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Getting to know Mark Carnes, previous Co-General Editor of the American National Biography

In April 2016, the American National Biography updated with 50 new lives. In honor of the occasion, we asked Dr. Mark Carnes to answer a few questions about his experience with the ANB. Dr. Carnes is the author of numerous works on American social and cultural history, and served as Co-General Editor of the ANB alongside Dr. John Garraty since its inception, until current General Editor Dr. Susan Ware came on board in 2012. Dr. Carnes also is the author of the new biography on Dr. Garraty, now available on the ANB.

Could you briefly describe your background and field of study?

In graduate school, I became interested in 19th-century gender and social history. My first two books were usually categorized as early ventures in the history of masculinity. But I disagreed with the premise of many proponents of the field. I did not believe that the history of men could be understood apart from that of women, and vice versa. Gender emerged from a much more complex concatenation of interrelated factors. My dissatisfaction with the direction of “men’s history” opened me up to other intellectual pursuits.

Why did you decide to become co-editor of the American National Biography?

Chiefly because of John Garraty, who became my chief advisor at Columbia. Though he was not especially interested in gender history, he was a zealot about the craft of writing. His quest for the short clean sentence resembled Ahab’s pursuit of the great white whale. When my sentences grew clause-ridden tentacles, he hacked them to pieces; and when my writing inclined to prettiness, he bludgeoned it. The author’s job, he insisted, was to say something. The art of writing was to do so simply and clearly. This stern doctrine flies in the face of contemporary academic convention, which often equates convoluted prose with complex thought. I accepted Garraty’s contrary notion as gospel. By learning how to edit my writing, I became better at that task—and at editing. Garraty apparently identified me as a True Believer, because while I was still in graduate school he then invited me to serve with him as co-editor of Supplement VIII of the Dictionary of American Biography. When he began work on the ANB, I joined him in that work. As the project progressed, and after I received tenure at Barnard and Columbia, Steven Wheatley, Vice President of the the ACLS—and Garraty–asked me to serve as Co-General Editor of the ANB. I was honored; I remain so.

What are you currently reading (personally or work related)?

I almost never read history for pleasure. Partly that’s because I become distracted by awkward sentences, and intuitively begin to “fix” them. That is not much fun. So I’ve fallen into the habit of reading nonfiction quickly. At bedtime I’m drawn to historical fiction. I’ve just finished Aline Ohanesian’s Ohran’s Inheritance, about the Armenian genocide, and Robert Harris’s Dictator, about Cicero. My favorite authors include Patrick O’Brian, Thomas Flanagan, Tim O’Brien, Gore Vidal. Flawless prose. Rich historical sensibility. What joy!

Dr. Mark Carnes, photo courtesy of of Mark Carnes.

Which figure(s) in your field would you invite to a dinner party and why?

J.S. Bach, though he is not in my field. But if we’re doing the impossible, why accept constraints? Bach’s creative genius transcends the capabilities of our species, or so it seems to me. I would want to poke and probe, though I doubt if his words would help illuminate his creative genius.

What is your favorite bookstore or library?

The Newburgh Free Library, an oasis in a community thirsting for knowledge.

As Co-General Editor of the ANB, did you have difficulty deciding whom to include and leave out?

Actually, this posed no real problem at all, except that we had difficulty keeping up with the proliferation of historical fields. For example, after reading a book on “freak studies,” then a sub-discipline of disability studies, I added the category—and several figures—to the ANB. But I knew that we were missing scores of new subjects of emerging scholarly interest. But by then, as the online version of the ANB began to take shape, we knew that the ANB would not be forever entombed within hard covers, but could grow and change in its online iteration. What we missed back in the 1990s would be addressed later on.

How have you seen ANB grow over the past 15 years?

We had expected that the ANB would serve as the standard biographical reference work for four or five decades. Wikipedia’s ease of access has to some extent supplanted the ANB. Some Wikipedia essays are excellent; but many are not. Crowd-sourced knowledge is something of an oxymoron. If you have a pain in the abdomen, you prefer the diagnosis of a physician; similarly, if you wish to understand an historical figure, the ANB will nearly always surpass Wikipedia, or so it seems to me.

What, in your mind, has been ANB’s greatest achievement thus far?

Providing solid historical judgment on famous figures in American history—but especially on those people of middling importance.

Which of your own entries did you most enjoy writing?

I don’t know which essay I enjoyed writing most, but I do know that the entry on Garraty was among my greatest challenges as a writer. More so than anyone I have met, Garraty saw the world with brutal clarity. I admired him, but I also knew that he regarded puffery with contempt. So I did my best to appraise his work dispassionately and critically. Whether I succeeded I cannot say. But as I typed, I could hear his skeptical judgments—“Look at those adverbs—‘dispassionately,’ really?” And always the refrain: “Too many words!”

What is your current project?

Since the completion of the American National Biography, I have focused on a pedagogical initiative called Reacting to the Past. In Reacting, college students play complex games, set in the past, their roles informed by classic texts. During the past decade, Reacting has spread to over 350 colleges and universities.

Headline image credit: Photo by Jackmac34, CCO public domain via Pixabay.

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