Where the Sidewalk Ends

Elena Seibert

Brenda Wineapple

Elena Seibert

Brenda Wineapple

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

The nineteenth-century writer and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child was impressively prolific. “By her own admission she frequently suffered from a depression that writing seemed to alleviate,” Brenda Wineapple writes in a review of a new biography of Child from the November 3 issue of the magazine. “Though as she once pungently said of herself, she was ‘born before nerves came into fashion.’” While she is best remembered today for her Thanksgiving poem, which begins “Over the river and through the wood,” much of her work grappled with “the pressing social, political, and cultural issues of her century—and even ours: genocide, women’s rights, social justice, religion, immigration, economic inequality, and aging.”

Wineapple, a frequent contributor to the Review, has written numerous acclaimed books, most often about nineteenth-century American history and literature. Her latest book, The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation (2019), was swept into the press cycle by the Mueller investigation and Trump’s impeachment, though she had started it during the Obama years. Her work is notable for its commitment to understanding her historical subjects on their own terms—and letting comparisons with the present subtly resonate with the past.

We e-mailed this week about overlooked figures, New England, and her first and only novel.

Willa Glickman: How would you describe the outlines of your career?

Brenda Wineapple: In elementary school, for some reason I decided to write a novel, and I began by describing the sidewalk in the back of our house. I gave this chapter to my father, who read it and then kindly asked, “Where’s the plot?” The plot? I was baffled. “Yes, something needs to happen,” he said. Since I hadn’t yet heard of modernism, I decided then and there that I’d write nonfiction.

In college, I was fascinated by the 1920s, and so my first book, a biography of Janet Flanner, the Paris correspondent for The New Yorker for fifty years, really focused on the Twenties, which was her moment. Since then I’ve moved further back in time. Everything has a precedent.  

You grew up in New England, a region that I think has held onto its past more than other parts of the country. Were you interested in history growing up, or did it feel close at hand?

You can’t grow up in New England without being utterly and forever haunted by the past.   

You seem equally comfortable writing about literature and history—for example, you’ve written books about Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, but also about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Do you see yourself foremost as a literary critic or a historian, or is the distinction not important? Do you draw on different skills from both disciplines while writing?

To me, it’s always seemed that you can’t clearly or cleanly divide history from literature or literature from history. We live in time; our lives unfold in time and are largely determined by time. So when writing, I try to consider how someone grasped the historical moment in which they lived; who or what else inhabited it; how they responded to it, whether in defiance or acceptance, in partial ignorance or open embrace; and of course how and when and if chance and the unexpected derailed all that.   

You mention Emily Dickinson: my book was about her friendship with the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson (and his with her) because, interestingly, literary critics ridiculed or ignored him while historians, who knew of him, weren’t much interested in her. But she chose him as her friend and confidante, so clearly she knew something we didn’t.

As for drawing on skills: I read novels and poetry to learn about pacing, character, rhythm, and plot—so I don’t write only about the sidewalk—and to refresh my sense of language.   

In your two most recent essays for the magazine, you argue that the authors of the books under review distort their historical protagonists to a certain extent in order to fit them into a guiding narrative. How do you resist this temptation in your own writing?

Research, research, research: research, and particularly primary sources (diaries, letters, shopping lists), help an author create the time and place and the perceptions of the people and places they write about—what the subjects saw, what assumptions, even if benighted, guided them. Of course, we all have our own points of view; that goes without saying. But what are we then going to do? That is, why not try as best we can to understand the perspectives of other people at some other time in some other place, asking what their “guiding narrative,” if any, might have been? After all, it’s one thing for an author to have an active moral compass, which is important and even necessary; being moralistic is quite something else. 


Take the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson: it was really a laboratory of competing convictions about what would make a more perfect union. Some of these views were really repulsive, some deluded, some self-aggrandizing or arrogant, and some touchingly principled and aspirational.

Are there other figures like Child, notable in their own time but mostly forgotten today, who you think could be the subject of an interesting biography?

Absolutely. So many have been forgotten or overlooked—for different reasons—and many figures have been sidelined or reassessed because values or priorities change. I don’t think there’s been much recent work on Wendell Phillips, say, or on familiar names, like Clara Barton or maybe Lucy Stone. And what about Anna Dickinson, who was the first woman invited to speak before the House of Representatives, and a very complicated person; or great journalists like Mary Clemmer Ames and Gertrude Bustill Mossell and Emily Pomona Edson Briggs (known as Olivia), who was one of the first women admitted to the congressional press galleries? Then there are Jessie Fauset and Marcet and Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius—with Little Blue Books, their publishing enterprise—and A. Philip Randolph, with his brilliant work on the magazine The Messenger in the early twentieth century. For starters.

Are you working on any new projects? 

Yes. I’m returning to the 1920s in a book about the Scopes trial, which, you could argue, reaches back into the nineteenth century and forward toward our own. 

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