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?

 

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DAVID WILLS is the managing editor of Beatdom Magazine, and the author of The Dog Farm and Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult'. You can learn more about him on his website.

14 responses to “An Interview with Thaddeus Russell”

  1. […] So I was more than a little excited when I read about the release of Thaddeus Russell’s A Renegade History of the United States (Simon & Schuster, 2010). I e-mailed Thaddeus and asked him immediately if I could interview him about the book. He said yes, and the result appeared online yesterday. […]

  2. Uche Ogbuji says:

    This sounds like a fascinating book, and Mr. Russell like a teacher I certainly would have enjoyed. Isn’t the role of a teacher, particularly a university lecturer, to stretch the student’s bounds and strengthen their critical thinking through challenge? There are thousands of doctrinaire books and courses on American history, so how can one radical one be a threat? To be honest it sounds to me as if Mr. Russell might sometimes push his unorthodox viewpoints too far, but then again orthodox viewpoints get pushed even further (the “great man” figure as fount of all good American things), so I don’t see why some counter-indulgence isn’t in order.

    Anyway thanks, David, for bringing Mr. Russell’s work to my attention.

    • I was attracted to this book because an early review of it made me think of my old American History professor (who was in fact the man I met around 10 yrs ago who convinced me to go to university). He taught me that history is not to be believed, and that the textbooks generally contain a sort of family-friendly version of facts that has been subject to too much editing. Which is true, of course. Dig a little deeper and it’s all bullshit. Makes you feel like you’re in the Matrix…

      To answer your question regarding radical viewpoints, I think it’s not that Russell’s book is so radical, or that he poses a threat by writing another challenging book, but that his book – like Zinn’s – threatens to be popular enough and contain enough verifiable truth that it will book further than most radical takes on history. His is a book that will probably be remembered years from now, whereas so many others come and go.

      I think. Maybe I’m wrong.

  3. Judy Prince says:

    A fascinating read, David. This was an interview of intense value. I’ve appreciated Howard Zinn’s re-portrayal of USA’s socio-political history. It laid bare so much that we need to assimilate into our K-l2 through university classes, but it leaves much out, as Thaddeus Russell notes in this interview:

    “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.”

    Thaddeus Russell taught his Barnard College students intriguing concepts, the floor, it would seem, in all metaphorical meanings, of USA history:

    “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.”

    If his book is as richly readable as his interview responses, I may have to brownbag my lunches for another week and buy his book.

    Nice choice of authors to interview, David, as well as a smooth, leading interviewer persona.

    • I highly recommend it, Judy. He’s a fascinating guy and a great historian. I’m sure that his book will be remembered for a long time. I think its readability (which comes from an engaging style – much like his interview answers) will ensure its place in your heart.

      And thanks for the compliment. I’ve done less than a dozen interviews in my lifetime and I think this is the first that wasn’t for Beatdom. But it’s always fascinating asking questions about something you’re interested in (and I’m a history freak).

      • Judy Prince says:

        I’m getting rather tired of brown bag lunches, David, so, fortunately, dear Rodent, though skeptical of the book’s thesis, said he’d split the cost of Thaddeus Russell’s _A Renegade History of The United States_. Hence, we’ve purchased the book from The Book Depository (free postage worldwide, and they usually include a nifty bookmark).

        Rodent says that if someone writes a book called _A *Renegade* History of the US_, then they shouldn’t whine if the establishment doesn’t embrace them with open arms. “Talk about a sense of entitlement!” he adds.

        Rodent also felt that Lee Randall’s 25 October 2010 review in _The Scotsman_ was useful in giving a handle on the book: http://news.scotsman.com/arts/Book-review-A-Renegade-History.6549848.jp

        BTW, you just missed major flooding in Taiwan, according to my friend there.

        • Hmm… The Scotsman link isn’t working for me but I read their review last month and that was pretty interesting. Or rather, glowing. They were very excited about the book.

          I certainly missed the flooding. That happened last time I went to Taiwan. I flew out approximately an hour before their worst floods in years – the ones that killed a bunch of people. If the authorities realised they’d ban me! I bring the country such awful luck!

          I’ll add more to this thought later but I’m finally on my way to China… Gotta catch my flight…

  4. Greg Olear says:

    Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

    There is little as ossified, in my experience, as thinking in the world of academe; going against the grain is practically blasphemy. The real surprise here is not that he was let go from Barnard, but that he was installed as a professor there to begin with.

  5. Brin Friesen says:

    Davis, this was a real treat. Thanks so much.

  6. Brin Friesen says:

    DAVIS…jesus. A whole comment just to apologize for a typo. What will we do…

  7. well done, david.
    one would never guess that you are sort of new to interviews.

    in the town where i grew up in new york, the library was a ‘substation’ of the underground railroad. my mom used to show me the tunnels and holes the people slept in to escape but i have tried numerous times to find anything in writing about it and it may as well not have happened.

    america sure loves slaves, huh? i just heard that there are a couple of ‘churches,’ based near Las Vegas, that send missionaries to africa, convert people and set up farms. they have figured out how to save the shipping costs on the transatlantic shipping of bodies and so they have the africans enslaved in theor own country through the arm of religion.
    churches are tax havens so they are probably pretty free of government intervention into such stuff. it is a shame that it is such common knowledge that i found out about it and that it is allowed to continue.

    anyway, the article made me want to read the book…or put it on the list…

    • Yeah, I’m a secret interviewer. It’s not my forte exactly but from time to time I like to try my hand at it.

      What you say about Africa actually corresponds with a documentary about Liberia I watched online last week. Apparently the freed slaves from America were often sent there and simply start their own American-style plantations in Liberia, with them as master and the natives as slaves… Sickening.

      And yeah, religion can so often be used to make slaves of its followers.

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