Dwell Time...A Conversation With Eric Foner

author: 
Jeffrey McNary

"The meaning of "interdependence" requires a concept of dependency, "white"depends on the definition of black, and the meaning of "freedom" on the definition of unfreedom", writes Eric Foner in his introduction to his, The Story of American Freedom. "No study of a subject as complex and multifaceted as freedom", he continues, "can claim to be definitive." And it's his exploration of freedom, that delicate balance of its themes and vivid disassociations which run continuously through his writings. It's that near haunting theme of freedom, from the vision of the founders, to those in bondage, to its conflicting notions that for a historical moment ripped apart a republic. Its freedom, what it is and what it ain't that's all up and on and all over Eric Foner's life work.
Eric Foner is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, where he has specialized in the Civil War, Reconstruction, slavery, and 19th-century America. He was awarded a Pulitzer, Bancroft, and Lincoln prizes for his book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. His most recent work, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, recently on the New York Times Best Seller list. There are other works, many. They are legion... a mixed media of sort. They are neither flat, nor linear. They are pieces to not just read, but to to dwell on...and to add to that, he comes now introduced as the nation's greatest living historian. Prof. Eric Foner is at the top of his game, and climbing. He's done to the field what Ali did for boxing..Miles with music. The man has gathered up segments of American history and its icons like a dance master, putting them down in a different place in history, and in the American psyche. With his hip pedagogical style and realignment of the genre, Foner, children, can be found these days in the ether, there in the new panthéon amongst the cool.
Recently, joined by a few hundred at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, following a performance after of “Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3)”, Foner came together with the plays author, Pulitzer-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and a couple of Harvard academics. There was passion, humor, and history, rolled out. What ripened was an enlightening and informative afternoon, finding artist and scholars expressing their individual interpretations with servings of stylistic preferences. Keeping faith with history is serious business for Foner. This became clear during the exchange, and at a later date expressed his position on historical fiction, "This is a venerable genre and I have no objection to it at all. What I do object to is novelists, film makers, etc. wanting to have it both ways...inventing characters, situations, dialogue, but then claiming historical accuracy. So long as they label it fiction, that is fine with me."
As if couched, waiting all the while, freedom, with all of its intrigue and promise emerged in the moment. "Most of my scholarly work has focused on this question of freedom in one way or the other," Foner begins with a sense of relaxed grace, "I can't remember them all but i've written quite a few books with the word free or freedom in the title, Forever Free, Nothing But Freedom, Free Soil, Free Land, Free Men,...my most recent book, Gateway to Freedom. I've always been interested in this question what people think freedom is, how they achieve it, how they struggle to make it mean something, why it's never quite satisfactory in some way, I read this play quite frankly with my own interest and I think you did a great job of showing the complexities, you know, freedom is not a simple thing and even among a slave community of a few people there's not one idea that everybody shares. There's conflict, there's fear, there's struggle and so I think, without being unkind to anyone who is a movie director or theatre person, there's a lot of work that has a historical base, that have no real understanding of the history. I won't mention any names here, but I think this really captured something real about that moment and how people responded to it. To me it brought about things that were alive in the history. So, it's not a footnoted work of scholarship, but there are real insights into history, that's what impressed me about it." Clear comes his pattern, freedom and chronicling, illuminating, sharing the same ground.
Prof. Foner's dedication to his discipline runs deep...calling, challenging. And given the voluminous amount of works of the historian, its hard to tell what of all this can be singled out as the ‘breakout’, definitive piece. Born in New York City, the son of a librarian and historian, the professor came of age in an activist household, deeply involved in the trade union and the civil rights struggles. Resulting from his father's socio-political involvement during the notorious witch hunts of the McCarthy era, opportunities grew limited. Growing up, "he supported our family as a freelance lecturer", Foner was quoted. "Listening to his lectures, I came to appreciate how present concerns can be illuminated by the study of the past—how the repression"...of McCarthyism recalled and highlighted other ugly times, dark days and an ugly landscape. He's quoted, "The civil rights movement needed to be viewed in light of the great struggles of Black and White abolitionists. I also imbibed a way of thinking about the past in which visionaries and underdogs...and how a commitment to social justice, could infuse one's attitudes towards the past." The influences were permanent. He shares, "I was in college and grad school in the 1960's, and the turmoil of that time led many of us to want to study the historical roots of the civil rights revolution that was taking place, and could not be explained by the "consensus" version of US history then dominant."
Placing an arch eyed, philosophical bow on that freedom thing could be ambitiously tempting, possibly tasty, but then... "I would not say that my work has a philosophical bent as much as a set of questions that I seem to keep returning to," says Prof. Foner. "To some extent they are questions inherited from my mentor, Richard Hofstadter...about the nature of political ideology and political culture, and the connections between politics and society. But more than him," he continues, "I think, I am interested in social change...how and why it occurs, and who catalyzes Lincolns, Reconstruction black activists, and others, who have tried to make this a better society."
His award winning work on Lincoln, The Fiery Trial reveals a very different figure unlike the stoic, sure of foot image generally spread about. Lincoln was a work in progress. Never the entrenched abolitionist or anything other than a politician, 16 has found a permanent, often questionable place, in American history and, these days shows more prominent than ever. Why?
According to Foner, “Lincoln seems to embody qualities we think are quintessentially American and admirable…frontiersman, upward mobility, liberator of the slaves. People are drawn to study him because they are really writing about themselves and our society.”
Foner's recent op-ed article, Why Reconstruction Matters, revisits the emotional heart of his earlier writing...freedom, and rights accompanying it and one could say, re-launched, by the effort. Both Foner and W.E. B. DuBois "saw the end of Reconstruction as a tragedy for democracy, not just in the United States but around the globe
"I was strongly influenced by Du Bois's great book but they were written in different time periods with different (in part) concerns. Mine is based," he continues, "on a research DuBois could never have undertaken in the 1930s. I put a lot more emphasis on the Black church than he does and eschew the Marxist terminology of the 1930s he used. But the essential arguments are very similarly. Here, see the preface to my book, Nothing But Freedom.
My own project on the friendship between William Styron and James Baldwin touches on Styron's, Confessions of Nat Turner. Quite the fire storm grew out of the work with lines drawn in artistic and academic circles. False arguments arose that a white couldn't and shouldn't write about blacks or black matters. At the time Prof. Foner was quiet on the matter, but he circles back to his earlier position on artistic license and history.
"Long ago I published a little book of documents about (Nat) Turner and implicitly challenged some of the distortions in Styron's book", he says..."...(another piece of historical fiction that took liberties with the historical record). But I did not want to get into an argument with a novelist, who does have artistic license."
One is left to wonder what's next for Eric Foner as he looks out from his watchtower at history. But Foner don't dwell. "Right now", he concludes, "my most recent book is still on my mind so I have no clear plans for the next one."