Last Saturday, I had the privilege of addressing the graduating class at my alma mater. That opportunity ate up the weekend I usually spend composing my column, for which I offer a slightly abridged version of that address in the hope it might resonate among next month’s graduates from my other alma mater, here in Conway.
Forgive me for talking a lot about my own experience, but I think it might be relevant. I came to Keene 40 years ago, planning to become a writer. I wasn’t certain what genre I would follow, but I was pretty sure what my subject matter would be, because I had been fascinated by the Civil War since I was a small child. At the age of 12, I found a 1,300-page register of New Hampshire soldiers and sailors, and went through it page by page, copying down the names and records of all the Conway veterans with the intention of eventually writing a book about them. By the time I left Keene State I had completed the first draft of that book.
Since then, I’ve written about that era from every angle I could think of, from the perspectives of soldiers, sailors, civilians, and politicians North and South, in biographies of important characters and histories of military units, campaigns, prisons camps, and entire communities. By relying on contemporary primary sources instead of the memoirs that previous historians used, I usually produce a new interpretation — often so new that it surprises me, and discomfits those who thought they had written the definitive book on the subject. That happened most recently with my biography of Abraham Lincoln’s pathologically duplicitous secretary of war, which occasioned much defensive scrambling among the self-appointed keepers of the Lincoln legend. For me, that was the most gratifying part of the whole project.
It’s been decades since I’ve earned my keep at anything but writing. I still start work right after breakfast, and usually quit at 9 or 10 o’clock at night, anxious to begin again in the morning. I spent last winter compiling a list of more than 8,000 Union soldiers and hunting them up in the census, to determine once and for all how disproportionately Lincoln’s armies were composed of the poorer half of the population. So I’m still doing exactly what I was at the age of 12 — copying down the names of Civil War soldiers, so I could write about them — and I enjoy it as much as I did then. As my teacher-wife often reminds me, autism can be a distinct occupational advantage.
Most of my friends in this field followed an academic track. In a world where credentials are routinely confused with competence, a Ph.D. was their basic requirement for making a living. Many of them complain that academic obligations leave them little time to actually practice their craft, and when they do find time they often discover that the pressure to be politically correct can discourage them from the course of strict honesty. They wonder what slip of the tongue will destroy their careers, or what misinterpreted comment will force them into a Galileo-like public confession of error and contrition.
Having no university affiliation, I am troubled by none of that. I never felt the need of an advanced degree: I left this campus with all the skills I needed to start work, and the persistent practice of history served as its own graduate school. I did have to support myself with farm labor and carpentry for many years, but even then I had more time for research and writing than some of my friends who were tenured professors.
Somewhere I read that Oprah Winfrey once advised her fans to stop chasing after money and instead get out and do what they loved. She promised that they would be much happier, and that the money would follow, and in that dual prediction I find her to have been exactly half right. Many of my colleagues are retiring on comfortable pensions now, while I’m trying to finish the next book and plan the one after that — but that’s all I ever wanted to do.
A few people here helped steer me down this path. Jim Smart was head of the history department, and he was my adviser. He specialized in the same era that fascinated me, and we have remained friends ever since; he is now reading the first draft of my next book as I finish the chapters. Wilfred Bisson introduced me to intellectual history when I was in danger of stumbling forever into the isolation chamber of military history. Dick Scaramelli demonstrated that historiography can be as influential as history itself, and he always advocated questioning the dominant narrative. How well I learned that lesson may be reflected in how often book reviewers call me a “revisionist historian.”
Dick Cunningham was my favorite English professor, and he was once an interim president of the college. He died about a year ago, and I’m sorry he couldn’t be here to see that yet another of his students achieved some success as a writer — even if my poetry did suck.
With that I urge you all to get out and do what you love. I think I can at least promise that you will be much happier.
William Marvel lives in South Conway. In veritas beatitas is Latin for “in truth is happiness.”