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philip dray capitol menAnd then went down to the ballot box. A mere week before Election Day, we conclude our interview with historian Philip Dray, author of Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through The Eyes Of The First Black Congressmen. As noted at the start of this series— see  Part I, Part II and Part III as your karma allows— the book’s publication is coincidental with the rise of Barack Obama. Had things been tweaked just a little differently, Captiol Men might well have come out in February, aka Black History Book Month. It seems silly, I know, as Reconstruction is America’s history, and our history, to this very day in Brooklyn but hey, almost everybody needs a hook, and not just a Red one. Here’s mine: Philip Dray is not only a great historian, consistently exploring overlooked subjects central to any even semi-shared American identity, he’s a terrific writer as well. The fact that Dray does all his own research means his books qua books are nearly immaculate; no small feat in a racket beset by sloppy popularizers and diligent but dessicated academics. There are, of course, exceptions from each camp but Dray need not shrink from anyone. Imagine Herodotus with the musical soul of Prince and the stature of a clean-shaven Paul Bunyan— thanks, perhaps, to Vytautus, the alleged Lithuanian god of grooming— and you’re getting close to Dray’s damn near singular achievement. Getting into politics? Vote for Dray and he’ll set you up in Puerto Rico!*

pulitzer finalist

Brian Berger: Earlier we mentioned the Klan as one the legacies of Reconstruction; another was lynching, which you wrote about in At The Hands Of Persons Unknown. I wonder if you sense America’s disinclination to recall these things are related. People have become upset when I tell them Walt Whitman wasn’t just coincidentally but essentially racist yet there it is— or, rather, isn’t, since he chose to ignore emancipation, enfranchisement and the election of America’s first black congressmen. If “America’s greatest poet” didn’t think these things important, well… Historians didn’t ignore Reconstruction like Whitman but they sure chose to overlook the significance of black self-determination.

Philip Dray: As I write about in the Epilogue of the book, the historiography of Reconstruction is in itself a remarkable story. supreme?Basically from around 1875 til 1965 there was a pervasive myth that Reconstruction had been a huge mistake, an example of federal hubris and over-reaching that had disrespected the South and its people, who’d then been “saved” or redeemed only by the brave actions of the Klan and their various ilk, as well as “Southern statesmen” like Wade Hampton and Ben Tillman. This view was promulgated by what’s known as the Dunning School— a group of historians trained by Columbia U prof William Dunning. It dominated popular culture for decades— see Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, two of the biggest grossing films of their times.

Du Bois wrote closer to an accurate account in 1935, but it really wasn’t until the 1960s that the whole sham was exploded by a group of young historians. There’s also that famous moment when JFK, who had written acceptingly of the myth in Profiles in Courage, published in the 50s, was confronted by the lies and BS of the white Mississippi authorities in 1962 that were portraying themselves as victims when James Meredith was being enrolled by federal force at Ole Miss. JFK turned to Bobby Kennedy and said “I think they’re lying now to us now just as they’ve been lying about these matters all these years,” or something like that.

As for lynching and all of it, there’s been a lot of willful forgetfulness. Even though the material I covered in At the Hands…has long been known to scholars, and it’s all right there in the public record, as you know the general response to my book was along the lines of “Whoa, this stuff really happened?” Everyone had of course heard of lynching, but considered it an aberration. What I tried to suggest was that it had a long historical trajectory, had been a kind of ethos, with its rituals (“lynchcraft”), decorum, and souvenir postcards; that it also had had a struggling legal opposition reflected in Supreme Court rulings and Justice Dept. tactics, a protracted Congressional effort to outlaw it, and an anti-lynching crusade led by NAACP and others that, in retrospect, constituted maybe the largest and most sustained reform impulse of the early/mid 20th century. What I was trying to say, and thankfully most reviewers got this, was “This shameful, often marginalized history is American history.”

electric warriorBrian: At the Hands of Persons Unknown is understandably very sober; after that you wrote a very funny book, Stealing God’s Thunder, on Ben Franklin, the irrepressible publisher, statesman and scientist, the last being your focus. Even moreso than the Civil War itself—Ben had seen the United States form, so surely it could come apart again too— the mayhem of Reconstruction seems Franklin’s nightmare, especially as he was among the Founding Fathers who, although a slave owner himself, came to realize slavery should not abide.

Phil: You’re absolutely right that Franklin, who had himself owned slaves, came late in life to detest slavery and to accept the leadership of a Quaker abolitionist group that petitioned Congress to end slavery. He saw that with independence America could no longer fob off slavery as a British matter; Americans had to solve it. Unfortunately, by then he was in his 80s, not in good health, reliant on laudanum, and seen by many other prominent ex-founders as brilliant but lovably daft. John Adams in particular, who’d always had a love/hate competitive thing with Franklin, denounced abolition as silly and Franklin as wayward for trying to derail the young nation, just finding its legs, with such a bold and unrealistic notion. So yes, Franklin (along with Jefferson) died with the painful awareness that there’d be a reckoning for slavery one day. As otherwise he was very optimistic about the country’s future, one might be tempted to say he tried with this last act to correct a problem he knew could grow only more malignant.

As for the conjunction of the two books, I’d come to write At the Hands…sort of reluctantly. I’d had the idea to write it in the mid-80s while researching an earlier civil rights book (We Are Not Afraid), but was put off by the idea of wading through all the atrocities. I always assumed someone else would write it, and I’d buy and read it, because it interested me.

In 1998, fifteen years later, when I was looking for a project, I was surprised to see no one had yet written that book, a book about the history of lynching, so I said fuck it, I’ll give it a try. I sent the proposal off fully thinking the lit agents would say “what, are you kidding…way too awful!” and I still remember being genuinely shocked when one left a message saying “let’s meet, I can definitely sell this.”

severe storm warningOf course it really was “way too awful,” and after finishing it I really wanted something different to write. I’d always wanted to write a book about lightning, but had no compelling framing device. I should explain that when I was ten my older brother Gary was killed by lightning. He was 14. It was beyond horrible, totally discombobulated my folks and family for years. So, as I’d had an urge to write about lightning, this subject with which I felt uniquely intimate, with an emphasis on its destructive awesomeness and its history of scaring the hell out of people.

In early 2002, right after 9-11, I was reading Carl Van Doren’s 1936 classic bio of Franklin and came upon the whole lightning rod tale, the ingenuity involved, the controversy involving the church’s response. Then the book idea just clicked – lightning’s history, so to speak, the story of the beloved figure who “tamed” it, and a dash of “how about those foolish 18th century clerics, isn’t religion dumb;” the latter element seemed timely with religious fundamentalists on the march post 9-11.

That Stealing God’s Thunder is humorous has more to do with Ben than me, I think. A delightful fellow to spend a couple of years with.


Brian: As a writer, who are some of your influences, both within the history field and without— literature, journalismeville grovem, activism? I read “Capitol Men” through the filter of Herman Melville, esp. Pierre (1852), “Bartelby, The Scrivener,” “Benito Cereno” (1856) & The Confidence Man (1857), the last-named, though it pre-dates the war, pretty much blows up every American myth there was or would ever be, in addition to taking place on a river boat, a means of conveyance important to some of the Capitol Men. Walt Whitman—who worked in the Johnson administration— had his empathetic moments but he was full of shit as a race man and an unreliable journalist as well. Did I tell you the urban legend about Red Hook and Governor’s Island sea cows?

Phil: My literary “education,” such as it is, has been fairly scattershot. As an adolescent I remember loving and reading multiple times Jim Bishop’s The Day Lincoln Was Shot and Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember about the Titanic. Both were procedurals of monumental tragedy, I guess you could say, and certainly I called them to mind in working on We Are Not Afraid (about the Klan/police murders of three civil rights workers). In Cold Blood by Capote I also consider sort of the grand pappy of much American nonfiction writing, my own included, especially We Are Not Afraid and At the Hands. Summer of ’67 I spent in our basement listening to the same Bee Gees album over and over and re-reading In Cold Blood to the point where I could recite passages from memory.

bouvardI had never been much of a student and one day when I was about 19 and in college it suddenly dawned on me that I was kind of stupid, really, and didn’t want to remain that way. I set out in a very determined way to read and know every book that one might consider “a classic” – Anna Karenina, The Red and the Black, Madame Bovary, Of Human Bondage, A High Wind in Jamaica, most of Hemingway, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Chandler, Jean Rhys, Burroughs, Kerouac, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Wodehouse, a lot of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville (even Omoo) and also some of the ancients like Petronious; you get the picture. I kept at this crusade for about a decade until one day I arrived at something like page 534 of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma and I just thought “that’s it, that’s enough.”

severe in top coatAs for history, I have always had a weak spot for what I think of as “American Studies” type approaches – books that cast a wide net and savor as much of the big picture as possible. Evan Connell’s Son of the Morning Star (about Custer) was an influence, as was Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. I’ve always read pretty deeply in Holocaust and Nazi-related stuff, and have a weakness for the little guy (or gal), usually a leftie, certainly a non-conformist, fighting the powers that be – from outsider film directors to scientists taking on DuPont over CFCs, to Franklin and God’s thunderbolts, to Andy Goodman, Ida B. Wells, et al.


Selected Philip Dray Bibliography

Capitol Men (2008)
“I’m A Renter” in New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (2007)
Stealing God’s Thunder(2004)
At The Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America (2002)
with Seth Cagin, Between Earth and Sky: How Cfc’S Changed Our World and Endangered the Ozone Layer (1993)
with Seth Cagin, We Are Not Afraid: We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi (1988)
with Seth Cagin, Hollywood Films of the Seventies: Sex, Drugs, Violence – Rock ‘N’ Roll & Politics (1984) (republished as Born To Be Wild:Hollywood And The Sixties Generation

* this is a reference to Robert Downey’s Putney Swope (1969); offer void where prohibited.

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