H.W. Brands discusses his biography of Ulysses S. Grant with Biographile's 'Behind the Books'
Posted: May 1, 2013
Prof. H.W. Brands. Photo by Marsha Miller; graphic by Biographile
H.W. Brands is a difficult author to discuss without slipping into superlatives. He's an incredibly prolific historian, perhaps covering more iconic subjects of American history than any other writer, bringing stalwarts like FDR, Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Jackson bounding back to life. His fact-filled tomes are crosshatched with some of the most accessible storytelling out there. Heck, he's even got some chops as a poet, dedicating a page of his website to famous moments in history, all expressed in haiku form.
His most recent work, The Man Who Saved the Union, covering the life and legend of Ulysses S. Grant, is regrettably not built around Japanese poetry, but it is still as equally pithy and poetic in its commanding portrayal of the general who masterminded the North's victory in the American Civil War.
Brands first earned his undergraduate degree in history in 1975 at Stanford University, picking up his Ph.D. in history ten years later at the University of Texas at Austin. Since then, he has been an intellectual anchor of the Austin community, where he lives and teaches history at his Alma mater as the Dickson Allen Anderson Centennial Professor of History. While we lick our fingers in anticipation to turn the pages of his upcoming Ronald Reagan biography, we've asked him to answer a few personal questions about the reading and writing life in this week's Behind the Books.
Biographile: What’s your writing routine? Where, when, and how does it happen?
H.W. Brands: I write whenever I can. I like the craft of writing – the effort to make words say what I want them to say. I write on a notebook computer, and so write in all sorts of places: at home, in my office at UT, in coffee shops, on airplanes, in hotel, by swimming pools.
BIOG: What writers have influenced you most?
HWB: I don’t know the answer to this. Influence can be a subtle thing.
BIOG: What book are you currently recommending?
HWB: I don’t recommend books – readers’ tastes are too varied.
BIOG: To what extent does your writing reflect your own life story?
HWB: Not at all. It reflects my philosophy of life, though.
BIOG: Your bibliography reads like a rolodex of American icons: LBJ, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Ulysses S. Grant. It also ranges from the 18th century to the 20th. From a research perspective, if a subject is more modern, does the increase in availability of primary documents make the biographer’s job easier? Harder? More complex?
HWB: There is a tradeoff. On older subjects, fewer sources are available. The extant writings of Benjamin Franklin fill about forty published volumes. The presidential library of Ronald Reagan, my current subject, holds scores of millions of documents. I can get my head around Franklin, but much of the story is missing. With Reagan, I risk being overwhelmed by the material.
BIOG: What classics would you read if you had all the time in the world?
HWB: Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Melville, Twain.
BIOG: What five writers - dead or alive - would you invite to an imaginary dinner party?
HWB: Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, Henry Adams, Lytton Strachey, Austen
BIOG: To the aspiring writer, what advice would you give? What advice helped you become the writer you are today?
HWB: Write. Write. Write. Write every day.
BIOG: Faulkner said a writer needs three things: experience, observation, and imagination. Do you use all three equally, or rely on one over another?
HWB: That’s a pretty good formula.
BIOG: What’s next on your horizon? Any new subjects you’re eager to set your pen to?
HWB: I’m trying to unravel the enigma of Ronald Reagan. How did this man of average intellect, moderate charisma and not inordinate ambition change the world more dramatically than anyone else of his generation?