Civil War Talk Radio: May 22, 2009

Air Date: 052209
Subject: Remembering David H. Donald (1920-2009)
Books: Lincoln & We Are Lincoln Men & Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War, among many others.
Guest: None

Summary: Gerry fondly remembers his mentor and friend, Professor David Herbert Donald, who passed away shortly before this show was recorded at the age of 88.

Brett’s Summary: Professor Donald was one of the foremost Lincoln scholars in the world.  Brian Dirck’s review of Donald’s life does a far better job than I ever could.

Gerry spends most of this hour reminiscing about his mentor and friend.  When Gerry first applied to grad school, he was accepted by Harvard, and received a short personal letter from Professor Donald.  He spent the summer before going to college reading Douglas Southall Freeman’s four volume biography of Robert E. Lee.  He remembers Donald marking up papers with almost as much writing (in green ink) as the students themselves wrote.  The first seminar Gerry took with Dr. Donald was on Reconstruction, and he remembers this initially being a disappointment since he was more interested in the Civil War.  His first seminar paper was on Confederate Civil War veterans and Confederate Veteran magazine.  He categorized articles from the magazine by topic.

Gerry recalled Dr. Donald’s patience and grace in dealing with even “ill-informed” questions from students and others.  Gerry initially was going to write a monograph on the Battle of Stones’ River, but Peter Cozzens released his own book on that battle around the same time.  Gerry, with the help of Dr. Donald, was forced to look for another topic which might be able to use some of his already completed research.  Gerry remembers the encouragement his mentor provided when he wondered if the long years of research and study as a graduate student were going to be worth it.   Gerry points out just how readable Dr. Donald’s books are, not only by academics but by the general public, and goes on to talk about his mentor’s biography of Southern writer Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward.  Gerry actually visited Wolfe’s home in Asheville, North Carolina, and he encourages listeners to do the same.  He points out that Dr. Donald was steering him to write on the memory of the Civil War in the 1990s before memory studies gained popularity and morphed into what we see today.  Donald was the only person in the country to have a searchable database of the collected writings of Abraham Lincoln several decades ago, and Gerry points out he was always ahead of the technological curve.  Gerry credits Dr. Donald with “putting me on the Lincoln trail”, which of course became Gerry’s life work at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  Dr. Donald had Gerry photocopy dozens of Lincoln articles from 19th Century magazines for his own use, but in the process of doing this Gerry started reading these articles and became fascinated by the 16th president.  His autographed copy of Donald’s Lincoln is his most cherished book.

Dr, Donald won two Pulitzer prizes for biography, but his Lincoln biography did not win.  He did win for his biographies of Thomas Wolfe and Charles Sumner.  Gerry points out Donald’s biography of Lincoln is widely regarded as the best single volume Lincoln biography in existence, though to be fair he does point out some other candidates for that title.  He goes over Donald’s use of the term “passive” to describe Lincoln in the biography, points out that Lincoln does not appear that way in Donald’s book, and admits Donald’s use of the word might not have been the best choice.  In the end, Gerry says if you only read one book on Abraham Lincoln read this one.  Gerry actually owns a set of the Official Records which originally belonged to David Donald’s mentor and Lincoln scholar James Randall.  Gerry was also given a set of The Photographic History of the Civil War by Dr. Donald.  Gerry reminisced fondly how Dr. Donald would often give away books he had acquired to his graduate students, and Gerry’s library contains many books he obtained in that way.  Gerry actually got his job at the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana because the people at the museum called Dr. Donald to ask who he would recommend for the job.  Once there, Gerry built what he calls “an actual shrine to his advisor.”  As the show ended, Gerry recalled fondly how Dr. Donald and Gene Siskel filmed a special review of Lincoln movies for the museum which worked well.

I’d like to add that anyone interested in the Civil War, and especially Abraham Lincoln, owes a great debt to David Herbert Donald.  He will be missed.

Civil War Talk Radio airs most Fridays at 12 PM Pacific on World Talk Radio Studio A. Host Gerry Prokopowicz, the History Chair at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, interviews a guest each week and discusses their interest in the Civil War. Most interviews center around a book or books if the guest is an author. Other guests over the years have included public historians such as park rangers and museum curators, wargamers, bloggers, and even a member of an American Civil War Round Table located in London, England.

In this series of blog entries, I will be posting air dates, subjects, and guests, and if I have time, I’ll provide a brief summary of the program. You can find all of the past episodes I’ve entered into the blog by clicking on the Civil War Talk Radio category. Each program should appear either on or near the date it was first broadcast.

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