How did you come up with the idea for the book?
This book literally "came to me" in two ways. For as long as I can remember, like many authors, I have kept a notepad and pencil on the table next to my bed, on top of a pile of a half-dozen books that I am reading at any given time. One night in the sultry summer of 2002, I had a dream in which these three words, "The American Revelation," appeared hovering in mid-air just above my face. I woke up and jotted them down and went back to sleep. The next morning I looked at the words and instantly knew this was my book title. And that fall, I read a piece in The Economist magazine about the emotional and political ambience of the United States one year after 9/11, and it struck me that we were living in a historical watershed moment, and I needed to respond to that moment.
How did you decide upon these ten particular ideals?
I saved that original scrap of paper, and I'm looking at it now, and I see that I began by writing at the top, "What is America?" To digress for just a moment: When I was an impressionable freshman in college - forty years ago! - I took a course called "American Intellectual History" with a young scholar named Loren Baritz, a charismatic lecturer, who had just written and published a book called City on a Hill . Professor Baritz's major theme came as a true revelation to me on the first day of the term - history should be thought of as a tradition of ideas, not just a succession events and dates. So, flash forward again to my scrap of paper. "City on a Hill" leapt to mind instantly as the first chapter. Then I wrote the words, "Founding Fathers," and then "Westward Ho" (which sounds a little clichéd), then "1840s - 1870s," "Gilded Era," "Wilson period, international era," "W.P.A./social era," and finally - and this is pretty interesting - "New Frontier/Kennedy."
So you see I started out with a powerful ideal, a big metaphor for America, one that indeed ended up as the first chapter; but then I regressed -- retreated, in a way -- to a more traditional concept. I had to embark upon a long, arduous struggle to force myself to think conceptually. I told myself the book should be predominantly about ideals - not ideas - that final "l" was critical; although I had been inspired so long ago by intellectual history, now I wanted to write a kind of moral history. I wanted to focus upon familiar expressions most people would recognize from high school, or maybe even before high school, expressions people would look at and initially think they already knew. I wanted to go for a mixture of known and unknown figures; the book should be "representative," in the way that Emerson, one of my ten idealists, who became the central pillar of the book, defined that word as embodying the spirit of the time; it should be a reminder to the reader of seeds planted deep into our culture.
And current events, "today's headlines," as they say, played a big role in shaping the book.
What do you mean by that?
Well, I am a chronic and omnivorous newspaper and magazine reader and radio-listener. I am an early riser, and I have this compulsion every morning that I have a responsibility to bring myself up to speed on what is happening in the world before I can allow myself to enter the (much smaller) world of my study on the third floor. And I believe that the major use of history is to help us come to terms with today's fragmented, accelerated, and dangerous world. I remember when I wrote my Edison biography and I learned that before he embarked upon a new idea for an invention, an original technological innovation, Thomas Edison went back and studied everything he could find about what similar ideas had preceded him, so that he could take the next original step. It was the same feeling I got from Man Ray and the iconoclastic modernist artists I wrote about in that book. They were very serious students of impressionism first, before they went ahead and made new images.
Today we are living in a situation in America where more and more analogies are being made every day with an earlier period in our history just after World War II, when there was a sense of uncertainty about the world, and who was really "on our side," and what we really stood for in this country. Likewise, this is not the first time our society has grappled with the great divide between the "haves" and the "have-nots." My chapter on Henry George makes that very clear. And I thought, one way to find out what we really believe now is to go back and dig up what we used to truly and legitimately stand for - and then, let's see how far we may have strayed or, perhaps, how closely we still hew to those values.
The book covers such a wide range of topics and people over such a broad span of time. How do you go about doing research for a book like this?
I should point out that although this is my sixth major nonfiction book in two decades, this is the first book I have ever written under the special and privileged circumstances of being a "full-time" writer, rather than having to scrounge time to write on weekends, holidays and vacations. In December, 2003, I stepped down after serving for fifteen years as Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, so that I could give myself the chance to devote full time to writing. Now I have more time to think - and also to gaze out the window and day dream while sipping coffee, and talk to my cat occasionally - but even so, my methodology remains the same. I am a hands-on writer and researcher. When I go to the library, I stand by the xerox machine and put dimes in one at a time and copy pages myself and then take the copies home and take notes. I spend hours on JSTOR, the full-text periodicals database, printing out articles. I buy used books so that I can write in the margins in pencil, and when I finish reading I go back and transcribe my notes. I do all my own photo research, because the "look" of my books is of paramount important to me. At this stage in my career, people ask me why I don't hire an assistant, but frankly, I could never do that, because I need to read and absorb everything for myself. Every single word that goes into my books is my responsibility and I have to be one hundred percent certain that I can vouch for every sentence.
I do all my research up front before I "write" anything. "Writing," to me, has a specific and circumscribed meaning. It means beginning to set down the actual words that I intend for the book, nothing less. After I have done all the research, I lay out each and every fact in order, so that they begin to take on the structure of a narrative, because without narrative, without a sense of story, you are lost. Once the structure of the underlying facts is in place, and the transitions feel right to me, then -- and only then -- do I begin to knit them together, one by one. That's what I call writing. That's why the bibliographies of my books tend to be so lengthy, because the factual background needs to be exhaustive, so that the story on the surface - the story you are reading - moves along swiftly. You as the reader will have confidence that below the surface resides an immense storehouse of information - but it doesn't weigh the story down; rather, the information buoys the story up.
What would you like the reader of The American Revelation to experience from your book?
That's a hard question, because I have learned as an omnivorous reader myself that you can't think about a book like a suitcase, as if it were something where you "take out" exactly what the author "put in." Each reader brings something different to the experience. That said, above all else I have two hopes: One is that the reader will close the book with the thought that he or she has learned something new about the cumulative identity of our country, something new that will engender a sense of pride despite the adversities of our time. And then, building upon that feeling, I hope the reader will concur with me that a modern democracy, if it is true to its informing principles, must permit-- or, I will go further and say must encourage -- its thoughtful citizens to be free to re-evaluate those principles.
When I started to write this book, I did not plan on its being "timely." My initial impulse, as I have tried to explain, was to explore the annals of conventional history in order to find the kernels of truth. However, I must admit that I am pleased that The American Revelation is being published in the midst of this ongoing debate about values, and I think that the book will add to the discourse in a meaningful and inspiring way.