I recently got the chance to catch up with Thaddeus Russell, this year’s most talked about historian. Russell’s new book, A Renegade History of the United States, offers a view of the American past with an entirely new set of characters. Those names and events that have been kept out of school textbooks for too long are examined as America’s real history. Critics are comparing it to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States –- a thrilling, controversial read with the potential to change the way we view history.
David S. Wills: A Renegade History of the United States seems to have generated quite a lot of interest already, with glowing reviews. Why are so many of them are using words like “controversial”?
Thaddeus Russell: The book is controversial for a number of reasons. First, it argues that the lowest, most “degenerate” inhabitants of American society actually produced many of the freedoms and pleasures that most of us now cherish. My chapters on slavery and race have been especially controversial (see below). The book also shows that the enemies of what I call “renegade freedoms” included not only the usual suspects — conservative politicians and business leaders — but also many of the heroes of the left-liberal history that is now dominant: abolitionists, feminists, civil rights leaders, progressive activists, and gay rights leaders. My chapter on the civil rights movement shows that Martin Luther King and other leaders of the movement led the call for African Americans to “reform” themselves, assimilate into white culture, and live up to deeply conservative “family values.” It has already caused quite a stir in academic circles, and led several prominent professors at Columbia to call for my firing from Barnard College, where the ideas for the book were developed. I was in fact let go from Barnard because of my ideas — but that also led me to consider writing A Renegade History, so it might have been a blessing in disguise.
A lot of what you say in the book will surprise readers who are used to a standardized “don’t ask questions” approach to US history. Was your intention when planning this book to turn history on its head?
My intention was not to be controversial just for the sake of being controversial — it was to give voice to ideas I have developed over 20 years of studying history that others have said turn the standard story of the United States on its head. My ideas are utterly sincere — they just happen to be unusual and have struck a chord (and some nerves) with my students, other scholars, and many of my readers.
When I was in university I studied slave narratives and I remember thinking how greatly they differed from what professors and textbooks generally taught… How does your book deal with the issue of slavery?
In my chapters on slavery and Reconstruction I argue not only that slaves created a culture that many whites envied but also that the envy is understandable, since slaves practiced many freedoms that formal American culture shunned. In particular, slaves did not adopt the famously repressive Puritan and Victorian norms concerning work and sexuality. There is substantial evidence from a wide variety of sources that show this but very few scholars — especially in the last 30 years — have been willing to discuss the interviews with ex-slaves that were conducted in the 1930s. It has been taboo to acknowledge that a majority of the ex-slaves who were interviewed expressed a positive attitude toward some or all of their experiences as slaves. I am not endorsing slavery, nor do I give any credit whatsoever to slave masters for creating what I argue was a relatively liberated culture among slaves, and in fact my argument suggests that in many — possibly most — ways we might view slave culture as superior to the culture of “good” and “free” American citizens. If you’ve ever wondered what was at the root of two centuries of white emulation of African Americans, from the enormously popular blackface minstrel shows of the 19th century to hip-hop “wiggaz” today, A Renegade History gives you the answer.
There are a lot of references to alcohol throughout the book. What role did booze play in the history of the US?
Saloons — especially lower-class saloons — have always been places in which many of the pleasures and freedoms we now value were pioneered. Racial integration, women’s liberation, and what we would now call gay freedom first appeared in lower-class saloons in the 18th and 19th centuries.
One review remarked that “Howard Zinn wrote the ‘People’s History’ of the United States. But Thaddeus Russell has written the history of the American People Whom Historians Would Rather Forget.” What do you make of this?
Susie Bright, the brilliant pro-sex feminist, said that about the book. I’m enormously proud of it, especially since you won’t find a blurb from a sex journalist on too many history books. I think Susie was referring to the generally uptight, bourgeois culture of academic historians — even left-wing historians — which has caused textbooks to be silent on the things I talk about: fornicating, drinking, cursing, slacking, and dancing.
As radical as Howard Zinn was, he did not mention any of this in his book. His “People’s” history was a wonderful corrective to the old top-down history but omits so many things that were central to the lives of ordinary Americans and which expanded the world for all of us. He discusses slaves but not their aversion to the Protestant work ethic and bourgeois sexual norms; suffragists but not the prostitutes who won many of the freedoms that women now take for granted; labor leaders but not workers who rejected industrial discipline; immigrants but not that they established markets for movies, amusement parks, cheap novels, and American entertainment generally; civil rights activists but not jazz, rock and roll, disco, or hip-hop; and nothing on the drag queens, butch lesbians, and self-described “faggots” at Stonewall and after who broke open gay liberation and redefined sexuality for everyone.
It seems that early reviews are also calling your book “thrilling” and “exciting.” These aren’t typically adjectives used to describe history books…
Well, gosh, I hope it’s thrilling and exciting. If it’s not, what’s the point?
Your first book, Out of the Jungle, was a groundbreaking study of Jim Hoffa – not a biography, necessarily, but a book with focus on the previously unknown areas of his life. What compelled you to write this book?
Five years ago, I had every reason to believe that my job as a history professor at Barnard College was secure. I had been teaching there for four years, I had published my dissertation with a major publisher, and because I had tripled the sizes of the introductory U.S. history course and the American Studies program, colleagues told me they “would be shocked” if I were not promoted to a tenure-track position.
But that was before my colleagues knew what I was teaching.
I had always been a misfit in academia, partly because of my background, partly because of my personality, and increasingly over the years because of my ideas.
I was raised by pot-smoking, nudist, socialist revolutionaries as an egghead white boy in black neighborhoods in Berkeley and Oakland. I nearly flunked eighth grade and finished high school with a C average. Then I went to the anarchist, ultra-hippy Antioch College in Ohio, which accepted all their applicants, didn’t give grades, and didn’t have a history department.
So even though I managed to pull myself out of that background and into and through Columbia for a PhD, then onto a job at an elite college, I was highly uncomfortable moving from the world of weed to the world of tweed. I hated being “Professor.” I cursed in class. I talked about sex. I used politically incorrect terms. My students said they had never heard the things I was teaching them in class. They called me “Bad Thad.”
My version of American history was not the standard left-liberal perspective my students had heard, and it certainly wasn’t a conservative one, either. It was informed by an unlikely mix of influences, including the hippies and other cultural radicals I had encountered in my early life, black and gay cultures that showed me a way out of the self-imposed limitations of being white and straight, and libertarians who caused me to question the commitment to freedom among the left that I had been born into and which employed me as a professor.
I gave my students a history that was structured around the oldest issue in political philosophy but which professional historians often neglect – the conflict between the individual and community, or what Freud called the eternal struggle between civilization and its discontents. College students are normally taught a history that is the story of struggles between capitalists and workers, whites and blacks, men and women. But history is also driven by clashes between those interested in preserving social order and those more interested in pursuing their own desires — the “respectable” versus the “degenerate,” the moral versus the immoral, “good citizens” versus the “bad.” I wanted to show that the more that “bad” people existed, resisted, and won, the greater was what I called “the margin of freedom” for all of us.
I had developed these ideas largely on my own, in my study and in classrooms, knowing all the while that I was engaged in an Oedipal struggle to overthrow the generation of historians who came of age during the 1960s and 1970s, controlled academic history, and had trained me.
So I was quite anxious when I was asked to present my work to colleagues in order to get a long-term contract and be moved into line for a shot at tenure. A friend in the history department told me that given my publishing record and popularity among students the talk would be “really just a formality.” But I knew it would be trouble.
Several distinguished professors from Columbia showed up, since the university has final say on all tenure decisions at its sister college. During my talk, a Columbia professor who had been named by a national magazine as the most important public intellectual in the United States, stared at me with what I took — rightly, it turned out — to be disgust. Another walked out before I finished. One of my graduate school advisors asked a series of hostile questions. Other colleagues told me after the talk that I was “courageous,” that I was “wonderfully, relentlessly revisionist,” and that I made some famous historians “look like dinosaurs.”
But emails came into the hiring committee from “important places,” I was told, calling my ideas “improper,” “frightening,” and “dangerous.” They said my ideas had no place in the academy and insisted that I be terminated. It was simply not okay for me to describe the “oppressed” in the terms used by their oppressors — “shiftless,” “sexually unrestrained,” “primitive,” “uncivilized” — even though my argument transformed those epithets into tributes.
After I was told that I would be leaving Barnard, hundreds of students protested in faculty and deans’ offices and the Columbia Spectator devoted an editorial to my case, but to no avail. There did indeed seem to be no place for me in the academy. And so I wrote a book.
What’s your next project?
I’m taking suggestions. Got any?