Monday, March 12, 2007


Even though this is an anonymous blog, I think it is dumb to disguise where I am traveling and it gives me less to write about. So -- I am in a bed and breakfast in the Inman Park neighborhood of Atlanta. I chose this location for two reasons. One is, much as I love research, I vacillate between whether a faceless hotel is more desirable because of its precious anonymity, or whether an inn of some sort is better because you can actually be in a neighborhood and not eat at strip malls or worry about the bacteria in the carpet. You would think inns would be a slam dunk. But no. The problem with inns is having to talk to the innkeeper and the other guests (more on this later.)

The other reason I chose to eschew the faceless hotel is that this particular B & B is within walking distance of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, and also within shot -- either by foot or by MARTA -- of Little Five Points, about six blocks of New York's Lower East Side transplanted to a Dixie metropolis; downtown Atlanta; and Decatur. Decatur is very gay, and I like to visit gay places wherever I travel. And yes, I am doing research at the Carter Library, so if you don't know who I am already, fly to Atlanta, drop by, and find out.

Of course, everyone I meet in Atlanta is stunned that I did not rent a car, something that I never did on any research trip for either of my first two books except once, when I was working in strange repositories all over Dallas, which has no public transportation whatsoever. If Atlantans are stunned by my desire to walk, something only the poor do in southern citites, I am stunned that everywhere I go I am stepping all over the Confederate dead which there are rather a lot of on this side of the city. This, in turn, doesn't seem to bother the natives in the least. About three blocks from where I sit now, Atlanta was defended --badly -- by the Confederate General Hood (a dear friend of Mary Chesnut's, as it happens.) Instead of hightailing it up the Decatur road toward the coast where he might have saved himself many casualties and, in the end, might have spared the city destruction, Hood instead stood his ground, lost the battle, retreated back into Atlanta, and helped Joe Johnston burn it down. I knew this already in the abstract way that historians know things -- having read Sherman's "Memoirs" and read/seen Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With The Wind" -- but it was a different thing entirely to be standing in a park that is about the size of a square city block and read a sign that informs you that 6,700 secesh and 3000+ Union troops died on that very spot and it only took a couple hours.

As a northerner whose work flirts with southern history (ocasionally I pose as a southern historian at conferences, but put me in a lineup with folks like Jacquelyn Hall and Pete Daniel and I look peaky) I am constantly ending up in Dixie in some archive or another, and this is definitely one of the most southern places I come. The research trip I documented on this blog last fall was in North Carolina -- Durham, to be exact, and while there are parts of the Carolinas that feel very southern, Durham is not one of them. Or more precisely, the Duke University campus is not one of them. Here in Atlanta it feels very southern everywhere, something that is merely underlined by markers documenting the war -- it's a perfectly groomed look well-to-do white women have, and a southern accent that most people have whatever their race, gender or class. And then there is the history -- the So-and-so plantation house, burned in 1864; the Martin Luther King Memorial. I suppose you get used to your own local history, wherever you live, and other folks' history is only in books until you go and touch it. Or maybe it's just that I am easily moved by history: whenever I am in D.C., I always go visit the Constitution just for old times' sake.

Anyway, to get back to the reasons *not* to stay in a bed and breakfast -- it's the innkeeper and the other guests, who can interfere with one of the great joys of being on a research trip: Being Alone. Eventually, someone always asks me what I do (N says if I would just answer "Rowing Coach!" or "Sales!" they would shut up and move on to the next guest.) When I say I am a historian, and a historian of the modern United States to boot, everyone wants to talk history around the breakfast table in that History Channel kind of way. Sometimes people have even seen me on the History Channel, which means I then have to talk about that Famous Person I wrote my first book about. And let me say -- when you do United States political history everyone wants to know what you think of whatever the President is up to, regardless of what is happening or who the President is, and, nowadays, they want to know what I think about how the war in Iraq can ever possibly end. It's exhausting. Even more exhausting than sorting through the many memoranda that Presidential staff types send each other so that I can collect all the many puzzle pieces that will need to be jiggled together to write a book. And actually, I could talk about archives forever. But no one ever wants to talk about the archive. They want to talk about how much they hated their history teacher in high school. Or how much they love World War II. Or if J. Edgar Hoover was gay.

Ah well. Since you brought up history, did anyone but me read about our pal Anthony Grafton, blog commenter extraordinaire, in a New Yorker Talk of the Town piece about the Athanasius Kircher Society? Anyway, go read it, because it appears Tony is a leading member of the Kircher Society, which will puzzle you because it sounds so very odd, but actually I have concluded, given what little I know about Tony from his books, that he must be writing a book about Kircher. If you have read The Footnote this will seem like a logical explanation to you too. If you haven't read The Footnote, do so, even if you don't like history as much as Tony and I do: it's short and fun and you are either on spring break or close to it and you need something good to read, don't you?


Lesboprof said...

Research at the Carter Center? Very cool!

Also, I spent the better part of 10 years in Durham and miss it so much. It was great to read your post.

I found Durham VERY southern, tho not Duke, as you note. They actually call Duke "the university of New Jersey at Durham," because so few students are from the South. As a Jersey girl myself, I recognized some of your responses... when someone spoke to me on the street, I would grab my purse. After a few years, you get used to it.

NC is a very different south than Georgia, which is very different from Alabama and Mississippi. And the Carolina folks will tell you that, too.

Have fun in Hotlanta!

anthony grafton said...

Thanks so much for the kind words! This sounds like a wonderful trip--I love the way you take the chance to explore the place as well as the archive. It's one of the best things about our strange profession, the chance to do this.

As a historian of strange early modern intellectuals, I am pretty much exempt from requests to explain what the president is up to--but I do get inquiries about the pope.

Have fun!