For Civil War enthusiasts, it doesn’t get any better than James McPherson and Harold Holzer.
Listening to them talk history is akin to lovers of 19th century literature eavesdropping on Dickens and Tolstoy.
Thursday night at at the Center for Performing Arts at The Egg, McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, will receive the Empire State Archives Award from the Archives Partnership Trust.
Holzer, who has moderated the eight previous presentations, will engage McPherson in conversation on their two favorite topics, Abraham Lincoln and the great conflict that marked his presidency.
“Harold and I have done this on prior occasions at the New York Historical Society, and that kind of conversation seems to work out pretty well,” said McPherson from his home in Princeton, N.J., last month. “I don’t make a presentation. Harold is very good at setting the agenda, asking questions and then commenting on my responses to his questions.”
Empire State Archives and History Award
WHERE: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany
WHEN: 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday
HOW MUCH: $10 ($13 by phone)
MORE INFO: 473-1845 or www.theegg.org
Work gets recognized
A native of Valley City, N.D., McPherson attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Paul, Minn., and went on to earn a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In 1964, a year after finishing up his academic work at Johns Hopkins, McPherson’s dissertation, “The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction,” was published as a book. His career as a writer was off and running and hasn’t stopped since.
His eighth book, “Battle Cry of Freedom,” won the Pulitzer in 1989 and his 1998 work “Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War” captured the Lincoln Prize. McPherson ‘s 2008 book “Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief” earned him his second Lincoln Prize.
“I was very pleased when I heard about the award,” McPherson said of the Archives honor, which was given to documentary filmmaker Ken Burns last year. “It gives me a great deal of pride, and I’m looking forward to the occasion.”
“Battle Cry of Freedom,” his one-volume history of the Civil War, is considered by many to be the finest general overview of the conflict ever written. Its publication 25 years ago was considered a publishing phenomenon, spending 16 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. The book and its subsequent paperback release sold more than 700,000 copies, and that number continues to grow.
McPherson, who started his teaching career at Princeton in 1962 and retired in 2004, is as much responsible as anyone for the rekindling of America’s interest in the Civil War, according to Holzer.
“Jim McPherson and Ken Burns — one in print and one on screen — are more responsible than any other historians for the renaissance in Civil War studies,” said Holzer. “They opened the doors through which all of us have walked, giving us new audiences passionate about our nation’s past. Jim is simply the best of us: clear, original, incisive, comprehensive. Everything he touches, from the biggest interpretations to the grandest strategy down to the tiniest revelatory detail, he has handled with authority.”
McPherson is working on a biography of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis.
“I’m kind of venturing into new territory,” McPherson said of the book. “I wouldn’t say I’m finding him that likable, but he’s not as off-putting as I expected. It’s fascinating getting into his mind, and while he could be acerbic, in many cases it was because of the people he was dealing with. He clashed with others, but I think he was less guilty of being abrasive than a lot of his Southern critics.”
When he isn’t buried in his own project, McPherson said he enjoys reading other Civil War authors, such as Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia and David Blight of Yale.
“I enjoy their work, and there are a number of Lincoln and Grant biographies that have appeared in recent years that I like very much,” said McPherson. “Most of my own research has been on the Northern side of the war, so in the future I may look more into what happened in the West. There are a few good books on [Confederate General] Kirby Smith and the war west of the Mississippi, but there’s always some unmined information out there, and I may take a closer look at that aspect of the war.”
McPherson said he also enjoyed watching Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln.”
“One could level a few criticisms here and there, but on the whole I found it to be very powerful,” he said. “The acting, especially by Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones, was outstanding. I liked “Young Mr. Lincoln” and “Abe Lincoln of Illinois,” but they were made back in the late 1930s and perpetuated a number of myths. I think Spielberg’s movie is by far the best one on Lincoln.”
Along with Burns, previous winners of the award include C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb (2005), actor Sam Waterston (2006), historian/author Doris Kearns Goodwin (2007), presidential historian Michael Beschloss (2008), Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates (2009), actor Richard Dreyfuss (2010) and LBJ biographer Robert Caro (2011).
“He is the dean of Civil War historians,” Holzer said of McPherson. “He is an idol not only to millions of readers, but to all his colleagues in the profession as well.”
“Dr. McPherson is an icon among Civil War scholars, and we are absolutely thrilled and honored to have him with us next week,” said Christine Ward, assistant commissioner of the New York State Archives and also CEO of the Archives Partnership Trust. “I believe his work has become the standard in Civil War literature.”
Bob Bullock, former president of the New York State Archives and the Archives Partnership Trust, will serve as master of ceremonies for Thursday’s event. Bullock, who was at the helm when the Empire State Archives Award was founded in 2005, left the group in March.
“This event has always had a groundswell of interest, ever since Brian Lamb came for the very first program,” said Ward. “We’ve had great support, and last year, with Ken Burns, we filled the theater. It goes back a ways now, and Bob was here when it started. I think the first kernel probably started with him.”