Sharing Our Common Past: Three professors personalize history of America through the voices of Americans
by Chris Branam
Fulbright College is home to three of the top historians in America. Elliott West, Randall Woods and Daniel Sutherland explore very different themes in their historical research but get to the heart of their stories in much the same way, using the personal correspondence and first-hand accounts of those Americans who stood at the center of history as it was happening. Their insightful, nuanced and detailed writing has been widely acclaimed, and they are regularly invited to give lectures around the nation and overseas.
A specialist in the social and environmental history of the American West, West’s writing explores the past even as it helps bring greater understanding of today’s world.
“If you make a list of the most important issues facing the American people today, it would include ethnic diversity, environmental concerns, conservation of resources, relations with developing countries, urban planning,” West said when Contested Plains was published. “Well, the West has been dealing with those issues ever since it became part of the nation.”
Publishers Weekly described his book, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story, as the “definitive analysis of the United States’ 1877 war with the Nez Perce” and concluded that “West tells it brilliantly.” His book about the Nez Perce and his books Growing Up with the Country and The Way to the West have earned him the Western Heritage Award three times.
The Center of the American West awarded him the 2013 Wallace Stegner Award for his sustained contributions to the cultural identity of the American West.
West is the Alumni Distinguished Professor of American History. He has written eight books and more than 100 book chapters, articles and book reviews in national history journals and publications.
He has been honored with several national awards for his book The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers and the Rush to Colorado, including the Caughey Prize from the Western History Association, Best Work of Research Non-Fiction by PEN Center USA West, the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians, Best Historical Non-Fiction on the West by Western Writers of America, and the Ray Allen Billington Prize from the Organization of American Historians.
When Oxford University invited Woods to serve as its John G. Winant Professor of American Government in 2013, his historical research and books about key political figures in the mid-20th century came front and center on the international stage.
In LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, the first biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson to come out after the release of his presidential tapes, Woods argued that the same idealism that drove the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Society also drove the war in Vietnam. Woods came to this realization after conducting in-depth interviews with many who had worked closely with Johnson, including his long-time secretary and dozens of his aides, and after studying newly released White House recordings and declassified documents.
In Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA, Woods traced the life of Colby, who began working with the Office of Strategic Services — the precursor to the CIA — during World War II and spent more than a decade leading secret actions in Vietnam.
Woods is also author of Fulbright: A Biography, which was awarded the Robert H. Ferrell Prize for the Best Book on American Foreign Relations and the Virginia Ledbetter Prize for the Best Book on Southern Studies. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
His appointment at Oxford included a lecture about Johnson:
“I spoke about the Great Society as a reform movement in the context of a 20th century reform movement, comparing it with populism and progressivism and the New Deal. The British seem very interested in what I have written about, especially my book about LBJ.”
In 2016, Basic Books will release Woods’ ninth book, Prisoners of Hope: Lyndon B. Johnson and the Origins of the Great Society.
Woods currently serves as the John A. Cooper Distinguished Professor of History. In addition to the Winant Professorship, he has been a Mellon Fellow at Cambridge University and Stanley Kaplan Distinguished Visiting Professor at Williams College.
Sutherland’s ninth and most recent book is Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake. Published in 2014, itis the first biography of the artist to make extensive use of his private correspondence, and Sutherland mined Whistler’s own words to give a full understanding of the “painter’s painter.”
“I’m not an art historian, so I looked at his life holistically,” Sutherland said. “I think others recognized there was a difference between his public and private lives, but because they never went deeply into his private correspondence they never understood the way in which it really affected how he viewed art and the world.”
Whistler “was a very great artist, arguably the greatest of his generation, and a pivotal figure in the cultural history of the 19th century,” according to Sutherland.
There have been nearly 20 biographies of Whistler since he died in 1903, but Sutherland’s is the first in more than two decades. Sutherland is one of nine authorities who lent their expertise in the making of the public television documentary film, James McNeill Whistler and The Case for Beauty.
Nearly all of Sutherland’s other books have dealt with the Civil War or 19th century American society. His 2009 book, A Savage Conflict: The Decisive Role of Guerrillas in the American Civil War won the Tom Watson Brown Book Award of the Society of Civil War Historians and the Distinguished Book Award, given by the Society for Military History.
A Savage Conflict was the first book to treat guerrilla warfare as critical to understanding the course and outcome of the Civil War. In a meticulously researched account, Sutherland argued that irregular warfare took a large toll on the Confederate war effort by weakening the South’s support for state and national governments and diminishing the trust citizens had in their officials to protect them.
Sutherland serves as a Distinguished Professor of history. Since the release of Whistler, he has given invited lectures at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, the Detroit Institute of Art, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.