Douglas Wilson

Douglas Wilson was interviewed as part of the Booknotes Oral History Project on July 8, 2014. Wilson appeared on C-SPAN's Booknotes program on March 29, 1998, discussing his book Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln.

Interview Transcript

Good morning. Today is Tuesday, July 8, 2014, and we are interviewing author Douglas L. Wilson, who appeared on Booknotes on March 29, 1998, to discuss his book Honor's Voice, the Transformation of Abraham Lincoln. Good morning,  Professor Wilson. I'd like to know, do you know how your book came to be on Booknotes?

No, I don't know. I was at that time at Knox College in the early '90s, and he wanted to do a kind of reprise of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and get all of the towns and places involved. And he put this off, as he has a way of doing, and I was one of the people that he consulted. I was part of the faculty at Knox College in Galesburg, whose campus was one of the sites of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. So he knew who I was, and maybe he was just curious when my book came out. I don't know.

Did you happen to know that he was a huge fan of Abraham Lincoln before you went to do the interview?

I think I knew that he was a fan of the founders, he was interested in presidents, and whether I knew that he was particularly interested in Lincoln – obviously, he had a strong interest in Lincoln. I knew that when I was working with him on the debates.

Well, how did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes?

Well, I was doing a number of appearances at that time, and so I don't remember making any special preparation, but I certainly was doing what I could to be prepared to answer questions that I was getting from people on the radio and on television and from Brian. I think my approach was simply to be sure that I had my own book covered and I could answer intelligently and off the cuff if I were asked about any aspect of it. Mr. Lamb was particularly prickly about asking questions about names and dates and all those little details. Yes, he was.

What do you remember most from your appearance on the program, and if you could please describe your experience on the show?

Well, I remember going to the studio. My wife went with me, and they were very cordial, but also, as they always were, well-organized and on time. We chatted a little bit before, and I think they sort of gave me an orientation about the program. I had seen the program, and it was an hour of questions. What I remember was that he clearly had read the book, and that he really went right after controversial kinds of things. I had a number of controversial positions that I took with respect to accepted Lincoln scholarship, and I had my own takes on various things, which were very important parts of the book, and he sensed that, and he went right after that. There are a few things that I talk about in the book that are the kind of thing you probably wouldn't talk about over the family table. The story of the man that Lincoln roomed with when he first came to Springfield, Joshua Speed, they became very close friends, and after Lincoln's death, Speed told Lincoln's law partner, Herndon, some stories about Lincoln that he didn't expect to see in Herndon's biography, and he didn't.   One of the stories was that Lincoln came to him and said that he wanted some sex, and Speed said, "I know where you can get it, but you have to get a note from me." It's this hilarious thing. It sounds like somebody making up a story to make fun of Lincoln, the honest man, because they get right down to it, and then he says, "Well, how much do you charge?" He says, "Five dollars." He says, "My God, I only have three." He reads that whole thing off and goes into it. We had a good discussion of it, but I think he was letting me know that he was taking the book seriously, and if I was going to write these kinds of things, that I would need to defend myself. I didn't resent it at all. I was just surprised. He surprised me in a lot of ways, because he doesn't follow a straight path, or if there's an organizing principle in it, it's not easy to see, because he'll be talking about Lincoln, and he'll say, "Do you have any grandchildren?" That kind of thing. I hadn't noticed that about his program when he was questioning other people, but it certainly was noticeable to me. I didn't take any of those questions ill or inappropriate. It's just their unexpected context. I think he probably simply wanted to quickly change the subject. Let's talk about something else, and then we'll come back to the book. He wanted to make sure he asked me questions about who I was, and who was my family, and where did I live, and what did I do. He wasn't going to just get that all in one package. He was going to spread it around.

The Booknotes' hour-long format differed greatly from most of the network television interviews, which lasted three minutes or less. You had mentioned that you were doing other appearances with your book. What do you think are the benefits and/or drawbacks of this longer format for the author and for the viewer?

Well, I can't speak for other authors, but for me, I thought it was a great thing to have the latitude that an hour-long program gives you, because when he asks you a question and you need five minutes to answer it properly, you've got the five minutes. That just isn't available on most other formats. I think it's almost unique. There are, of course, authors, especially on the radio, who call and they have a kind of an open conversation with you. But somehow, Brian framed that program in such a way that it wasn't just a kind of open conversation, let it go where it may. He was going to be the host, and he was going to ask you questions, and your job was to provide answers. That isn't exactly the format in most of these other places where they interview you, either on television or radio. In a way, he was sort of unique. Well, your methodology in your book is so unique in that you take head-on so many different biographers of Lincoln and pick apart their approaches and what they say. If Brian didn't let you finish your thought, it could have left the audience with a wrong idea of what your book was about. Yes, that's true. He was very much aware of the controversial aspect of many of the things I took up.

Well, judging by the extensive marginalia in his books, I actually have the copy, Brian's copy of the book here. It's all marked up. It's a mess.

I'd love to see it.

Well, we would love to have you. If you're ever in the Washington, D.C. area, please drop by George Mason University.

I may just do that.

We have all 804 books that Brian Lamb used in Booknotes.

Well, that's the other thing that was amazing about this, when you realize that he was doing this weekly, and that he was really well prepared in all these books. I don't know how long he'd been doing it, in '98, but I would see him occasionally afterwards at various things. He usually complained about the onerous responsibility of doing this every week, week after week after week. I can see why he would finally say, "I just can't keep this up." He's a great reader, and it's a good way to read books, to get prepared, and so forth. Certainly, but I mean the close reading that he had to do. That can be very wearing.

I would like to know, you've mentioned that this is very unusual to have your interviewers read the book as thoroughly as Mr. Lamb did, but what do you think that kind of thoroughness, how does that affect the interview experience for the author?

Oh, I think it's good for the author, because it gives him a chance to defend himself, to expound, to clarify. I think Brian was good at giving you the question, showing you sort of what the problem was, and then let you deal with it, and let you refine the question, and talk about the implications of it, and so forth. So, on the radio is the most extensive interviewing that your publisher gets for you, because there are lots of radio hosts who like to do this kind of thing. Most of them don't read the book. They don't make any bones about it. They ask you questions that doesn't depend on having read the book.

One of our authors mentioned that the dead giveaway for someone who hasn't read the book is when they ask the author, "So tell me what the book is about."

Yes. Actually, that can be, you know, if it's properly framed, that can be a perfectly good question, but I'm sure it is a cover question for many people.

Well, Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research and writing methods. Do you believe the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing interesting, and do you think other authors or publishers find them interesting as well?

Gosh, I really don't know how to answer that. It's true that he asked a lot of questions of that sort of his authors. I was certainly. You can be sure that other researchers and writers are interested in those questions. It may be a measure of the kind of serious audience he was shooting for that he got into some of those things, and he wasn't trying to find the lowest common denominator and wasn't trying as so many of these so-called museums they have today, historical. They pitch everything way down. If you hit them away from the camera, they'll admit that their goal is to make it intelligible and interesting to somebody at the fifth grade level. Right. Brian Lamb did not do this. He did not try for the fifth grade level. No. He wasn't trying to build audience in that way.

Correct. You're so right. Now the next couple of questions about guests' biographical background, you've already covered, so I'm going to skip ahead to the question. Did you watch Booknotes before or after your own interview, and if so, why? And did your experience on the show change your impression of it?

I don't have a recollection of watching it regularly, either before or afterwards, but I did see it, I would say, frequently. And I really don't have a recollection of what you're asking. I certainly, after being on the show, I had a very strong appreciation of the quality of the show, the way in which, the wonderful way in which authors are served by this kind of exposure, these kinds of questions, this kind of treatment. I think that probably got accentuated by being on the show and being one of the authors who was in that situation. But it certainly was a very interesting show for people interested in non-fiction, especially American history, which I think is what Ryan really favored. And I can testify that other scholars felt the same way. They watched assiduously, especially the ones who did a lot of writing.

For Booknotes, Mr. Lamb intentionally worked on a minimalist studio setting so that the viewer's focus would be entirely on the author being interviewed. This is very different from network TV, for example. What do you think are the pluses and minuses of such an approach for the interviewee and for the viewer?

Well, I'm not sure it affects the interviewee so much, except that you are in this room, and if you've seen the program, then you know how it looks on TV, so you have some idea of that. But I think he did everything he could to intensify that interaction between himself and the author, and that there would be no distractions or red herrings. But the sense that you get by watching the show and seeing that black background, of course, I didn't have any sense of that, of myself. I wasn't picturing myself. And you have to see the show, you have to see yourself being interviewed, really, to get the feeling of how that worked for a viewer. And of course, I did, and I've done it more than once. In fact, I've done it to go back and see what I said about certain things. I remember discussing it with him and bringing it up. I wanted to go back and get the details of what I had actually responded. And of course, it's wonderful now that he has everything up on the C-SPAN website, so you can go and see them and all the other speeches that they cover. If you're interested in Lincoln, you can look up all the Lincoln speeches they've got. It's just amazing.

Yeah, it's an incredible resource.

It is.

The Booknotes series focused entirely on non-fiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think might be the advantages of an 800-book collection with just this focus?

Certainly for people interested in things like trends in historiography, it's an ideal place to go for that period because you know you're going to find the people who wrote the most important books of that sort. And that's a wonderful resource to be able to do that and to have the benefit of somebody like Brian asking the questions and trying to get authors to be forthcoming about what they were doing, what they were trying to accomplish, how they did it, and so forth.

Brian Lamb and C-SPAN had a rule that authors could only appear on the program one time. If asked, would you have returned for another interview? I know you were on later, actually earlier and later shows.

I would be delighted. I think I've heard a number of people lament that their new book would not get the benefit of exposure at Booknotes because they'd already done it. That they had... They'd already been on the program and so even though they'd written a new book and they'd like to have that kind of exposure, they're not going to get it. A couple of authors bemoan the fact that the book that ended up on Booknotes was not considered their best.

Yes, I've heard that one too.

Why couldn't I have got on with this book rather than the one that he asked me about?

Yes, I've heard that.

Supposedly, Stephen Ambrose was quite bitter. Oh, bitter! The book that he was on Booknotes for was not his best. Well, he wrote so many, he's got only himself to blame. Well, there was a difference... I'm sorry, was there a difference in sales or national attention for your book after you discussed it with Brian Lamb on Booknotes? And how about its critical reception?

I can't single out Booknotes and saying that this was a key. I know that it was influential in getting the book read by serious people whose opinions I would be very... good opinion I'd be very happy to get, let alone the sale. But since I was doing... the weekend I went up to Washington, I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia. I went up to Washington that weekend, I think I did three or four interviews. Oh my! One was on PBS News Hour and the Booknotes. I know that those are things that stimulate discussion of your book and sales and so forth, but it's hard to separate it out. Right. In terms of people mentioning the Booknotes interview to me, I heard... I got a lot of comment on that. And so I know that, of course, it tends to be people that you know and you're more likely to hear that kind of response. But at any rate, it's clear to me that being on Booknotes, the book had a very successful sale and I'm sure that this played an important part.

Did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your research or writing?

I'm not sure that I can pick out something, but I confess that when I venture a new interpretation or a new idea or a new explanation for a set of circumstances, somebody who has a really good objection can certainly give me pause. And I think that's a good thing. My views aren't set in concrete. But I think he had the ability to ask the kind of questions that makes you... gives you the opportunity to bring out a good defense and a good piece of salesmanship, if you will. And if you can't make the sale, he's done his best to help you, give you the opportunity. Well, I would like to know, since when you were on Booknotes in 1998, you were at Charlottesville working with the Monticello Foundation, is that correct? Yes, I helped them start the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. And it's 20 years old this year. Oh, congratulations. And you have since returned to Knox College. Yes, when I left Monticello, I retired. I promised them I would stay four years. Okay. For four years I was going to retire and I did. All right. All right. And what have you been working on after that time? And, you know, if you would like to mention any other works that you have done since then. Well, I had a partner when I started working on Lincoln Scholarship, and I persuaded him to help me edit in a scholarly way for the first time the enormous archive of material collected by Lincoln's law partner, William H. Herndon. Herndon, right. It had only been published sporadically here and there. Nobody had made an attempt to consolidate the thing and do a scholarly edition that was reliable. There was a very poor edition of some of the materials. We spent most of the '90s working on that volume. It's called Herndon's Informants. It's essentially everything that still exists of Herndon's many year crusade to interview and correspond with everybody he could find who knew Lincoln at various times of his life. And we published that about the same time that I published Honor's Voice, which is what the book we're talking about here. And so after that, we decided that we would edit Herndon's letters. But we had just gotten started on that. He wrote an enormous number of letters about Lincoln. And just as we got started on that, the Library of Congress came along and said, "We're putting up images of all the Abraham Lincoln papers, and what we need is annotated transcriptions of the most important part of the collection. And we need you to do it." And we said, "Well, we've already got these other things lined up." But as I've told people many times, they made us an offer we couldn't refuse. So we had to hire a staff and spend three and a half years producing those transcriptions and annotations. If you go to the Library of Congress website now and look at their Lincoln papers, you'll see that there are annotated transcriptions for about half of them. And those are performed by us. So that took a good deal of time. Then we wanted to take advantage of all the things that we had learned about Herndon as a biographer, including the astounding fact that he didn't write the biography that carries his name. It didn't even incorporate all of his own views, rather the views of his collaborator, even though it's told in his own voice. This is a voice made up by the collaborator, told in Herndon's first person, but Herndon didn't write it. So we thought we had learned so much about that process and about the things in the biography that needed annotation, make the reader aware that this is not an accurate transcription. This is a mistake. This is a confusion of this and that and so forth, which had never been done for Herndon's biography. So we did that and then we knew that, especially after our experience with Brian Lamb in the 90s, that 2008 would be the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Especially because we were at Knox College, which prides itself on being home of one of the debates, we wanted to do a new edition and have it be really a new edition and a better edition than anybody had ever done. So we did an edition that was very careful in its text and treats more than just the newspaper clippings that the previous editions used. An integration of the competing newspapers that were covering it to try to find out what, if you look at both of those, what you can see, we found lots of stuff in the opposition newspaper. Lincoln's paper simply had left out and we found vice versa. So we thought that we had created a superior text to any that exists. And then we knew that from teaching the debates that the debates are hard for a late 20th century audience to understand. There's so many issues that everybody in the audience knows what they're talking about, but the reader doesn't unless you tell it to them in a note. So we made it very user friendly with lots of annotation and lots of descriptions of issues. And we had a big glossary in the back so you could find out what the various terms were that they used that no longer are current. So we produced that and we had to get that done by 2008. In the meantime, I was working on a book that partly had been prompted by my lifelong interest in Lincoln as a writer, but also in working on the Library of Congress, what I discovered is that most of their Lincoln documents in Lincoln's hand are his rough drafts. The way he wrote a letter typically was to write it out rough, make a lot of corrections, and then when he got it the way he wanted it, he would write out a fair copy. He would send that and that copy is in the recipient's papers. What's in his papers, if you're lucky, is his composition draft. And because I was interested in him as a writer and because these composition drafts tell you so much about how he went about writing, I thought I had the basis of a book about Lincoln as a writer and I wanted to focus it on his presidential writing because that's what most people are interested in. So I wrote a book called "Lincoln's Sword, Presidency and the Power of Words." Very good. So in your estimation, getting back to Booknotes, what has been the lasting impact of that show? Well, it's a very well-remembered show. You hear people talking about it all the time. People remember episodes. They remember exchanges. They remember what the author said in advance and so forth. And partly this is reinforced by the fact that you can go to your computer and see those episodes on demand. So I think this is still a living program. It's still alive. It's still influencing people. It's still watched. I would be interested to know what kind of use figures they have because I bet they still have plenty of use. In fact, if you look at almost any of the authors on their Wikipedia page or if they've got a homepage for themselves, you will always see the C-SPAN interview linked on the website. That makes sense.

So my final question is, is there anything that you would like to add regarding the Booknotes program, C-SPAN or Brian Lamb?

Well, you know, it occurred to me, I think Brian is a very remarkable man. We gave him an honorary degree at Knox College. He was one of the most interesting honorary degree people we ever had. He came to the campus two days earlier, it seems to me. He came prepared. He had been reading up. He had been reading our catalog. He had been reading our history. He could identify people because he'd seen their picture in our literature and so forth. He's just a remarkable guy. Whatever he does is a vibrant idea, it seems like, or he has a way of doing it. In creating C-SPAN, he just created a marvelous tool. And then it wasn't enough. Most people, I'm sure, would find it a handful just to keep something like that going and build it. He not only did that, but he was doing all these other wonderful things on the side. And Booknotes was just one of them, but it was a very memorable one. He did it very well, very distinctively, and I think it did make a difference.  

Well, this is the end of our scripted questions. And, Professor Wilson, thank you for agreeing to do this oral history interview and for sharing with us your experiences on this groundbreaking television interview program.

It's my pleasure.