What I’m Reading: An Interview with Historian Walter Nugent

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Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.


Related Link HNN Doyen:  Walter Nugent

Walter Nugent taught history at the University of Notre Dame for sixteen years and at Indiana University for twenty-one years. He is a past president of the Western History Association and of the Society of Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, a former member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and is a current member of HNN's advisory board. His most recent books include Habits of Empire: A History of American Expansion(2008) and Progressivism: A Very Short Introduction(2010). His latest book is Color Coded: Party Politics in the American West, 1950-2016.

What book are you reading now?

I have just begun The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne RobinsonIn May, I read The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896by Richard White; God Save Texasby Lawrence Wright; The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America by Robert Wuthnow; Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders by David Grann;Extraordinary Golf by Fred Shoemaker; Straying by Molly McCloskeyIn June, I read Grant by Ron ChernowIn July, so far, The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White Houseby Ben Rhodes.

What is your favorite history book?

Other than my own and my wife's, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel.

Why did you choose history as your career?

I liked it from childhood; and did better with it than with about anything else. Also, there is the role of accident. I went to grad school thinking that history would be good preparation for law, or even more likely, journalism. But after a couple of years and a teaching gig, I realized that I could become an academic historian. And did.



What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Empathy, openness to new and initially seemingly irrelevant ideas and phenomena (excellent advice from William H. McNeill), curiosity, skepticism, Sitzfleisch.

Which historical time period do you find to be the most fascinating?

I guess I'm associated more with the Gilded Age and Progressive Era than any other, but I've worked in the revolutionary period and the recent past. So the answer is probably whichever period I'm working on at the moment.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

As an undergrad, a Munich-trained Benedictine medievalist named Victor Gellhaus. In grad school, Dan Boorstin, for showing me that new events change the meaning of older ones; they don't have fixed, Aristotelian-Thomistic essences.

What are your hopes for world and social history as a discipline?

That young scholars keep producing good history with rigor and grace.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

I join Richard White in saying "universities" or "academic life" have been both rewarding and frustrating. That aside, it's been rewarding to be constantly surrounded by bright, interesting people in stimulating venues. Frustrating: seeing some bad ideas that ought to die live on.

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

How historical study has changed in the course of my career (i.e. since the 1950s): the obvious demographic shifts -- many more women, and people of color, are historians, with resultant attention to women's history, black history, and minorities history. Overall, there’s more social history -- so much so that the political, diplomatic, economic, and constitutional history that were so dominant when I started out have been abandoned, to a large extent, by historians, and have been left to political scientists and economists/business schools. Academic history has shrunk -- fewer majors, smaller enrollments, the supply of new PhDs far outrunning demand -- a trend shared with the humanities and social sciences in general. On the bright side, research has become much easier, thanks to online access of all sorts.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

One of mine, in my early book, Creative History: An Introduction to Historical Study, is "the life of the past is the light of the present." I'm not sure I agree any more, but it was quoted in an encyclopedia.

What are you doing next?

Other than my new book about to come out -- Color Coded: Party Politics in the American West, 1950-2016 -- I haven't really decided yet. This book is too fresh. But I have some ideas, as yet half- or quarter-baked.

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