The KQED Book Nook is tucked away on the third floor of the KQED building in the Mission District of San Francisco. It’s the perfect place to talk to authors about their new work, their lives and more.
Richard White is professor of American history at Stanford University. His new book is “The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896.”
If you had to describe your book in 10 words or fewer, how would you do it?
A cautionary tale of what can go wrong when you think you control the world and you don’t.
What is a question about the book you wish someone would ask?
I wish people would ask me about the home, about ideas like competency, about ways of imagining in America which are not about individualism and great wealth. The thesis of my book is that there is a core of collective values in the United States, and in the 19th century that are expressed through the home. The idea is is that our own individual well-being is never going to be the end all of American history because we have to think of what happens to others who are related to us and to communities. That’s as real in American history as individuals.
Where do you go for inspiration?
The great privilege of being a university professor is what ever I’m curious about, I’m allowed to do so. I’m pretty much a short attention span theater historian even though this is a long book. I skip from topic to topic, and there is nobody to stop me. I’m nearly done with my career now, so I guess nobody ever is going to stop me.
What’s your next project?
Well I’m actually writing a book with my son Jesse White who’s a photographer, and it’s based on an argument between us. I said that every photograph is a historical photograph and that if he took a series of photographs of agreed on places in California I could write a history of California. So the bet is now a book. I’m feeling pretty good [about the bet]. Friends I’ve had read the rough drafts of it say the Jesse is winning, but we’ll see in the end.
Where do you like to get inspired to write?
My son Jesse used to complain when he was little that I didn’t like him or the family because I would go out in the basement and spend several hours by myself. He couldn’t imagine why he would spend several hours by yourself. The place I go is where I’m alone. The place I go is where in fact the people who are now dead or more alive to me — and in that way Jesse was right — than my own family. He was wrong [because] I come back to my family, but during the time I really get absorbed in the past, those people are as alive as people I meet on the street.
Do they talk to you?
I talk to them which is pretty scary. They talk to me given that I’m reading their letters. I’m a historian. I read other people’s mail, so they’re talking to me constantly. They don’t know it. I eavesdrop professionally as a living.
Who’s the best person to eavesdrop on?
In the book I just wrote, it’s William Dean Howwells who’s the 19th century novelist everybody’s forgotten who writes these letters which are both thoughtful, gossipy, informed and just fill me full of ideas.
What is your favorite California history book?
This is going to sound heretical because there is no real good history of California. I like Kevin Starr’s books on the intellectual life of California, but there has been no overarching book about California which is astonishing.
One of the things that I am reading constantly now is Joan Didion who who I used to hate. She’s a wonderful writer, but I disagreed about everything she said about California. Now that I have to grapple with California, I’ve come back and realized that she’s very sophisticated and her opinion changes. So I’m in the midst of rereading Joan Didion and ending up quite impressed.
Would you ever tackle an overarching history of California?
No. The photograph book is going to be it. It’s very, very hard to do.
What is on your to-read list right now?
I’ve been reading this wonderful new history of the Ghost Dance and Wovoka which is Louis Warren’s book which is I think one of the best biographies that I’ve read in a very, very long time. I’m always going to be interested in the American West. So those those are the major things I’m working on now.
What were the Bay Area and California like during the Gilded Age and Reconstruction?
The Bay Area is going to be one of the epicenters of the changes that are taking place in Gilded Age America. This is the home of Henry George. He writes “Progress and Poverty.” He’s the one who who enunciates for Gilded Age Americans that something is going deeply wrong with this country when I look around and see technical progress, when I see economic growth, but I also see the increase in poverty and inequality all around me.
So Henry George is going to be critical. He’s a complicated guy because he’s also a vicious racist, he’s anti-Chinese. But he’s also a formidable social critic who leaves San Francisco, moved back and had a famous campaign for mayor of New York.
Why should people care about Reconstruction and the Gilded Age?
If the Gilded Age didn’t matter, we don’t matter. Virtually everything that happens in the Gilded Age is going to have this kind of parallel today. Weak presidents, partisan divide? We’ve got them. Technological progress, mass immigration, the rise again of white supremacy. All of these things, over and over and over again. People are struggling with a rapidly changing world and trying to make sense of it. Their dilemma is our dilemma.