"American history takes place in the context of the world."
PW meets Stanford professor David M. Kennedy at the annual convention of the American Historical Association, held this year in Toronto. It's only appropriate that we should be interviewing the author of the latest volume of the Oxford History of the United States series in, of all places, Canada-and that we should dine at a restaurant with an umlaut in its name, posters of fresh-faced Tyrolean lasses on the wall, the author sipping a fine Sancerre and his interviewer munching steak frites. For Kennedy's book is about as international an American history as you're likely to meet.
Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, opens with a character sketch of Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler, convalescing in a military hospital in Pomerania after a poison gas attack as he learns that the German army has lost the Great War. It ends, 31 years later, with the Soviet Union just having exploded its own atomic bomb and Mao's Communists taking power in China. Just about everything that's worth knowing about the nation in that period is covered in the 858 pages in between. But somehow the book d sn't feel overstuffed. You could even call it beach reading: it's propelled by the kind of colorful details and the clanking, large-geared narrative engine that reviewers love to call "novelistic" -- as if Greek historians Thucydides and Herodotus didn't write that way long before novels existed.
Kennedy has written a history in the grand style, an American epic. It was a story he was raised -- and trained -- to tell. "My parents were married in 1930," he says, his eyes lighting up at the spark of a good tale. His father, out west to seek his fortune, spent the 1920s running the commissary at a remote construction site in the Washington Cascades -- two days by snowsh to the nearest cleared road in the winter-where workers were sinking a two-mile shaft into a rich seam of copper. "All the promises of the '20s," he says, "were folded right into this microcosm." But while Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy were away on their honeymoon, the company went bankrupt. They stayed on as caretakers of the abandoned camp for a pittance because there was no other work to be found.
His father earned no real cash income until 1938, when he was hired to run the grocery store for the Public Works Administration at the site for the Grand Coulee Dam. With the coming of World War II, he got a job managing defense procurement contracts. Only then did he start a family, which he protected by hanging on to that berth with the General Services Administration for the rest of his working days.
"This was a secure job," Kennedy says. "Like a lot of Depression survivors, he wasn't going to give that up." The existential journey of his father from contingency to security -- the freedom from fear that his title describes -- is what Kennedy interprets as the very essence of the American experience in those years.
Academics may blanch to hear history reduced to an overarching idea. Isn't that just the kind of triumphalist, steamrolling "grand narrative" whose abandonment finally liberated historians to pay proper attention to the lives of those left out of the traditional American story -- workers, women, minorities? And indeed, Kennedy strikes you at first as quite an old-fashioned guy: He has a deep, mellifluous voice, with a hint of gravel, and the cool, anchored confidence of a top corporate executive at a Blue Chip firm (don't shake his hand without bracing yourself first). But the ugly parts are very much a part of his book as well: His enraging chronicle of the lengths white Southerners went to deny African-Americans their fair share of New Deal largesse, for example, and his account of the lengths their president went to keep those white Southerners in his column, shows Kennedy as no simple triumphalist.
In fact, Kennedy got his start as a historian as one of the profession's generation of '60s rebels. He began college at Stanford as an engineering student-on scholarship, washing dishes at a girls' dormitory to earn his board-but he took a few history courses. "One turned my head" -- a class called "The American Character" with David Potter, late of the Yale American studies program. "It was the single most powerful influence on me at that time, and quite strong every since. The problem he set in this course was, essentially, Is there anything truly -- measurably, documentably, inarguably -- distinctive about American society? He worried that question for about 10 weeks. That's what turned me into a historian."
Potter famously answered his question very much in the affirmative in his classic work, People of Plenty. But when Kennedy went to graduate school in the Yale American studies program, where he worked with, among others, Oxford series editor C. Vann Woodward, he chose to focus his dissertation on a woman who struggled for most of her life very far outside the American mainstream. Birth Control in America: The Career of Margaret Sanger, published by Yale University Press when he was only 28, won the 1971 Bancroft Prize, one of the history profession's highest honors. The same month it came out, Kennedy was married to Judith Osborne, a social worker. They have three adult children.
It was after Oxford published his second book, Over Here: The First World War and American Society, a Pulitzer finalist in 1980 -- that he was approached by his O.U.P. editor, Sheldon Meyer, to contribute the 1929-1945 block to Oxford's massive edifice. The Oxford History of the U.S. was chartered in the early '60s by the legendary Woodward and the late Richard Hofstadter (Woodward, 90, now oversees the series on his own) with the expressed goal of creating history for a general audience that d sn't sacrifice an ounce of scholarly rigor. It includes Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974, by James T. Patterson (1996: Bancroft Prize), Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, by James McPherson (1988: Pulitzer Prize and number 77 on the Modern Library's list of the century's top 100 nonfiction books), and Robert Middlekauff's The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789.
Kennedy's was, to say the least, a daunting assignment. Not counting four years taken out to serve as dean, when he didn't do a lick of research, and two years to see his wife through a successful battle with leukemia, the project took him nine years to complete.
Kennedy's work was complicated by the fact that he approached the book as if it were three separate volumes. First he researched, then wrote, the part on the onset of the Great Depression; then he produced the section on World War II, and then went back to fill in the New Deal. Writing itself he finds rather difficult. He forces himself to do it first thing in the morning, awaking at seven and sitting down at the computer without benefit of shower or shave. "If I can write 1000 words, I consider that a good day. I'm not a born writer. I'm more gregarious than that. I can't wait to get out into the world," which he tends to do by noon.
His writing is worldly, too, expansive in its references and strikingly elegant (his whirlwind tour through the absolutely crucial politics of the gold standard will leave even those who can't balance their checkbooks still standing). History buffs will hear ech s in his style of Henry Luce's old Time, especially in the penchant for niftily obscure words: parachutes "sough" down out of the night sky; young Eleanor Roosevelt's socialite pals were "goosy"; and Hitler, always, "ravened" for war. He laughs that most of his rare bouts of rewriting are dedicated to "de-purplizing." The language sings, though, and the narrative pulls you through to the end because the center of gravity always returns to its grand theme: a nation struggling to free itself from uncertainty as best it can.
"I tried to keep in focus to the best of my ability the big picture," Kennedy says. In the reaction against the grand narratives, he realized, something was lost-not least the ability of academic historians to connect with that general audience, a void gladly filled by non-academic historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss and Robert Caro.
Kennedy's book matches theirs delight for delight, while also showing the advantages of a properly academic history. An academic will write even the most accessible book in self-conscious dialogue with his or her scholarly forebears: not merely to entertain and edify, but to expand knowledge through new sources and new interpretations, to invite the reader to take sheer pleasure in seeing a mind at work.
To many, the most fun to be had in Kennedy's pages will come in the battle scenes. There is something elemental about them ("not for nothing d s the battle narrative inform so much epic literature," he says). But Kennedy writes even these to a larger intellectual purpose. They are portraits of the American way of doing things, with a tendency to innovation, mobility and technologically driven efficiency -- and sometimes, for all those same reasons, to hubris. Those traits contributed mightily to America's success in the war; and that success contributed mightily to the hegemony of the American way in the postwar world.
"American history takes place in the context of the world," he tells PW. "Often that gets forgotten." As if to punctuate the point, our waiter sweeps away our dishes and asks in fine Canadian fashion, though he hails from the Indian subcontinent, if that was "aboot it this afternoon," while the next table over discourses in an animated Italian whose regional provenance Kennedy, who was once a visiting professor at the University of Florence, had earlier tried to identify.
In Freedom from Fear, Kennedy depicts Benito Mussolini, Adolph Hitler, and General Tojo constantly taking their measure of the United States -- and finding us relentlessly isolationist, choosing to pursue their malevolent designs without a second thought. He shows Roosevelt pitching American involvement in a far-away war by predicting a quick, easy and cheap knockout blow by way of air power -- promising no ground troops.
Sound familiar? The past, we all know, may or may not instruct the present. Our sense of the past, however, most certainly d s.
Oxford University is banking big on Freedom from Fear in this season of florid tributes to what Tom Brokaw has called the "greatest generation," sending Kennedy on a cross-country tour, offering a first printing of 50,000 copies. "I'm surprised at the ambitions Oxford has for the book," Kennedy says. Asked what he thinks about the vogue that just might be driving that ambition, he answers, showing a bit of baby boomer resentment behind the businesslike facade, not much. The people who lived through that period, he points out, "were handed a historical situation, and they dealt with it. Who's to say that others wouldn't have done the same?
"I can't tell you how many audiences I've asked to guess at the relative Soviet and American losses in World War II," he continues. "It's amazing how many people think that American losses were far greater than Soviet. In fact the numbers aren't even comparable: 24 million versus 400,000." He gives an answer, in other words, in the best tradition of the academic historian: It's more complicated than that.
Perlstein's book on the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign and the rise of American conservatism will appear next year.