How a History Book is Born

This week, Hill and Wang, an imprint of FSG specializing in books on American history, published Brown historian Robert O. Self’s All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s. Self sees the civil rights, gay rights, feminist, and antiwar movements, as well as evangelical Christianity and neoliberal economics, as threads in a single grand narrative. Rethinking the past fifty years of American political life, he is the first to argue that competing ideas of the family fractured liberalism and paved the way for the rise of the conservative right.

All in the Family has been seven years in the making. We asked Self to write about the process, from the first spark of inspiration to the submission of the final draft. What follows is a year by year account of how a historian conceptualizes, researches, and writes a book.

Year 1 Los Angeles. I want to write a book about this amazing city, where I find myself in 2005 with a fellowship at the Huntington Library, near Pasadena. My first book was about race in postwar Oakland, and my new idea seems simple enough: what would the urban crisis of the 1960s look like in one city—a city that famously exploded in the 1965 Watts riot—if I paid as much attention to gender as to race?

This question quickly spawns a new one. Sitting in the City of Los Angeles Archives, surrounded by boxes of files from the city council in the 1960s and 1970s, I am struck by the flood of letters from ordinary Angelenos about things I had not expected: nude beaches; X-rated theaters crowding into neighborhoods; the prospect of gay cops on the force. For many of the city’s residents, the urban crisis was not about gender but about sex. I speak with a colleague who is writing a book about San Francisco—yes, he says, the sexual urban crisis! I realize that I cannot write about gender without also writing about sex and sexuality.

Year 1.5 Los Angeles. Maybe this is not a book about Los Angeles. I am continually drawn to the national story. L.A. has started to feel both too small and too big to contain my interests. Too small because so many of the legal frameworks having to do with gender and sex operate at the state and national level. As I make my way through the papers of the California Committee for Therapeutic Abortion at UCLA, for instance, the documents reveal activists working largely in Sacramento, the state capital.

At the same time, Los Angeles is such an extraordinarily diverse and varied city that to do it justice—to write a faithful history of the Latino eastside, the middle-class white westside, the African American southside, the gay communities of Silverlake and West Hollywood, the suburban San Fernando Valley, and so on—might require ten years of research. Taking a decade to research a book is common, but for a combination of personal and professional reasons I’d prefer a six to eight year time horizon.

And strange as it may seem, a national study is less daunting. People across the nation were thinking about gender, sex and sexuality, and the family in new ways in the 1960s and 1970s. Take gay rights, for instance. In centers of growing gay political activism—in Los Angeles and San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia—progress was slow, and the timing of key victories was determined by local conditions. But the activists’ strategies, and the debates they fostered in both gay and straight circles, have a shared history that is complex but not dependent on local particulars.

Historians talk about “waves” of historiography. And a mighty one has crashed on our shores in the last two decades carrying title after title about “the sixties.” Some have even begun to speak of “the long sixties,” which often means the period between the Montgomery bus boycott (1955) and the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade and our exit from Vietnam the same year (1973). More and more historians are also writing about “the rise of the right” between Barry Goldwater’s presidential defeat in 1964 and Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. I’m realizing that I have an original and important contribution to make to the study of these influential decades.

Year 2 Providence, RI. Back from Los Angeles and teaching again. I spend much of my time outside of the classroom making my way through a mountain of books on abortion politics, gay rights, black power, feminism, welfare, the sexual revolution, and, increasingly, evangelical Christianity. Often I’ll have three or four books at a time open on my desk; I jump back and forth, reading parts of chapters, thumbing through indexes, taking notes.

In graduate school, we talked about “gutting” a book—reading the introduction and conclusion and skimming through the chapters. Preparing for PhD exams, I had to get through two to three books a day, so gutting was imperative! Now my strategy varies. Some books I gut. If I’ve read enough on a particular topic, I can quickly determine if a book that’s new to me has anything to add. Others I have to read closely, either because I’m learning about an unfamiliar subject—the fight against pornography, for instance—or because the book really breaks new ground.

On the surface I may appear organized, but the project at this stage is a little chaotic. I have many physical notes in addition to the electronic ones; the former go into file folders with titles like “Lesbian Radicalism” or “Evangelicals opposed to abortion.” The deeper I get into the project, the more files, both real and virtual, I generate. More and more of my time is spent simply keeping track of where I have put things.

Year 3 Providence, RI. Fall is the season for applying for grants and fellowships. Without outside assistance, writing this book would be all but impossible. Teaching is incredibly enjoyable and rewarding, but it’s exhausting.

In the spring, I learn that I have received a fellowship that supports “long-term, unusually ambitious projects” in the humanities and social sciences from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). It should afford me a year’s leave from Brown. Several weeks later, I am shocked to learn that I received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

I begin to plan trips: to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston; to the National Archives in College Park, MD; to the San Francisco and New York Public Libraries; to the libraries at Cornell, Columbia, NYU, Smith, the University of North Carolina, and the University of Minnesota, among many others. Before I’m done, I will visit more than 30 libraries and archives and use more than 150 manuscript collections. This is not unprecedented for a big book, but it’s a change for me, since the sources for my first book were concentrated in a handful of libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Year 4 Cambridge, MA. Supported by a fellowship, I divide my time between writing and manuscript collections. I write with books and file folders open on the table. I become a prisoner of the semi-circle of books and paper that rises higher and higher around me. I aim for two pages a day, but sometimes I’m delighted if I write one really good page.

Just a generation ago—when I was in a PhD program in the early 1990s—historians still scribbled on note cards. Laptops did speed up the process of note-taking, but not until digital cameras did archival work radically change. It became possible to photograph entire documents at virtually no charge. By the time I’m finished with his project, I will have collected tens of thousands of pages of documents, enough to fill a dozen file boxes.

Maybe 10 percent of this primary source material, or maybe only 5, will ultimately make it into the book.

Year 5 Providence, RI, Austin, TX, Simi Valley, CA, and points in between. This is a year on the road. Supported by the Guggenheim Foundation, I divide my time between my home in Providence and more than a dozen libraries. I visit the Presidential Libraries of Lyndon Johnson (Austin), Jimmy Carter (Atlanta), Ronald Reagan (Simi Valley), and Bill Clinton (Little Rock), having already visited the Richard Nixon Library. Other ports of call include Madison, Wisconsin, Lawrence, Kansas, and Chicago.

In November, I fly to Little Rock on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. The Clinton Library is open Monday to Wednesday, and I put in three full days. Little Rock is a ghost town for the holiday. I drive by Central High School, the site of the 1957 desegregation battle, and its quiet stillness is moving.

I encounter a similar kind of intimacy with history in the archives, in the emotions of ordinary Americans dissatisfied, often passionately, with their elected officials.

Before email, Americans wrote letters to presidents (as they did to other federal, state, and local officeholders). Sometimes the letters professed support for one policy or another. But far more often they expressed outrage or disappointment. In the Nixon Presidential papers, there are tens of thousands of letters bitterly opposed to the conviction of Lt. William Calley for his role in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.

The letters are an unscientific measure of public attitudes. But their substance tells us a great deal. Many were from World War II veterans, who wrote that however horrific Calley’s actions, they were “no different” from what the men in Europe and the Pacific were asked to do between 1941 and 1945. As a historian, I can’t take that as fact but I begin to see it as something that many people believed.

Or take another set of letters, these not in a presidential library but in the collection of Patricia Maginnis, a reproductive rights advocate from the 1960s, at the Schlesinger Library. Hundreds of women wrote to Maginnis when abortion was illegal. Whatever one’s position on abortion, these are deeply anguished personal letters (all names and identifying information have been redacted). They reveal women of all ages and from all walks of life struggling mightily—and often financially—with unwanted pregnancy. Reading them is profoundly affecting.

However familiar they may seem, the letter writers were of a different era. And, to state the obvious, they are not me. Writing through them is the leap the historian must take.

The evidence I am gathering runs from the presidential memo to the mimeographed manifesto, from letters about William Calley to letters to Patricia Maginnis, from Lyndon Johnson’s Oval Office to the feminist collective in San Francisco. Writing across those scales is one of the most challenging aspects of this project.

Year 6 Providence, RI. Back to teaching. I have drafts of 12 of 14 anticipated chapters. I’ve asked a few friends and colleagues to start reading them and offering comments.

More than ever, I am trying to carve out time during the semester to write. The manuscript is now a year overdue. My publisher wants a clean draft, and I am determined to deliver one no more than a year behind schedule. A central argument is taking shape, but it’s still fuzzy.

Year 7 Seattle, WA. After a few rounds of back and forth with the publisher, I have come to Seattle for the summer to finish the manuscript. My sister (and her partner) and niece live here, and it’s far from all distractions. For three months I take the bus every morning to a coffee shop overlooking Puget Sound, where I start work at 5 am. Fueled by caffeine and a camaraderie I have discovered among the early-bird regulars, I work through the manuscript—editing, revising, adding, cutting, sharpening.

My concentration is interrupted periodically by extraordinary sights. One day a pod of whales is spotted just off shore, and we watch them glide toward deeper waters. On Saturday mornings, the big cruise ships that have been up in Alaska return, their lights cutting through the morning fog on the Sound. They ease into the bay, giving the scene a dreamy quality.

My days have three shifts. Morning at the coffee shop with the computer, file folders, notes, and outlines. An afternoon shift, either at a neighborhood library or the university. In the early evening, I print out whatever I’ve worked on that day for one last pass, often over a glass of wine.

Seven years goes by fast. From conception to submitting the final draft, I’ve lived with the book that long. I’m glad I have, but I’m also thrilled to be nearing the end.

Robert O. Self is an Associate Professor of History at Brown University. His research focuses on urban history, the history of race and American political culture, post-1945 U.S. society and culture, and gender and sexuality in American politics. His first book, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland, won four professional prizes, including the James A. Rawley prize from the Organization of American Historians (OAH). His most recent book, All in the Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s, is now available.