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If you like David Herbert Donald's story, you might also like:
Stephen Ambrose,
Shelby Foote,
Doris Kearns Goodwin,
Frank McCourt,
David McCullough,
James Michener
and Gore Vidal

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David Herbert Donald
David Herbert Donald
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David Herbert Donald Interview (page: 6 / 8)

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Biography

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  David Herbert Donald

As you see it, was there any connection between your background as a Southerner and the history of the Civil War era that you chose to study?

David Herbert Donald: There really was no connection with my growing up and my academic interest. I didn't know what I was going to do when I went to graduate school, but I had a vague feeling that maybe I should write a history of Mississippi, my home state. That would give me something to connect with my roots, so to speak, and I thought about it for quite a while, and then I realized I don't know much about Mississippi, and my own training experience was very meager. I lived in a town of 680 people, half white, half black. My knowledge of the broader aspects of Southern history was very skimpy. So that I decided that's not for me, I better stick to something where Professor Randall knows a lot and can help me find something that I can learn a lot about.

Does it matter that I was a Southerner? Yes, I think it does, and in a certain sense I think the fact that I grew up in the South, the Deep South, has contributed to the fact that I am, as you can judge, a nonstop talker and storyteller, and Southerners tend to be. This, I believe, was a help in my early books, because when most people are writing a dissertation, it's like an abstract or a recipe. I sort of spread myself and I told stories, and people found it interesting. One of the people, a great professor of mine -- after oral exams -- read the dissertation. He said, "Mr. Donald, I see that you are trying in some places to write very well and to reach a large audience." I said, "Well yes, I would like to do that." "Well," he said, "I don't think that's to be encouraged. I have a rule." He says, "When I have written anything that I think is clever or witty or striking, I always go through and rub it out. You should do that." And I said, "Well maybe that's what I should do," and then he said, "After all that, I really enjoyed reading your thesis, and I usually don't." So I thought, "Well, okay. Maybe I'm hitting on something here." So I think something in that sense had something to do with it. Also the fact that I grew up in a "half white, half black" environment. I've always found African-American people perfectly happy to be associated with me and vice versa. I don't have any race prejudices whatsoever, and this has made it a lot easier for me to talk about the South, to talk about racial relations, to talk about civil rights, than perhaps some other people who have fixed ideas on these matters.

If you were speaking to someone who knows nothing about your field, how would you explain what makes it so exciting to you?

David Herbert Donald: American history is exciting, first of all. We are really the only modern nation whose entire career in our history is available to us. That is, we can go over the first papers, the settlement of Jamestown, all the way down to the present, and the documents are there. There are no mysteries about it. If you were writing about the history of England or Sweden or so on, you'd have to go back in the depth of time and still wouldn't know how things began. So in America, you have a kind of case study of the development of a nation and how it grew and why it grew and why it grew in this particular way, and this has always had a special fascination for me. With the Civil War, it is, in particular, the fascination of two roads. One might have led to an independent Confederacy, two nations on this continent. What would have happened since that time? So it encourages you to imagine things were different, and the other was the road that was taken. So one puzzles over these aspects and tries to figure out, "What can I do with this? What can I make out of it?"

[ Key to Success ] Passion

You spoke about being Professor Randall's research assistant when you began to write your dissertation in the 1940s. Were you already shooting for a Pulitzer Prize? What were your goals then? What motivated you?

David Herbert Donald: My ambitions as a graduate student were quite modest. I hoped that someday I'd get a Ph.D. That with a dissertation that was acceptable, I might get a job teaching at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois. It's a lovely little college, right near Springfield, but not too close, 40, 50 miles. It has good, high standards. It is a wonderful place for undergraduate education in the Middle West. It is sort of the Middle West equivalent of, say, Amherst, maybe Williams, and that was my aspiration. It never occurred to me that I would go on to a university, that I would go on to write books that people would read and so on. I was just looking for something quite local. There is a postscript here, that a couple of years ago I had the great fortune to be given an honorary degree from Illinois College. I went out there and loved it, and reminded them that this is the career that I almost had, but I did not start out like Abraham Lincoln with "a little engine that had no rest" as my ambition. I started out thinking, "Well, maybe I can make a reasonable living teaching at Illinois College." One thing led to another, and I got a traveling fellowship from the Social Science Research Council. It was to allow me to investigate sources in many parts of the country, and I traveled a lot, mostly by bus, from Boston to Los Angeles, and did visit all the major libraries and learned a lot from them and wrote up a good long report of what I had found. Somehow or another, this report went to the Social Science Research Council, and one of their members picked it up and said, "You know, this is an interesting young man, been out doing all these things. Why don't..." -- he taught at Columbia -- "Why don't you bring him to Columbia? He would be kind of fun to have around." So then I got a letter in the mail asking how I'd like to teach at Columbia, and I said, "Oh sure, I would." So off I sped to become an instructor at Columbia University. Such a thing would have been absolutely unimaginable to me when I entered graduate school, but I think it was a fortunate break.

You won your first Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Was that a surprise to you?

David Herbert Donald: My first Pulitzer Prize was for my first volume of Charles Sumner, the Massachusetts abolitionist. By that time, I had been working for some time on it. I was very much surprised. The book was supposed to be one large book, but I had been given an appointment in England to teach for a year. I talked to my publisher about it, and he said, "Look, if you stop for a year, you're going to find it very hard to come back to the subject and finish it. Why don't we publish what you have finished? And then you come back and you start the second volume." The first of what I had finished ended with the outbreak of the Civil War, and therefore, it formed a kind of unit, and so I said, "Great, let's do that," and they published that book, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War. It never occurred to me, honestly, that it would win a Pulitzer Prize, because no one, no single volume in a series had ever done that before. Nobody had ever taken volume one of a multi-volume series, and I was just astonished. Pleased and delighted, of course, and I did get back to Sumner, and I did go back and write a second one, a rather long one after that. But on the whole, I think historians don't, by and large, work with a view of prizes and rewards. If they do, they're nearly always going to be disappointed. My great editor at Simon & Schuster once told me, "These prizes are so political that nobody can count on them going one way or another. So nobody should set his heart on them," and I never really had, to tell the truth.

It sounds like you didn't start out with a big grand plan, but you seized opportunities when they arose. You created opportunities. Did you always think large achievements lay in your future? Or did you find yourself struggling at some point during your career?

David Herbert Donald: Well, somehow or other, I always thought of myself as rather special. Who doesn't? But it never occurred to me that one day I would be an ancient historian being interviewed for television! I was just going to be, I hoped, a good college history teacher, and then things sort of broke for me.

I started teaching in Columbia in the influx of GIs from World War II, and they needed extra people. So they had hired me, and I liked it there, and it turned out that they liked me, and the students liked me. So again, I thought of this as a very temporary kind of thing. Mrs. Randall kept the letters I wrote during those years, and one of them says, "You know, I am enjoying New York a lot, and I like living here, but I can't imagine living here for any length of time." I assumed that when my two-year contract was over that I'd go back maybe to Jacksonville, Illinois, but they needed people, and apparently, I filled the bill. I still was so uncertain about the future though, that when Smith College was looking for a professor and they wrote down to Columbia and asked if I'd be interested, I said yes. So I resigned at Columbia and went off to Smith. The people at Columbia were baffled by this. They said, "Why would you leave Columbia to go to Smith?" I said, "Well, I don't belong in Columbia. You know that. I'm very different from the rest of you. I'm going to Smith," and they were angry that I had spurned them, so to speak. I went to Smith, and while I liked the students individually, it clearly was not for me, and in the second year there, I was fortunate enough to be asked would I go to Princeton, would I go to Yale, or would I come back to Columbia, and I didn't know Princeton or Yale. I thought I'll go back to Columbia where at least they know who I am, and so I went back to Columbia and at that point decided, okay, I guess I'm going to make a career as a historian and tried to do so.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

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