Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Writing the Story of `A Larger-Than-Life Time'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Writing the Story of `A Larger-Than-Life Time'

Article excerpt

JAMES M. McPHERSON's "Battle Cry of Freedom," which covers American history from the Mexican War through the Civil War, is the second volume published in Oxford University's `History of the United States' series. He recently won the Pulitzer Prize in history for his book.

The Princeton professor spent 4 years writing the 900-page book, only "the tip of the iceberg" of 20-odd years of teaching and writing on the subject.

First published in February 1988, the book was on the New York Times best seller list for 16 weeks and has sold more than 110,000 copies. In February this year, Ballantine published the book in paperback, after a record-setting bid - $504,000 - for a book first published by a university press.

Professor McPherson recently talked with a group of editors at the Monitor. Following is a selection of questions and his answers.

Most history books adopt a topical approach, analyzing parts of history rather than the chronological whole. Why did you choose the narrative style?

I wrote about the Civil War in the way that it actually happened ... the way a person living during that time experienced it.

Focusing around one topic may be easier [for the writer], but it gives the reader little sense of how everything - politics, economics, emancipation, the North, the South, military campaigns - was related.

You can't understand these things in isolation. They had enormous effects on each other.

Central to your approach is the "contingency" theory. Can you explain this?

Everything that happens is contingent on other things that happen, and we must understand the cause-and-effect relationships among these events. Things could have come out differently. There were a lot of "ifs" in the Civil War; Northern victory was not inevitable.

I tried to organize my narrative around this dimension of contingency, so that - if we could assume the impossible - if a reader didn't know how the war came out, he would not know until he got to the end of the book.

In fact, I got a letter from a Southerner who said one of the reasons he liked this book was that as he was reading it he thought to himself, "Maybe this time it'll come out different. …

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