to the purposes and expectations of the larger society in which it exists, if it wants to avoid clannishness, sterility and irrelevancy. Making that point has been the nearest thing I’ve had to a mission, and I’m happy to air that opinion on History News Network, which pretty much serves the same function.
“. . .[S]eeing an event in historical perspective is a very good thing to do. It’s a safeguard against pontification of all sorts–against ‘the-sky-is-falling’ alarms at one extreme and ‘we-are-the-greatest-ever’ exultation at the other. It shrinks self-importance, rebukes dogmatism, and builds courage.”
By Bernard A. Weisberger
All of these developments unleashed the passions of special interest and thwarted the hopes of immediately setting up a national government dedicated purely to the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” One result was that the machinery of succession to the presidency would be out of date in the very first election after the most popular man in the country had stepped down from power, and seriously dysfunctional by the time of the second. The seeds of the crisis of 1800 were planted in 1787 In Philadelphia. The Constitutional Convention set the stage for the drama and introduced some of the cast. One delegate, South Carolina’s Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, would become Adams’s running mate. Two others would be far more significant players–James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, friends in 1787, intense foes thirteen years later. The whole story of the nation during that interval reflected their unraveling alliance. Madison was so much at the heart of the convention that he has been called the Father of the Constitution. Hamilton had only one highlighted moment, but it was enough to foreshadow a career whose impact on America’s future may have been the most lasting of all.
By 1800, Madison was a chief planner for the new Republican Party, which backed Jefferson for president. It strongly supported states’ rights, and history remembers Madison in part for his eloquent defense of that stance. But when he arrived in Philadelphia early in May 1787, days before the scheduled opening session, Madison was still a nationalist and with good reason. He came fresh from months in New York City as a frustrated member of the one-house Congress created by the 1781 Articles of Confederation.
– Bernard A. Weisberger in “America Afire Jefferson, Adams, and the First Contested Election”
Compared to that theme of harmony, one of the Daily News’s pregame cartoons radiates realism. The image of Mrs. O’Leary’s angry cow starting the Great Fire of 1871, as legend had it, by kicking a lighted lantern into a pile of straw is succeeded by the “Mild and Gentle Animal of Today” wearing a contented grin as uniformed Cubs and Sox players cheerfully milk her into a bucket stamped with a large, eye-catching dollar sign. Whatever else professional baseball bestowed on society at large, it was a business whose chief end and aim was to generate cash.
That contradiction between baseball’s public face as the simon-pure recreational expression of the American spirit and the reality of big-league, big-city baseball as a market enterprise (and a monopoly at that) anchored in a growing commercial entertainment industry and culture — that discord between image and reality — is clear in any hard- eyed look at that 1906 crosstown series in a Chicago banging and barging its metropolitan way into a new century. It’s a sports story that helps to explain how we American urbanites have come to be who we are and how we see ourselves.
But songs of social significance aren’t the only music of baseball history. The Series itself was wonderfully exciting, an electric week of surprises, thrills, exploits and errors, hopes roused and hopes dashed. For those who were there, time was suspended, the world outside the playing field faded into the background, and individual problems were forgotten in the single, roaring life of the crowd riding the same emotional roller coaster with every swing and every pitch. That is what any popular spectator sport still does for its fans. In America, baseball did it first.
It was a different world then. But a lover of baseball in 2006 isn’t all that estranged fron the grandstand throngs caught in those grainy black-and-white news photos of a century ago. We know more than we want to now about the private sins of the players, about multimillion-dollar payrolls and agents and unions and TV revenue shares– sometimes it’s hard to tell the sports pages from the business news. . . . — Bernard A. Weisberger in “When Chicago Ruled Baseball : The Cubs-White Sox World Series of 1906″
I end this personal recollection by repeating once more my commitment to “popular” history, which I’ve been writing for all these years, with a bit of television work thrown in. I don’t like the term. It has a pejorative flavor, much like its antonym of “academic” history. I’ve read good and bad examples of both, I know good people who do both, and I wish the wall between the camps weren’t so high. But I know where I stand. I’m unchangeably a storyteller. I never had any interest in research that didn’t lead to a narrative able to move the hearts and imaginations of nonspecialist readers, and I have a hard time comprehending the justification for any other kind of historical inquiry. I’ve heard the argument that just as science became more sophisticated and necessarily inaccessible to the generalist, so it has been with history. I won’t try to rebut it ex parte (that is, without some representative of that view present). But I frankly doubt it.
It is wiser always not to linger at the door. My thanks to the editors and fact checkers with whom I have worked pleasantly over these years. Likewise, to those readers who troubled to write to me or the “Correspondence” page in support or dissent, I appreciate your attention. To all of you, I want to say that I have gotten unqualified enjoyment from history since my first childhood visit to a museum, my first reading of a “juvenile” biography, my first high school term paper, my first thrilling graduate school encounter with an actual manuscript letter laid on my desk by an archivist. I still do. I hope that it’s been reflected in these little excursions and that some of it has rubbed off on you. Good-bye for now. — Bernard Weisberger in his farewell “In the News” column for American Heritage, July, 1999.
About Bernard A. Weisberger
As he clearly establishes his theme, the historian narrates well the simple inaugural ceremonies that accompanied the early March 1801 peaceful “transfer of power by popular vote” (p. 9). The body of America Afire, however, begins at the 1787 Convention in Philadelphia (Chapter 1)….
On balance, however, America Afire is an outstanding book–clearly conceived, lucidly written, and satisfyingly informative. Once the author engages his theme, the narrative proves stimulating and education through the last page.” — James J. Kirschke, Villanova University reviewing “America Afire”
Bernie inaugurated our “In the News” column and wrote it for a decade. He was the ideal proprietor for this franchise because he could connect present concerns to past precedents with effortless ease. Of course, that ease was the result of a lifetime of hard work and a promiscuous curiosity that produced not only the scores of stories in American Heritage but books on a spectrum of subjects that runs from Civil War correspondents to the flamboyant Billy Durant of General Motors, from the La Follettes of Wisconsin to the long, tense confrontation of the Cold War.
As for the effort, Bernie never let it show. His clean, brisk, relaxed writing, informed with strong feeling but free always of polemicizing, drew a steady stream of correspondence from our readers that is itself a tribute to his warmth and accessibility. Not everyone agreed with him (Bernie is pretty close to an honest-to-God New Deal liberal, a distinction I found useful to point out when we received the occasional letter accusing the magazine of having become a pawn of the right wing-just as we cite Bernie’s figurative next-door neighbor, the “Business of America” columnist John Steele Gordon, when mail accuses us of abandoning our old standards to veer leftward), but he answered all with a courteous enthusiasm that invariably proved infectious. Bernie is that rare creature, a man of powerful convictions and no enemies.
I’m in his debt not only for fourscore good columns; when, in the long-ago spring of 1972, he decided to leave his post on the magazine to teach history at Vassar, it opened up a slot on the editorial staff that I was able to move into. Of course, nobody thought I was replacing Bernie, just as Bernie’s successor will not replace him. But I am happy to be able to welcome as the new “In the News” columnist, Kevin Baker, who comes from serving as the chief historical researcher on Harold Evans’s bestseller The American Century and has recently published the highly acclaimed historical novel Dreamland, a spirited, passionate, and altogether absorbing chronicle of life in New York City at the century’s turn.
He’ll appear in the next issue. In this one Bernie speaks of his ten-year ambassadorship between today’s news and yesterday’s and says good-bye to his readers-but not forever: He is currently in the midst of a book on the pivotal election of 1800. And in saying good-bye to Bernie, I’ll quote a passage from one of his more recent columns that seems to me eloquent of the spirit in which he has approached his life’s work. In speaking of those who think that the much-beleaguered traditional narrative of our past fails to make itself relevant to many in an increasingly multicultural society, Bernie writes, “Somehow I have certainly never had a problem in assuming that even though my own ancestors did not reach these shores until around 1900, men like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln had made and preserved the United States for people like me. I rather thought I was discharging a debt to them in telling the story to people like you.”” — Richard F. Snow on Bernard Weisberger retiring from the “American Heritage” column “In the News”
Teaching Positions: University of Rochester, Rochester, NY, professor of history, 1963-68, chairman of department, 1964-65;
University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, associate professor of history, 1959-63;
Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, assistant professor, 1954-59;
Antioch College, Yellow Springs, OH, assistant professor, 1952-54;
Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA, instructor, 1950-51;
Ford Foundation Lecturer, Atlanta University Center, Atlanta, GA, 1965;
Part-time adjunct professor, New York University, New York, NY, 1968-69;
Member of National Humanities faculty, 1969;
Part-time visiting professor of history and American civilization, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY, 1972-79;
Professional Positions: Freelance writer, 1968-70;
American Heritage, associate editor, 1970-72, contributing editor, 1972–;
freelance writer/historian, 1979–;
Member of advisory committee, National Endowment for the Humanities feasibility study of a new journal in humanities, 1975.
Chief consultant, Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia of American History, 1975;
General consultant, Story of America, Reader’s Digest Books, 1975;
bicentennial programming consultant, National Broadcasting Corp. (NBC) Radio Network, 1975-76;
Consultant for film “City out of Wilderness,” 1975.
Area of Research: American History and popular history
Education: Columbia University, A.B., 1943;
University of Chicago, A.M., 1947, Ph.D., 1950.
Editor, Contributor, Joint Author:
Contributor of articles to professional journals, American Heritage, and Antioch Review, and of reviews to newspapers.
Ramsdell Prize, Southern Historical Association, 1962;
Fellow, American Council of Learned Societies, 1959-60;
Social Science Research Council grant, 1956;Additional Info:
Weisberger along with Geoffrey Ward were the script writers for Ken Burns’ 1989 PBS documentary “The Congress.”
Weisberger has contributed to “The New Leader,” The Chicago Tribune,” and “New York Times,” among others.
Weisberger was among 20 distinguished professor including John Hope Franklin that participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965.
Hobbies and other interests include Camping, fishing, playing the recorder, running (“not fast but persistent; four marathons completed”).
Military/Wartime Service included U.S. Army, Signal Corp, 1942-46; served in China-Burma- India theater; became second lieutenant; Historical Section, Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1951-52; became first lieutenant.
Weisberger is a member of the Authors League of America and Society of American Historians.
Posted on Sunday, April 30, 2006 at 2:11 PM