An Interview with J. Matthew Gallman (Part One)

Defining Duty and Anna Dickinson
J. Matthew Gallman

Today we present the first part of an interivew with our inaugural book prize winner, J. Matthew Gallman. Gallman won our prize for his book Defining Duty in the Civil War (UNC Press, 2015). In part one, Gallman discusses why he wrote his book, the importance of satire in the Civil War era, the concept of loyalty in the North, and his previous work on Anna E. Dickinson.

Attendees: Gary W. Gallagher, Elizabeth Varon, J. Matthew Gallman, Cory Fields, William Kurtz, Michael Caires, Jeffrey Zvengrowski, Asaf Almog, Frank Cirillo, Clayton Butler, Melissa Gismondi, Brian Neumann, Daniel Sunshine, Stephanie Lawton, Josh Larson


William Kurtz: You've written on a wide variety of subjects. How did you come to the subject of your latest book Defining Duty? Was it something you saw as a huge gap in the literature or was it something you've always wanted to do?

Matt Gallman: I tend to make decisions on what I want to work on in fairly idiosyncratic ways, in that I never think, “Oh I want to be involved in this conversation.” I tend to think about problems and sources I want to work in, and I’ve stayed in the same century for most of my career. But I try to think about kinds of history I have not done. So for this book, my starting point was really that I wanted to do satire. I wanted to do humor. I started looking at cartoons and reading the satirists. It was a fascinating moment for American satire, although most of the satirists are unreadable to me. But some of them are. But it was a big boom. If you look at the top satirists of the 19th century, they were all born within three years of each other. So I started doing that. And then I expanded it in various directions to be about how cultural discourse was framing how we should be citizens. But that was a second step.


Elizabeth Varon: How was it an important moment in American satire?

Gallman: I’m really not a huge expert on satire. [Jonathan] Grinspan of UVA wrote a good article on that. It’s interesting, there’s this genre of writing that is very ironic that is often written in various kinds of voices. You have these individuals writing, creating characters, and using the same character for the course of years. You know that Lincoln was a great fan of some of these writers. Petroleum Nasby was a big one obviously. If you go back a generation, however, no such people existed as far as I know. I thought it would be interesting to ask the question how is satire making these messages [about citizens and duty]. My starting point was I wanted to write about popular culture, and I hadn’t really done that.


Stephanie Lawton: What for you in this project was the most surprising thing that you wouldn’t have expected at all?

Gallman: I was going to use the metaphor of index cards but no one actually does that anymore. But if you think about taking notes, you have questions, you have sources, you write notes down. But sometime between taking notes and writing the book, you kind of have to put the index cards into stacks. You’re trying to impose a structure on stuff. If you’re good at what you do you can find the structure if you’re dishonest you throw away the index cards that don’t fit. I have these broad categories where a popular discourse is satirizing types. My larger point is that they are basically creating negative reference points. They are saying, “Here are the kinds of things you don’t want to be.” I have really three big categories, or chapters, one is about “swells,” one is about shoddy, one is about a certain kind of cowardice , but the point is that with this very disparate array of stuff you can put the cartoon, song, editorial, short story into the same conversation without feeling like you aren’t hammering out stuff, you don’t need a chisel to make it fit.

The real point is that they created these cultural types that every day folks can say, “You know, I might really be a bonehead, but I ain’t that bad.” And I think that is a very appealing thing for citizens. “I will sell stuff for profit while others are off getting shot at but at least I’m not selling stuff that falls apart in the first six weeks.” So I believe this culture creates a discourse that the effect and partly the intent of which is to make everybody else feel very good about themselves.


Gary W. Gallagher: One thing your book really does is expand the universe of acceptable behavior in terms of who is loyal and what can’t you do in the middle of the war. What kinds of behaviors are acceptable if you are not in the army. And it’s much broader than [what we had known previously], they are very forgiving of those making things as long as they aren’t shoddy.

Varon: Were you surprised by that?

Gallman: Yes, I was surprised. The book has been out for a year. In the reviews that have come out nobody has said “Yeah Yeah Yeah, but this is crap.” We have this notion that people who were drafted or that the people who stayed at home were probably quivering, but I find patriotic papers, more than a few, saying, “Well, we believe in the draft, it’s a good thing, we think that’s the fairest way to get soldiers.” But in the next paragraph, “But of course there are certain people who have a wife and kids, who have a job and they don’t want to leave it, there are certain people who just don’t think they’d make good soldiers. Those people, it’s fine if they don’t go.” It allows for a person to look in the mirror and say the whole getting shot at thing isn’t for me. I end up with the conclusion and I believe this to be true that the culture requires that we believe you have thought about serving. You can’t just run to Canada without thinking about it. If you have thought about it, and you conclude thanks but no thanks, for any number of reasons, that’s kinda ok. That whole thing surprised me.


Gallagher: The World War Two question, “What did you do in the war?” doesn’t show up in the Civil War?

Gallman: It shows up later when you try to run for office.

Gallagher: But not during the war?

Gallman: Yes and no. I’ve got cartoons where a little kid who’s got his drum and uniform on and mom’s there and he’s saying to mom while his father is sitting there, “Why isn’t daddy at the war?” Daddy says to mom, “Send that kid to bed!” So there is that!


Gallagher: What did you begin life as? Your academic life?

Gallman: I began life as a colonial demographer. I studied the marriage and death patterns of North Carolinians in the 17th century. My first article was in the W&M Quarterly in my third year of grad school and that was on marriage patterns. After my third year and I took my quals, I was a colonial historian and I had published two articles, it dawned on me that if I stay on this path I will spend the rest of my life doing quantitative analysis of very limited records. If I moved to the 19th century I can read diaries, letters, newspapers, cartoons, and look at wider variety of sources. After I finished my quals, I went to a professor and said I want to do a dissertation on the Civil War. I had not read a book about the Civil War in graduate school and I had not taken a Civil War course since I was a freshman in college. I did a social history of Philadelphia during the war as my dissertation.


Melissa Gismondi: In some ways biographies are like histories of cities. Did you find any similarities in the two kinds of work?

Gallman: I studied a city and that made me a Civil War and urban historian. While I was working on Philadelphia, I kept reading references in newspapers to Anna Dickinson coming to town. And I would think, “Who is Anna Dickinson?” I know stuff but I don’t know who she is. They keep talking about her like she’s a rock star and I’ve never heard of her. So I wanted to write that book, the kernel had been in my brain for a long time, and I started writing about her during the war. I got a grant to do that. I wanted to do a couple things with my biography of her. I wanted to engage in a fascinating literature about women in public. Liz Varon’s book [on Virginian women] was one of the most formative books in my thinking. I also wanted to write a slightly more popular book. I wanted to sell dozens of copies at least. I sent a book proposal to Oxford, and they called me three days later and offered me actual money for this book. The only rule was I couldn’t mention Habermas. What I didn’t fully reckon on, you see I went to graduate school as a social historian with the core belief that if I’ve heard of you I don’t want to write about you, but I ended up reading all of Dickinson’s letters and ended up reading letters from famous people such as William L. Garrison, Susan B. Anthony, and Wendell Phillips. I found that kind of cool because I had never done research on people I had heard of before.


Varon: Do you ever think about writing another biography?

Gallman: I thought I would write something on Alexander Henry, the mayor of Philadelphia. But, you know, right this second, no. I have five book ideas in my head. In a biographical sense, and this comes out of Dickinson, it seems to me there is a fascinating cohort of public women in this period between 1850 and 1890 and all the famous people of this era know each other. Dickinson travels all over the country and it’s amazing who she knows, so I had this idea I would write a network study.


Michael Caires: So like the book The Metaphysical Club?

Gallman: Sort of. I think there’s a really good book to be written about the transatlantic movement of public speakers. The movement of ideas and speakers, we know about Brits coming to America and De Tocqueville, but a lot of Americans are going the other way and there’s a network where letters are being sent. Dickinson was going to go but she doesn’t go because Benjamin Butler reneged on his promise.


Josh Larson: What did Ben Butler do this time? He seems to never do anything right.

Gallman: Ben Butler did many things right. Anna called Ben “Old Froggy” in her private correspondence. There’s a difference in age of 20 years here that’s one problem. Another problem is that Anna’s not really straight. Butler really likes Anna. Anna likes him as a mentor and she likes the fact that he’s filthy rich and so she makes a deal with him that he is going to fund a European tour for her and her mother. And then the 1873 crash comes and he loses money. And so he reneges on a promise. And Anna writes to him and says, “I’m not threatening you but do you think the world would like to see the letters you sent to me asking me to come to Atlantic City with you while your wife was on her death bed?” The next letter in the file is from Ben’s lawyer.