P. Albert Lacson: Thanks so much, Elliott, for your willingness to chat with U.S. History Scene and the historians of the NEH “View from the East” seminar this afternoon about your life and work as a teacher and scholar. We’ll start with how you became an historian.
Elliott West: Well, it was accidental. I grew up in a family that talked history, liked history, read a lot of history growing up. But it was a family of journalists. My father was the editor of the second largest paper in Texas, the Dallas Morning News. My brother is a travel writer. I was going to go into journalism, and I majored in journalism, but took a history course in my freshman year and just absolutely loved it. I ended up taking a lot of history. I still planned on going into journalism, but also loved Colorado. On an impulse, I applied to one graduate school in history at the University of Colorado and they offered me this amazing fellowship. It was clearly a clerical error. I said, “Okay, I’ll do that.” So, I just fell into it.
I had no idea you had to specialize.
The first day I want into the chairman’s office, he said, “What are you gonna study?”
I said, “History!”
“No, no,” he said, “what are you gotta focus on?”
I said, “The Old South.”
“We don’t do the Old South.”
I said, “What do you do?”
“We do the West.”
I said, “Okay. I’ll do the West.”
It was complete serendipity. I ended up working with a very prominent Western historian, Bob Athearn, Robert G. Athearn. He’s the, “What’s going on here?” guy.
P. Albert Lacson: Where does your ability to write with so much passion and enthusiasm come from? Is your ability to write narratives so well something that you consciously work towards? Are there family influences? Mentors who influenced you to write in this way?
Elliott West: Both of those. As said, I came from a family of newspaper people. Very early, our father would drill it into us to write clearly, choose the right words, keep it simple, and, tell a story. It’s really irritating to read history that doesn’t do that, or consciously takes tact to it, which is crazy. Think about it. It’s essentially what history is, it’s big storytelling. Storytelling is one of the only things that really separate us as humans. History is humanity. It’s this very old impulse that we have to tell stories to each other and to engage them. And, to also think in terms of oral storytelling. There are differences between the written and the spoken, between orality and history. But they’re very close and I think if you grow up in a storytelling culture the way I did, it just comes naturally.
There is also engaging in it. The one thing I tell my students is, “You better love your topic ’cause you’re gonna get really sick of it. You are gonna do a lot of work, thousands and thousands of hours.” I think that sort of personal engagement is really critical.
And, also learn to use detail. Create pictures when you write. Dickens said, “Make me see.” The larger the topic, the more particular you’ve got to be. You’ve got to provide an example of it, or you can find a metaphor that will engage people. Let them see what you’re talking about. And, when you’re describing action, specific events, find little bits of detail, color, to engage people. It brings them in. It’s a sort of visual sense of things.
Sunu Kodumthara: Who is your favorite writer?
Elliott West: Stephen King! [Laughter] Actually, I love Stephen King. A writer I admire hugely is John McPhee. One thing I’ll do in a graduate seminar is I’ll take the book Coming into the Country (1976) on Alaska and I’ll pass it around the table. I’ll have them hand it around and ask students to open it at random, close their eyes, put their finger on a paragraph, and just start reading the paragraph aloud and then come up with anyway that you could make that paragraph better. Take it apart, what’s he doing? Why is he choosing that word? How is he structuring that paragraph? I also want them to get into the expression of it. Show me how that could be better. It’s pretty unusual if you can do it. He just has that gift.
Albert Lacson: What do you admire about his work?
Elliott West: Clarity. It’s simple and straightforward. The visual aspect of it.
Albert Lacson: I’m getting ready to teach a Freshman Tutorial and the Director of this program urges us to get students ready to do “Academic writing.” My gut reaction is to question what that means. I think writing should just be writing. Make it clear. I don’t want students to think they need to speak or write any differently than they would if they were trying to communicate ideas to a non-academic audience. Have you come across people who try to make this distinction?
Elliott West: Oh, sure!
Albert Lacson: What do you say to them?
Elliott West: I say you’re not a very good writer. [Laughter] I don’t say it bluntly like that, but what’s the point of that? There are accouterment when you write an article you wouldn’t need if you’re writing something else, but that’s not what they’re talking about. I wrote an essay once on Walter Prescott Webb while working in his papers down in Austin, Texas and I came across that someone asked him, “How do you write?” They meant literally, physically. He said, “Well, first I look through the notes of what I’m going to write about today. I look through the note cards. I try to absorb it. Then I think about the topic and what it is I’m going to talk about. I put my typewriter on the desk and a chair on the other side of the table. I sit down and pretend that there is an intelligent, reasonably well-read appliance salesman from Ohio (or something like that) sitting across the table. Then I begin to tell him about it.” I thought that was really great advice. You can never talk down to anyone, you can never condescend, you always give the reader the benefit of intelligence. You have to approach it as, “OK, this is really complicated stuff, and in this moment, I know more about it than you do, but I’m going to explain it in a way that a reasonably smart person can get…including explaining why it’s worth your time to even sit here and listen about this in the first place.” I think that’s really great advice. That’s what good academic writing is, along with any other kind.
Leslie Frost: It raises the question of audience. Who are the audiences for the work academics do? If academics are writing for each other, that’s where the language of specialization comes in. Should our audience as university professors change?
Elliott West: Certainly that’s true to a point. I just think you shouldn’t take that point very far. There is no reason a sophisticated piece of history can’t be read and understood by a reasonably well-read, intelligent salesman from Ohio.
Albert Lacson: Can you talk about your own writing process? Do you compose at the computer or hand write parts first?
Elliott West: I use the computer, but the first thing I do is make coffee! I start at the computer, I’m of course from the pre-computer days, so that was another advantage I have. All journalists can beat the hell out of a typewriter like Jerry Lee Lewis! It wasn’t that big of a transition for me. I usually try to talk it through in my head. It’s important for both reasons of transition and clarity to begin by reading back a couple of pages of what you’ve already written. I read it literally out loud. You need to get the rhythm of it, the feel of it. Then you know what should come next, after you’ve looked at your notes and so forth. In terms of the process itself, I try to set aside time everyday. It’s important to write or to revise everyday. You can’t always do it. It’s one lesson I learned, again, from my advisor. He would say, “this is a job. Some people get up and go to work as a plumber. We get up and go to work as historians and teachers. Punch the clock. Just do it. Even if nothing happens.” E.B.White said in One Man’s Meat, “there are hours and hours when a writer’s time isn’t worth the paper he is not writing anything on.” It’s true!
Albert Lacson: Since you have so many responsibilities besides writing, do you set aside two hours or are your goals more in terms of pages written per day? How do you structure this?
Elliott West: It’s basically time, but in a writing mode I try to do 500 words a day. You can’t always get it, sometimes it’s more, but I think it’s very important to set a goal for yourself whenever you can do it. My wife and I are raising a granddaughter so being of a “certain age” with an eight-year-old girl just zaps the energy.
It comes down to commitment, really. You have to have a commitment to trying to do it. It’s surprising how much gets done.
Tash Smith: How do you keep your thoughts organized if you’re doing 500 words a day? How do you keep the big picture in mind?
Elliott West: That’s by far the hardest part.
There is no simple answer to this problem. It’s not just the hardest part, it is the part. That is exactly what we’re tasked to do.
I had a conversation with Bill Cronon once, and he said, “The hardest part about writing a book is making it a book.” [Laughter] It’s so true! You might think it’s like anthems—that’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard, but it’s truly the hardest part. He is absolutely right; the hardest part is making a book one thing. How many books that get published are not one thing? You start to think “what’s he doing?” as you read. You need to find what holds everything together, you need to find the story. That evolves, you cannot expect to have that in your head when you start. You might have an idea of what that might be, but as you write, it’s as if it begins to talk back to you. When you read it, it’s outside of your brain now and on the page or computer screen. It’s telling you, “well, really?!” It’s an out of body experience, you can float over it and think, “wow, that’s the dumbest thing!” If you keep going, after a while it does begin to tell you exactly what the story is. It’s evolving. I had a wonderful “aha” moments here [at the NEH Institute] where I suddenly saw a large connection on something I was working on that I’d never seen before after all these years. It clicks and then it begins to gel. Eventually if you work like hell at it, it forms into a single story. That’s the organization of it. It’s got to do that, otherwise it’s not a book. Do you know what I mean? It was fascinating watching presentations over the last few days because you could see several folks had that moment.
Albert Lacson: As we’re trying to get to these “aha” moments, are you the kind of writer who writes while you are conducting research? Are you constantly writing while doing research?
Elliott West: I can’t imagine waiting until all the research is finished and then sitting down to write it. Part of the work talking back to you (which also happened while I was here) is recognizing when there is an important piece missing. You begin to recognize that “part A” doesn’t work with “part B” unless there is something in between. You’ll need to go to the archives and fill that in.
Albert Lacson: We’ve all seen it, where we have a student working on a research paper and their research is done in the first five weeks and then their writing starts afterwards. Who were the developmental mentors for you as a researcher?
Elliott West: My adviser. He had a wonderful style and a very funny guy. One of the most important things he taught us is that history is funny. You have to bring in humor.
He taught us to work in our voice.
He was very good at social history, which is where I first fell in love with that. He would be considered very old school now. What I learned from him was not so much along the lines of interpretation of Western history, but how to write, what to shoot for in writing, so he was certainly very important. When I first became a historian, older and more established historians took me on and taught me important things in my own department. George Wolfskill at my first job in Texas taught me an awful lot about writing and research. He also gave practical advice because I had 6 kids. He’d say “take care of them until they’re 16, then turn them over to the police!” [Laughter] Be really, really thankful if you are in a collegial department. I’ve been in both sorts and boy; I’m in a great department now for that reason!
Albert Lacson: How many drafts do you do before you share an article or chapter with a colleague?
Elliott West: It’s hard to say because it’s very unusual for me to finish something you’d call a ‘draft.’ I am revising all the time. It’s a long process. I’ll write quite slowly and I’m always revising. I try to wait until I feel like it’s really ready for somebody to look at it before I turn it over.
Luke Ryan: Speaking of your early career, years ago I was assigned The Saloon on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier, which I believe was your first book. What drove you to that topic?
Elliott West: My doctoral dissertation was on the prohibition movement in Colorado, which I found fascinating. In the course of that, I had to read a lot about “the enemy,” and frankly found that a lot more interesting than prohibition! I loved social history and the history of communities. That was hot in the 1970s. I was also very interested with and loved mining town histories, which still strike me as some of the most bizarre gatherings in American history. Mining towns were very strange places. Saloons, of course, were central to this question of how in the world you have a few thousand people, mostly men, from all different backgrounds coming together in a place they have no intention of staying in and competing with each other under very difficult conditions, how does that gel into anything like a community? It struck me that there were certain institutions that provided exactly that: churches, fraternal lodges, and saloons. In some ways walking into a saloon is like walking into a church—you immediately know where you are and what the rules are. The setting is familiar. There is always the person in charge; it might be a person with a collar as the minister or a saloon owner with a guarder on his arm. There are rituals and language. They’re what I call “instant institutions” as they can be instantly transplanted and perform this role. That’s how I got to that, reading hundreds and hundreds of mining town newspapers on old hand crank microfilm readers. I had a student who used to say “Dr. West has gone to his dark place!” [Laughter] When I was going through these newspapers, I noticed all this stuff about children in these mining towns. I thought hm, “no one really writes children’s histories in a particular place” so by the time I was finished I knew what I’d move into next.
Albert Lacson: How do you teach students to choose a compelling research question or topic?
Elliott West: I emphasize it’s got to be their choice. There are professors who choose topics for their students. I think that’s crazy. I know why they do it, but it usually doesn’t work very well. You’ve gotta follow your gut and determine what’s interesting. The students of mine that did the best all had that “aha” inspirational moment. A wonderful student, Julie Courtwright who had an advisor from Wichita State, where they don’t have a doctoral program, brought her over and said “You’re gonna work with this guy.” Typical child of the plains. Didn’t like too many trees, she’d feel claustrophobic! She was casting around and I said “we’ll come up with something” and while driving home once they were burning stubble after harvest. She said she was daydreaming as she was looking out and then suddenly thought, “Prairie fires!” So her dissertation was on the history of prairie fires. She wrote a beautiful book, won a couple of awards, and it’s wonderfully written. When she wrote it, it was very heavily invested in her own voice. You find the topic, then you develop the questions. What makes you curious about that? Is that knowable? Can you find the sources? The mentor’s job is to refine that process with your archival experience and gut-feelings about what you can find out there.
Albert Lacson: We’re constantly telling stories, whether it’s in an individual class lecture or throughout the entire class. In a course on the American West, what are stories, in your opinion, that absolutely must be considered for it to be a true American West class?
Elliott West: Going back to our first day with Patricia Limerick spoke about her four Cs (or is it five now?) I can’t remember. She keeps adding Cs! But certainly, ‘convergence.’ In a way, I’m a highly modified Turnerian. I think the idea of “frontiers” is perfectly valid as long as you expand it to think of it as a place and time when new influences are moving in a large-scale way and they’re meeting, collaborating, and a snarl of events with consequences that follow from that. That’s what the history of the West continues to be. That gets you away from the triumphant West, but makes it a story that continues. That makes it far more interesting and compelling to read than the way that I was taught when I was first starting out. And of course you’ve got to bring in as much as possible the perspectives of those who were there first to allow that story to remain part of the narrative.
Alicia Tucker: Have you seen that your style of teaching has changed over time?
Elliott West: Teaching is similar to choosing a dissertation topic. No one can tell you what your style is going to be. I get very uncomfortable—you win these teaching awards and all of a sudden people want you to tell them how to teach, which is crazy.
You have to decide what your style is.
My style is lectures that are storytelling. You have to find particular stories to humanize what you are talking about. Those skills developed over time, but I’ve stuck with that. I’ve refined it along the way to turn increasingly to individual’s stories to illustrate a larger point. I’m not a techie, but I do use PowerPoint with just about every lecture I give now. Although what drives me crazy are people who write on the screen using PowerPoint what they’re going to say and they read it to you! “The two most common pets in America are, click, CATS! and click, DOGS!” You don’t need to read to people. Now visual history is where PowerPoint can become truly amazing. I have hundreds and hundreds of slides that are not totally worthless. Putting together PowerPoints used to be a big deal. You’d find an image in a book and then cart it over to the campus media center and it would take a week at $2 a slide. Now you just go “WOOP!” and there it is! Visuals are increasingly important, boy what a gift that is now days!
Albert Lacson: How have the students changed over time?
Elliott West: I’ve noticed some, but mainly you would notice that in the entry level classes and survey classes. I used to teach those a ton, but I don’t as much anymore. Now our graduate students who cannot graduate without teaching a class or two teach the introductory surveys.
Getting back to the PowerPoints, I did begin to notice that for many students if it’s not up on the screen, they think it’s irrelevant.
If it’s specifically written on the damn screen, it’s like you’re providing notes for them. That approach to learning is too bad. I think you need to be careful about creeping sets of old-fartisms though. These kids! Rah rah rah!
Albert Lacson: One thing we talk a lot about on my campus is short attention span. Some people believe that social media, being able to connect all the time, impinges students’ abilities to sit and read a long article or book. Do you think there is something to this, or more old-fartism?
Elliott West: Maybe? Obviously we all know about the temptation to text, to go online with their laptops, I ask them to please turn off their phones. If they are expecting an emergency call, put it on vibrate and sit next to the door. Of course I see them doing it. I always want to say, do you think you’re fooling me by looking down in your lap like this? [Laughter] I don’t know. Students are students. Every class is different of course. When I first came to Arkansas I had an 8 AM class. God, it was horrible! I could not get them going. They were like Zombies!
I ended up going to one of my student’s recitals who was majoring in tap dancing. She was a tiny little woman, and fabulous! I thought, hey, I’ll see if I can pay her so that 20 minutes into my lecture as I’m teaching and walking back and forth she’ll barge in and just go [furry of tapping noises] and do backflips and kicks, and I’m just going to keep lecturing. Just to see if anything happens. [Laughter]. But she wanted $50! I couldn’t afford her.
Check back for Part II with Elliott West and find out if he ever did get the tap dancer to help him teach the U.S. West…
This collaborative interview with Elliott West included P. Albert Lacson (Professor, Grinnell College); Leslie Frost (Senior Lecturer, UNC); Sunu Kodumthara (Assistant Professor, Southwestern Oklahoma State University), Tash Smith (St. Gregory’s University), Alicia L. Tucker (History and Political Science Program Head at the Manassas Campus of Northern Virginia Community College).