Douglas Brinkley Would Like to Invite Thoreau to Dinner
What books are on your night stand?
Two of Cesar Chavez’s favorites: “Loaves and Fishes,” by Dorothy Day, and “Faith and Violence,” by Thomas Merton. Paul Chavez recently recommended them to me to better understand his father’s Catholic-driven worldview. They were just delivered to my house. I’m also planning to read Keith O’Brien’s “Paradise Falls” (about the Love Canal environmental catastrophe of 1978 in Niagara Falls, N.Y.) and Juan Gonzalez’s “Harvest of Empire” (documenting the history of Latinos in the United States) for professional purposes.
My well-worn copy of “The Gary Snyder Reader,” an omnibus from our greatest spokesperson for wild nature, is a permanent night stand fixture. The way his poetry synthesizes ecological wisdom and Native American ritual with Buddhist teachings has become hard-wired into my makeup. I keep this volume handy to read before bedtime. His poem “For the Children” offers this pearl of wisdom: “stay together / learn the flowers / go light.”
What’s the last great book you read?
During the pandemic I was transfixed by George R. Stewart’s “Earth Abides,” perhaps the most frightening doomsday thriller of all time. Most of American civilization collapses because of a strange disease, but a Berkeley ecologist is one of the rare survivors of the epidemic. Stewart wrote the book about 75 years ago, but his description of empty cities and the power of nature unleashed seem very contemporary in a world of Covid and climate change. It holds up well, and Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a fine introduction for the 2020 edition.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Penguin Classics recently reprinted “Dirty Bird Blues,” by Clarence Major, in a 25th-anniversary edition. Major’s character Manfred “Man” Banks is a gritty 1950s blues harmonica player and singer grinding out a living in racist, hard-dollar Chicago and Omaha. The book’s folkloric street slang is pitch-perfect, and Major deserves much wider recognition for his career as a novelist, painter, poet and explainer of the Black experience in America. This is ultrarealism at its finest.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I like coffee, music and food when reading, so I tend to become a fixture at independent coffee shops and cafes. My current haunt is 24 Diner on Lamar Boulevard in Austin — partly because it’s located next to Waterloo Records and always has good music playing, heavy on Willie Nelson, Louis Armstrong, Grateful Dead, Arturo O’Farrill, the Smiths, Mavis Staples and Freddy Fender. The louder the music is playing, the better my mood and concentration.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
Joseph Wood Krutch’s “Grand Canyon: Today and All Its Yesterdays,” an uncommonly deep homage to Arizona’s most famous national park. Krutch had been drama critic of The Nation from 1924 to 1952, then moved to Arizona and came to see the canyon as an ethereal composition of endless themes and variations.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Edward Hoagland, Richard Ford, Louise Erdrich, Wendell Berry, William Kennedy, Jane Mayer, Bill McKibben, Thomas Pynchon, Maureen Dowd, Cornel West, Suzan-Lori Parks, Amanda Gorman, Greil Marcus, Peter Baker, Jill Lepore, Andrew Sullivan, Jesmyn Ward, Ezra Klein, Michael Eric Dyson, Sandra Cisneros, Patti Smith, Tim Egan, John McPhee, Joy Harjo, Bob Dylan, Andrea Wulf, E. Ethelbert Miller, Colson Whitehead, David Quammen, N. Scott Momaday, Don DeLillo, Peggy Noonan, Annie Proulx, Terry Tempest Williams and Tim O’Brien. And while I have the forum, could somebody tell me why Elizabeth Gilbert didn’t win the Pulitzer for her flawless “The Signature of All Things”?
Your new book is about “Silent Spring” and Rachel Carson’s impact on public policy and the environmental movement. What led you to Carson’s work?
If you teach environmental history, as I do at Rice University, you can’t help grappling with Rachel Carson. But getting to write a book about her is a dream come true. Everything about her career is exemplary, but when she published “Silent Spring” in 1962, it was like Zeus hurling a lightning bolt into America’s political landscape. This wasn’t Theodore Roosevelt saving Muir Woods by presidential proclamation; this was someone telling parents that DDT and the other chemicals saturating post-World War II America were literally making their children sick — not to mention wiping out populations of eagles, hawks and fish. Bill McKibben perfectly describes Carson as the woman who knocked “the shine off modernity.” But her books helped jump-start a more sustainable way of living.
Besides “Silent Spring,” what other Carson books would you recommend?
Her brilliant sea trilogy: “Under the Sea-Wind” (1941), “The Sea Around Us” (1951) and “The Edge of the Sea” (1955). Sandra Steingraber has done a marvelous job of editing the trilogy into a single volume for the Library of America, and together they constitute the finest writing we have on ocean life. Another is “The Sense of Wonder,” in which Carson urges parents to help their children experience the pleasures of nature. Linda Lear and William Souder both wrote enlightened biographies of Carson that I highly recommend. If Carson were alive today, she would be telling everybody to read Patrik Svensson’s “The Book of Eels.”
What other writers, today or in the past, have had a comparable effect on policy through their books?
Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” was seismic during the American Revolution, “The Journals of Zebulon Montgomery Pike” helped fuel Western expansion, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” furthered the cause of abolishing slavery. Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to pass the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. Ralph Nader’s 1965 “Unsafe at Any Speed” wasn’t quite as impactful as “Silent Spring,” but it spurred creation of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. There are others.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
When writing “Silent Spring Revolution,” I turned to Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, John Burroughs and Annie Dillard, all of whom wrote exhilarating poetic meditations on the natural world and were passionate conservation educators. Also, Henry David Thoreau’s journals, Robinson Jeffers’s “inhumanism” poetry, and the more ecology-driven sermons of Martin Luther King Jr. These keen-eyed observers of nature spurred my ambition by the sheer beauty of their prose. I avoid downers like murder mysteries, potboilers and tell-alls from ex-Trump administration officials.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
I’m a sucker for all of Larry McMurtry’s novels about the American West, such as “Buffalo Girls” and “Anything for Billy.” Ditto with Carl Hiaasen’s hilarious Florida books. In the satirical department, count me as a die-hard fan of Christopher Buckley, Mary Roach and Adriana Trigiani. Also, when a good rock ’n’ roll biography appears, I pounce. I enjoyed Anthony DeCurtis’s “Lou Reed,” Clinton Heylin’s “The Double Life of Bob Dylan” and John Szwed’s “Billie Holiday.”
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
When my biography “Rosa Parks” was published in 2000, I gave a talk at Metairie Park Country Day School in suburban New Orleans. The lecture was sponsored by the Goldman family as a living memorial to Leah Goldman Karp, who’d died in an automobile accident at 29 years old. Leah’s younger sister, Anne Goldman, hosted my talk. She had a passion for human rights and a similar interest in music, which I found attractive. We fell in love and have now been married for 20 years. When our first child, Benton, was born, Mrs. Parks called Anne at the hospital to congratulate her. My wife was touched.
What’s your favorite book to assign to and discuss with your students?
The historian William E. Leuchtenburg’s “The American President: From Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.” The chronicle is ideally suited for college students to learn about the highs and lows of 20th-century White House leadership. In 2010, Leuchtenburg also updated his venerable book “In the Shadow of FDR” to include a fine chapter on Barack Obama. Leuchtenburg’s 100 years old now, and still writing from his Chapel Hill, N.C., home office.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
Elizabeth Hinton’s recent “America on Fire” convinced me to think of Black “riots” during the 1960s as rebellions. She’s taught me a new way to think about the post-George Floyd uprising in Black America. Because of Hinton’s book, I’ve rewritten my stock class lecture on the 1967-68 riots in Newark and Detroit.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
We need more environmental manifestoes like Cynthia Barnett’s “Blue Revolution” and Seth M. Siegel’s “Troubled Water,” about how sewage, industrial debris and agricultural runoff have contaminated our water systems, even as population growth, climate change and drought are stretching our water supply thin. In the same vein, Mark Kurlansky’s 2020 book “Salmon” shows how the fish is a living barometer of Earth’s health. I believe every river and lake in America should be swimmable, but the situation is more like Kurt Vonnegut once said about Lake Erie — that it’s dying from “excrement and Clorox bottles.”(link)
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Beautiful prose descriptions of American landscapes like Sarah Orne Jewett on the Maine coast, Marjory Stoneman Douglas on the Everglades and Henry Beston on Cape Cod. I fell in love again with the poetry of Robert Frost when writing “Silent Spring Revolution.” Even though Frost dismissed the “nature poet” label, his poems about rural Vermont are transcendent. Frost considered Thoreau’s “Walden” one of the three best storybooks ever written, with the other two being Charles Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle” and Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” I tend to agree.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
U.S. presidential history is my bread and butter. Geoffrey Ward has written two absolute masterpieces on the young Franklin Roosevelt: “A First-Class Temperament” and “Before the Trumpet.” It’s also hard to beat Ron Chernow’s marvelous biographies of George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant. Blanche Wiesen Cook on Eleanor Roosevelt owns the first lady market. I get genuinely excited whenever Michael Beschloss or Annette Gordon-Reed has a new book coming out. And then there’s Candice Millard’s “The River of Doubt,” which documents former president Theodore Roosevelt’s insect-ravaged 1913-14 exploration of Brazil’s Amazon. I avoid revisionist claptrap like James Bradley’s “The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War” (2009), which ridiculously blamed Theodore Roosevelt for the Korean War.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Lots of Duke Ellington, from sheet music to vintage pamphlets to standout bios like A.H. Lawrence’s “Duke Ellington and His World” and Terry Teachout’s “Duke.” I learned how to play “In a Sentimental Mood” on piano as a teenager and it remains my standard. Ellington’s 1963 version with John Coltrane on saxophone will be played at my funeral if my kids don’t botch it. A signed oil painting Ellington composed of Lena Horne hangs by my desk; I bought it from a Harlem auction house.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
My mother was a high school English and drama teacher in Ohio. Shakespeare was her god and she used to drag me to regional Shakespeare festivals throughout the Midwest — so, naturally, I rebelled. When she died in 2017 I decided to tackle the Bard’s collected works in her honor, with mixed results. Now I feel like a grown-up enjoying Shakespeare’s “Othello” over Jack London’s “White Fang.” What has stayed consistent since childhood is my undaunted admiration for Dian Fossey’s “Gorillas in the Mist” and Archie Carr’s “The Windward Road.”
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
“The Undocumented Americans,” by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. Too often Dreamers (DACA) have been dehumanized or been treated as burdensome statistics, but Villavicencio’s masterpiece tells their story with visceral emotion and survivalist logic.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson and E.O. Wilson. We could talk about the 11,000 bird species the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is helping to conserve in the face of climate change and how three million acres along the banks of the Missouri River in Montana can become the American Prairie Preserve. Perhaps Alice Waters, the California wonder chef, could prepare our meal.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
I don’t care for Victorian-era British fiction, so I’ve never given George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” or “Adam Bede” a fair shot. My good intentions to read the year’s Nobel winner in literature usually fizzle too, so I’ve missed out on Annie Ernaux, Abdulrazak Gurnah and Louise Glück, though it’s not too late. Finally, as a youth I was very taken with John Steinbeck’s road-trip book “Travels With Charley,” and since Steinbeck dubbed his trip “Operation Windmills” and his truck “Rocinante” (in homage to Don Quixote’s horse), I decided I must read Cervantes — but for some inexplicable reason I still have not. So, with a sprightly zest and embarrassed air, I hereby vow to take the 1,000-plus-page plunge in the new year.
What do you plan to read next?
Cervantes! No, actually Barbara Kingsolver’s “Demon Copperhead” is first. The novel’s protagonist is a boy growing up in the mountains of southern Appalachia. The real attraction for me is reading Kingsolver’s keen observations of existence in that part of rural America where the opioid epidemic has run amok. Everything about her radiates artistic compassion and bedrock integrity of purpose. After that, my friend Stacy Schiff’s “The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams” is waiting for me over the holiday season. All of her well-written books are sprinkled with magic history dust.