Do you sometimes feel like you’re a slow writer? Get envious of the guys who put out two novels a year? My favorite professor when I was an undergraduate at Amherst College, Bob Gross, signed a book contract in 1978 and he’s just getting it published this year! After 43 years! His first book was a big hit in the 70s, winning a major award and becoming a national bestseller; hopefully this book will be big too. It comes out this fall, and I’m excited to read it.
Recently I interviewed Bob about the 43-year process of writing this book. I found his story moving and inspiring.
In 1976, you published your first book, The Minutemen and Their World. It won the prestigious Bancroft Prize and became a national bestseller. How did that change your life, or not change it?
The Bancroft Prize made my career. Despite the fact that I had been a by-lined book reviewer at Newsweek (1970-71) and had freelanced for other magazines, The Minutemen and Their World did not garner much national attention. The book was published by Hill & Wang in 1976, the year of the Bicentennial, and was intended for a crossover market of academics and the general public. It took a fresh look at the coming of the American Revolution through a community study of the town where the War of Independence got its start. On April 19, 1775, Minutemen from Concord and militias from surrounding towns faced off against British Regulars at the North Bridge and, in Emerson’s words, “fired the shot heard round the world.” Why Concord? I asked. What brought these colonial subjects of the British Empire to rebellion? And how were the people of Concord affected by the long war and by the move to a self-governing republic, based on popular consent? How revolutionary was the Revolution in Concord?
These are questions of longstanding interest among historians. What made Minutemen different was that I was inspired by a movement known as “the new social history” to go beyond the words and deeds of elite white men – Adams, Jefferson, Washington, and their colleagues – and include people of all ranks and classes – ordinary farmers, common laborers, domestic servants, enslaved African Americans, women as well as men – in the historical narrative. This was an effort to write history “from the bottom up,” in the popular phrase of the day. The book gained its life, I think, from revisiting a familiar story – Minutemen meet Redcoats – and setting it in a much wider and more varied context than ever before.
But despite the efforts of my editor, Arthur Wang, co-founder of Hill & Wang, the book got little attention from the best-known reviewing outlets. Time and Newsweek paid no attention. Nothing appeared in the New York Times or the Washington Post. There was a scattering of newspaper reviews, but nothing that would propel the book onto any bestseller lists. Only the New York Review of Books weighed in with an immensely favorable review by the historian Edmund Morgan. It was not until a week or so before the Bancroft Prizes were announced that the New York Times, learning that it had failed to notice a book about to receive a major prize, finally ran a review, a short piece in the daily newspaper, full of praise but unlikely to make a difference.
The Bancroft Prize, awarded annually to two “distinguished” works about American history and diplomacy, put an imprimatur on the book, which went on to receive many favorable reviews in the academic journals. Minutemen was soon on reading lists for U.S. history courses in high schools as well as colleges and universities. Minutemen received the prize in 1977, during my first year as an assistant professor at Amherst College. t pretty well insured that when I came up for tenure, I wouldn’t have to prove the worthiness of my scholarship. It thus freed me to concentrate on teaching and advising students like you.
Students like me benefited immensely! You were an incredibly insightful, thoughtful and caring teacher. Your second book, The Transcendentalists and Their World, comes out this November from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Congratulations! I’m looking forward to reading it.
Thanks! I hope you find it a great read.
When did you sign the contract for this book?
I signed the contract in 1978, and I promised to deliver a manuscript on or before January 1, 1982.
Wow. So it’s been forty-three years! Did you have any idea when you signed the contract that it might take this long?
I knew that 1982 was an unrealistic date for delivery of the manuscript. But Arthur Wang was eager to sign me up for the next book, and I figured it would be a good idea, when I came up for tenure in 1979, to have a contract in hand for a forthcoming publication. But it was evident that telling the story of Concord in the era of Emerson and Thoreau would take a lot more research than did reconstructing the world of the Minutemen. Concord abounded in the records I would have to examine in order to write the social history: tax and assessment lists, deeds and wills, census returns, reports of births, marriages, and deaths, rolls of voters; minutes of town meetings; lists of officeholders and members of town committees; church records; a plethora of materials documenting the new voluntary associations like anti-slavery groups, and petitions to state and federal governments. And that doesn’t count the immense literary output of Emerson and Thoreau and their neighbors, especially the hundreds of manuscript sermons left behind by Emerson’s step-grandfather, Ezra Ripley, the parson of the town. It is with good reason that nobody had ever sought to combine a new social history of the town with the cultural and intellectual history of the Transcendentalists.
What was the process like with the publisher? Did they give you a hard time when you kept delaying? How many different editors did you have?
Arthur Wang was eager for me to finish the book as soon as possible, and he read the early chapters as I drafted them with enthusiasm. Time and again I had fellowships and leaves to concentrate on the project, but invariably, my hopes for completion fell short. So when Arthur retired in June 1998 he was disappointed, but that didn’t affect our friendship. The success of Minutemen was a boon to Hill & Wang in signing up other authors, who went on to win prizes for their works. And Arthur was proud to have taken a risk on me, an ex-journalist-turned-Ph.D. candidate, whose proposal for Minutemen had been turned down by several major publishers. According to Arthur, Minutemen turned out to be “Hill & Wang’s all-time best-selling history paperback.”
Arthur’s successors made efforts to coax a book out of me, but never applied any pressure or threatened to terminate the contract. I once asked my agent, the late Wendy Weil, why she thought that Hill & Wang was so patient. She pointed to the strong sales of Minutemen. With those returns, the publisher had no reason to cut me off. Also, I was not making any work for the succession of editors – two or three at Hill & Wang — assigned to oversee Transcendentalists. What was to be gained by canceling my contract?And maybe, I like to think, they had faith.
In any case, in 2013 I renegotiated the contract with Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, which had bought Hill & Wang, and promised to deliver a manuscript by June 2015. Once again it was late, but not by that much. By November 2017 I had completed a first draft, only to find that it was far too long, some 374,000 words, for profitable publication. So I set to the work of restructuring and revising, cutting and condensing, not to mention doing a lot of new research, and by early 2020 I had a still substantial but publishable manuscript for submission. All through the process, my editor at FSG, Alex Star, has been both patient and supportive. I have been really lucky in starting out and staying with Hill & Wang/FSG.
Why did it take so long? What were the obstacles to writing it? Were you ever afraid you’d never finish it?
Let me say first that I did not suffer the literary hang-ups of Donald Penn, the would-be writer in your first Jacob Burns mystery novel, Breakfast at Madeline’s, and keep writing the same preface over and over and over. Nor did I feel any paralysis owing to the early success of Minutemen. I never stopped writing about Concord, and as I researched aspects of the story of the town and its writers, I produced a steady stream of articles for academic journals and literary periodicals (e.g., American Scholar, Raritan, Yale Review). But I was also drawn to other interests and projects, most notably the rise of a new scholarly field known as the history of the book in America. This area of inquiry, which includes the history of authorship, publishing, and reader reception, beckoned, for I aimed to present Emerson’s career as a lecturer and writer and Thoreau’s as an author in my book. Their involvement in and reservations about the literary marketplace would be central to the story I wished to tell. Likewise, the cultural activities of Concord’s citizens – the books and periodicals in the local subscription library, the lecturers and topics for debate at the lyceum, the role of newspapers in spurring political participation and stifling or stimulating public debate – were all matters of interest. I threw myself into this new area, joined the editorial board of A History of the Book in America sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society, co-edited a volume with Mary Kelley, and chaired the American Antiquarian Society’s Program for the History of the Book in American Culture.
More than anything else, I have to say, it was devotion to my day job – to teaching and advising students on the undergraduate and graduate levels – that consumed much of my time over the years. When I’m teaching a course, I throw myself totally into the effort, preparing and reading far more than I really need to, engaging students as fully as possible, and commenting closely on their essays, theses, and dissertations.
It was a joy to work with students like you; I got as much or more out of the experience that did the students. And if teaching and advising were not demanding enough, add the time spent as an academic administrator and the time absorbed in moving from one job (Amherst) to others (William and Mary, University of Connecticut) and one fellowship or visiting appointment to another.
Yet, all of these reasons/excuses, though legitimate, beg the question. My design for The Transcendentalists and Their World, was really too vast for one person to carry out, even if I have actually pulled it off with the help of various research assistants along the way. Reconstructing the social, economic, political, religious, and cultural life of Concord was a book in itself. Similarly, a large library of works deals with Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Transcendentalism. How would I bring together an appreciation of the writers with a portrait of the changing community in which they lived and wrote? To answer that question was to confront a problem I should have been thinking about all along: the challenge of narrative. What was the main story I wanted to tell, and through what individuals and groups and what episodes did I want to tell it? The success of Minutemen owes much to its clear narrative line and its accessible prose. I have tried to reproduce those qualities in Transcendentalists, even as I tell a story that has a much bigger cast of characters, a more fluid society and culture, and a set of themes involving democracy, equality, and the freedom and potential of individuals for self-development that are, arguably, at the heart of an American idealism that still remains far from fulfillment.
I did fear that I would never get done and grew tired of offering reassurances to friends, editors, and fellowship-granting bodies. So I retired in 2015 at age 70 and moved with my wife Ann to Concord, where I have given my undivided attention to writing, researching, and revising. The Transcendentalists and Their World, as it will appear in print, is really the product of a half-decade or so (2015-2021). The book had a long preparation before taking shape in a concentrated period of time.
I’d like to interject that I have vivid memories of the pages-long, single spaced responses you would give to my essays, and other people’s essays too. I teach TV Writing at UCLA Extension, and I’ve been inspired by your example to give the same kind of care and attention and long, carefully thought out responses to my students. I have spoken to other of your ex-students who are also teachers now, who feel the same way. So not only have your students’ benefited, but also your students’ students!
How does it feel to finally have the book done?
Relieved, happy with the result, but regretful that I’m not a lot younger, since I have lots of ideas for other projects to do.
How did the book change over the years? How has your point of view on the subject matter changed – or stay the same?
The book had a few false starts. It began as a narrative of Concord’s history from 1790, at the dawn of the American republic, to the outbreak of Civil War in 1861. But as I researched the first part of the story, I discovered so much material that it was taking forever to get to the mid-1830s and 1840s, the heyday of the Transcendentalists. Would any reader of a book called The Transcendentalists and Their World be willing to follow the course of the town’s development for several hundred pages, while Emerson and Thoreau waited in the wings? At the same time, once the Transcendentalists came on the scene, their activities and writings would, in turn, threaten to overshadow the developments in the town.
So, I reconceived the book to focus roughly on the years from 1820 to the late 1840s. This quarter-century or so constituted an epoch of transformative change: the integration of Concord into regional, national, and global markets; the rise of textile mills and the industrial revolution; the surge of popular democracy and partisan politics; the break-up of the Congregationalist religious establishment and the growth of religious diversity; the push for educational and social reforms by a host of voluntary associations; the anti-slavery movement and the persistence of white racism; and the articulation of new ideologies favoring a new premium on the individual. These changes were set in motion well before Emerson settled in Concord and while Thoreau was a boy in the town. The Transcendentalists came on the scene during the third act of the play.
How to deal with this problem? I divided the book into two parts. Part 1 presents “The Changing World of the Transcendentalists.” It sets forth a narrative of important changes that are framed by the experiences of Thoreau’s family: his father’s pencil-making, his mother’s boardinghouse-keeping, his aunts’ role in the breakup of the religious establishment, and the Thoreau children’s experiences in school during an era of educational improvements. Part Two, “The Transcendentalists and Their World,” shifts the focus to Emerson and then Thoreau, as they emerge on the public stage, draft their lectures and essays, and engage their fellow inhabitants.
This turned out to be a useful design, even if I fell into it without pre-planning. For Emerson was working out his boldest, most radical ideas during the very years he was settling into Concord, and like any newcomer to a community, he attended closely to the neighbors and to the life of the town. The social upheaval of Concord would inform the way he saw the world. His America, I argue, was Boston and Concord writ large. Similarly, Thoreau came home after graduating from Harvard in 1837, became a protégé and friend of Emerson, and struggled to find his own voice and support himself as a writer without compromising his ideals. The book follows Emerson from a parochial figure to the eve of his emergence as a public intellectual with a national following, and it takes Thoreau from his years at Harvard through his sojourn at Walden Pond, from which he emerged with the first draft of his classic book. The central theme running through this narrative is the rise of individualism (a term coined and popularized by Alexis de Tocqueville about the same time as Emerson was giving it voice), in tandem with the fraying of the bonds of interdependence that had formed the world of Revolutionary Concord.
What were you so passionate about with this book that you stuck with it all these years?
I wanted to tell the stories of the many people I had discovered in the course of research: the free people of color trying to forge independent lives in the face of white racism; the hardscrabble farmers struggling to stay afloat (as Thoreau observed); the women devoted to church and charity, with some full of zeal for social reform; the educators intent on improving schools and bringing the latest knowledge to their neighbors; the ministers competing with one another to support congregations; the politicians clashing furiously, occasionally engaging in voting fraud, and bidding to shut down critical newspapers; the editors trying to survive in the face of advertiser boycotts, canceled subscriptions, and criminal prosecutions for libel; the idealistic young women taking their lives in despair; and the townspeople of all political and religious sides striving to find ways to live together. This is a story of a community remaking the ties of interdependence in a new world of individual possibility.
What are you going to write next?
What would the transcendentalists think of our politics today? Do you think they’d be involved in it?
Emerson and Thoreau were appalled by the party politics of their day. They decried the perversion of newspapers by blind partisanship, the readiness of voters to cast party-line ballots, and the surrender of individual judgment and conscience to the demands of the bosses and the crowd. They called for individuals of principle, deliberating in private and acting on conscience for what they know, in their hearts and minds, is right. Both writers would take action to protest slavery and injustice, but usually on their own, rather than as members of any group. Theirs was a faith in the power of the single person to inspire others through dramatic acts in a moral cause. Such statements can be powerful inspirations. But can they provide a route to change? Emerson and Thoreau would have a hard time accepting the necessity of collective action in the modern world.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Read the book. And thanks for the forum.
Hi, This is a fascinating story of the evolution of a book by a writer clearly driven by the passion that drives all writers: to understand and not do it half-way. Thanks to you Matt for this interview, encouraging to those writers, like me, who take years between books.