Lesley Assistant Professor of History Dr. Ron Lamothe writes about historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who will present at Lesley's Boston Speakers Series on April 30.
Friday, April 25, 2014
She creates remarkably vivid and detailed portraits—the “texture of the time,” in her own words—and we, as readers, are transported back to wie es eigentlich gewesen, or “how it really was.” This task is the historian’s ultimate goal per 19th century historian Leopold von Ranke, yet it remains ever illusive, of course, and ever more so in the wake of postmodernism. Be that as it may, it is in this “art of narrative,” what G. M. Trevelyan argued was the “bed rock” of history, that Goodwin is a true master, attracting both avid readers and the jealousies of dry-as-dust historians in ways quite similar to her predecessor, Tuchman.
Goodwin’s latest book, “The Bully Pulpit,” is a marvelously crafted work of history about Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, not to mention the “golden age of journalism” and those prolific and pertinacious “muckrakers” and the Progressive Era they all helped forge. This is one of those “handful of times in the history of our country,” according to Goodwin, “when there occurs a transformation so remarkable that a molt seems to take place, and an altered country begins to emerge.” Here in the 21st century, amidst income disparities and unfettered corporate power and greed, there is a certain timeliness about the book, one that had this reader yearning for a president who used the “bully pulpit” and led rather than followed, and more journalists who wrote exposés on corrupt Wall Street moguls instead of Hollywood celebrities.
Of course, “The Bully Pulpit” is only the most recent of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s six critically acclaimed and best-selling titles, an impressive list that includes “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” (2005), “Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir” (1997), “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II” (1995), “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga” (1987), and “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream” (1977). For “No Ordinary Time” she was awarded the 1995 Pulitzer Prize in history, and for “Team of Rivals” she won the 2005 Lincoln Prize, given annually to the finest scholarly work on Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War era. Soon reaching even wider audiences, Steven Spielberg based his 2012 film “Lincoln” on Goodwin’s portrait of our 16th president and his cabinet, and he has since acquired the film rights to “The Bully Pulpit” as well. Now a million-selling author, Goodwin also is ubiquitous on television as a political commentator—with her Long Island accent and disarming smile, always ready with her historical perspective including pithy and evocative stories about past presidents and their families. She inhabits rarefied air these days among distinguished contemporary historians, and she is probably our country’s best known and most beloved one of all.
Her vibrant on-camera personality has appeared in several documentaries on PBS. I was first introduced to Doris Kearns Goodwin back in 1994, when she appeared in the Ken Burns documentary series “Baseball.” Like Shelby Foote in “The Civil War,” she nearly stole the show, with poignant anecdotes about Ebbets Field and her girlhood love of the Brooklyn Dodgers, as well as her long-suffering relationship with the Boston Red Sox. I immediately became a fan of hers, and have been so ever since.
Goodwin the biographer and presidential historian is in a league of her own, and we are sincerely thankful for all she has contributed to the field thus far—and for carrying the mantle, and all that comes with it—as “America’s historian.”
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