Historian Otto Scott Steers by the Compass: A Distinguished Writer and Historian Managed to Find His Own Way as a News Reporter to to Writing Books about Business and Finally Exploring Issues of Leadership and Civilization
Lucier, James P., Insight on the News
Otto Scott is the author of 10 books, each engaging a different topic. Never afraid to express his candid opinions, he was expelled from the New York public-school system in grade school. After psychological testing, officials recommended Scott proceed straight to college; instead, he continued on to high school in Newburgh, N. Y., and after a year was expelled again. When he told his grandfather that he intended to become a news reporter, his grandfather said, "Well, you don't need a gentleman's education for that." Scott's grandfather was right, for at the age of 16 Scott became editor of a Civilian Conservation Corps newspaper at Fort Eustis, Va. Later he worked for United Features Syndicate and the San Diego Union. During World War II he served in the U.S. Merchant Marine.
After the war, Scott worked in the advertising industry, then became editor of a manufacturing trade journal, Rubber World. In the course of his assignments, he interviewed Paul Blazer, the chairman of Ashland Oil, in Ashland, Ky., and was invited to write the history of the company. "He changed my life because he gave me a new trade," Scott says of the company chairman. "I didn't know I could write a book." He subsequently wrote other corporate histories for Raytheon, Black & Decker and Arch Mineral Corp. But after a career in business, Scott, who was living in Greenwich Village, became bored and moved to San Francisco. There he began to write the classic histories for which he is best known. Recently he settled in New Hampshire, where he now is working on two books, a long-delayed study of Woodrow Wilson and a historical-perspective biography of Conservative Caucus founder Howard Phillips.
Insight asked Scott whether he ever takes time to relax. "My only lapse is that I like mysteries. I read them while I travel, because I can't read anything serious on a plane -- I don't know why. At the moment, I am reading Murder Being Once Done, by Ruth Rendell. She's very good. I don't know why women are so good at murder right now.
Insight: You have become, late in life, a historian, but you started out in another field entirely. How did you get in the historian business?
Otto Scott: On the historical side, each time you look into the background of a certain line of activity, it looks different. The first historical background I did was for the Ashland Oil book. It was an attempt to put the history of the company against the contemporary events of the period through which the company had grown. But my attempt was sort of a tour of the surface -- what you get from looking at ordinary accounts of the times beginning in 1918. But the next time I looked at the period, when I was writing the history of Raytheon, the background looked different. I began to go into history in a more serious way.
It is astonishing how many bad historians the United States entertains. We have fellows writing our history who don't have an idea in their head -- all they do is repeat what somebody else wrote. Every generation has secrets. You have to dig to find them, and you may be sure that some won't please your audience. There's no point in writing a book that doesn't say something different and something new, that doesn't add to the body of public information. Otherwise, you simply are repeating what other people have written. The United States is very poorly served historically, and our scholars systematically have written up in a very flattering way some of the stupidest and worst men in the world.
Insight: Which brings to mind your history of John Brown. How did you begin working on that? What brought it to your attention?
OS: Well, the Brown book and the Robespierre book and the book on King James I of England came together. But they weren't commissioned. A speculative book is expensive because a writer's time is money and a great deal of research is involved.
I had gone to work for Ashland after I wrote their history, but I quit after two years because I didn't want to chew the same bone every day. …