The books that taught me how

My new book — my first book! — Carleton Watkins: Making the West American is out this week. It’s a biography of Carleton Watkins (1829–1916), the most influential American artist of the 19th century, and that century’s greatest photographer too. Watkins is best known for pictures of the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias made just as the Civil War was beginning in the summer of 1861, pictures that motivated the Union to conserve Yosemite and the nearby Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias into what we now call a national park. Over the next three decades, Watkins’s art informed and influenced American painting, science, finance, business, government, agriculture, and more.

→ Check out Watkins on my author website, then order it from Amazon, University of California Press or Indiebound.

Here are some of the books that helped me figure out how to tell the Watkins story.

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed

Historians failed to take seriously evidence of the close relationships between multiple generations of the Jefferson and Hemings families for many decades. Along came Gordon-Reed who included in her pool of sources oral histories of Hemingses (and not just Jeffersons, on whose oral histories historians had long relied), thus revising, expanding and complicating one of America’s founding stories. Even when establishmentarians think a history has ossified into certainty, a good historian can change our understanding of the past (and the present) by considering sources that others had not. Even better: Gordon-Reed departed from dry, academic writing and presented the historical figures she brought to life as people. Amazon: $12–14.

Daybook: The Journal of an Artist, by Anne Truitt

This is the best artist memoir I’ve read. Truitt wrote at least as much about looking as she did about art-making, making Daybook a powerful argument for how the former can inform the latter (or anything else). Just as I can’t think of the American Southwest without thinking of Mary Austin or the forests of Maine sans Henry David Thoreau, Daybook makes Maryland’s Eastern Shore Truitt’s. Amazon: $4–16. (Read it with Kristen Hileman’s catalogue for her terrific 2009 Truitt retrospective at the Hirshhorn, one of the finest single-artist shows I’ve seen.)

The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

I can’t think of a more ambitious work of non-fiction than this one. Immediately recognized as an epic classic (or a classic epic?) The Making of the Atomic Bomb tells the story of the development of the atomic bomb from the earliest atomic experiments in Europe through the United States’s use of the bomb over Japan during World War II. The level of scientific detail Rhodes provides is matched only by his narrative detail, a decision that effectively equates story-telling with historical research with scientific research. I know I’m no Richard Rhodes, but this book (and the two that succeeded it in Rhodes’s atomic/nuclear trilogy) encouraged me to think big — and never to rest on a small story when a little more work would result in a bigger, better story. Amazon: $10–15.

Wilderness and the American Mind, by Roderick Frazier Nash

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is the book that instigated the American environmental movement; Wilderness and the American Mind is the one that has taught the last two generations of American historians how to think about the environment, wilderness and conservation (three things that are linked in the American imagination, but which mean different things and which have prompted different actions). Like any other historian who has written about any of the three, I’ve had to reckon with Nash, his preferences, biases and constructions of influence and outcomes. I ended up rejecting parts of Nash’s story — Nash writes about wilderness while failing to consider landscape, and prioritizes Thoreau while sidelining Emerson accordingly—but no twentieth-century writer has made me think more about America’s history with its land than Nash. (Honorable mention: One-time Art Institute of Chicago curator (and Emersonian) Hans Huth’s 1957 Nature and the American, a too-little-regarded classic.) Amazon: $12–25.

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Non-Fiction, by Joan Didion

Yes, picking a collection such as this, a whole bunch of books published as a single volume, is cheating, but c’mon, it’s Didion, so ya gotta do what ya gotta do. I had only one rule for myself during the five or six years it took me to research and write Watkins: No reading Joan Didion. When you read Gary Smith or James Baldwin or Didion, you inevitably end up trying to write like Smith or Baldwin or Didion. There are lessons to be taken from Didion that are useful — no one ever ended key paragraphs and inserted key thoughts with ‘a dagger sentence’ at the end of a paragraph like she does — so I crammed Didion before beginning the writing of Watkins, and made notes about what use in an effort to avoid descending to mimicry. Amazon: $22.

Nature, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

This was the most influential and possibly the most widely read non-fiction American text between the Revolution and the Civil War. It defined “landscape,” a word relatively new to the English language (and newer to America), offering a meaning that influenced our artists for the next three or four generations. Furthermore, Emerson’s urging of artists, poets (and anyone else who would listen) to address landscape and to use it as a metaphor through which America’s greatness might be expressed — and tying America’s idea of itself to its land in the process — might be the single most influential American idea (or two) of the post-Revolutionary era. Everyone involved in the Yosemite Idea — Rev. Thomas Starr King, Carleton Watkins, Frederick Law Olmsted and even the initially resistant Jessie Benton Fremont — took note. Reading Nature and realizing how it informed the men and women involved in the Yosemite Idea changed my understanding of both landscape, landscape conservation in America (which is meaningfully different from the sort of conservation George Perkins Marsh writes about in his much-cited 1864 Man and Nature and Watkins’s art especially. Open Library: free.

Landscape and Memory by Simon Schama

What does our relationship with land and landscape say about us? How do our experiences within the landscape form us as a people, impact our belief systems, our personal and shared goals, or the characteristics of our governments? Schama takes on these and other impossibly large questions by suggesting answers that he links together in a kind of narrative-of-ideas that links forests to the people who lived in them to the mythology that grew up around those places, ultimately following the thread until urbanites caged and controlled nature by putting it in glass arboretums. Schama taught me to follow landscape’s influence up through Western and American culture, from the Sierra Nevada to the White House, from Shasta’s glaciers across American science, and more. Amazon: $23.

A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley, by Jane Kamensky

I had started writing Watkins before reading Kamensky. As I got into the thing, I was a little nervous about how much I thought Watkins and his art had played a role in contemporary political culture. The evidence was there (heck, there is more textual evidence related to the Yosemite Idea than there is for almost anything else in Watkins’s life) but Americans typically don’t think of artists as having involvement or agency outside art, outside the narrowest, safest silo. Kamensky’s Copley biography makes clear that Copley was an actor in the complicated soup that was Revolutionary-era trans-Atlantic politics, and did so with verve, energy and plenty of insight into Copley’s paintings. After reading Kamensky, I trusted my research more and worried within old, narrow thinking less. Amazon: $16.

Goya, by Robert Hughes

Some artists are so great, so important, and so influential that they merit biographies even when little textual material about their life survives. The academic discipline of art history has an unusual relationship to artists such as this: typically an art museum does a retrospective, that’s good enough, and historians move on. (See Still, Clyfford.) That’s, um… lazy. In this sparkling, opinionated, raucous and detail-rich biography of Goya (an artist, like Watkins, almost completely absent from surviving textual material) Robert Hughes showed me one way around the textual sources problem: he reconstructed Goya’s time and place, 18th and early 19th-century Spain, and then put Goya within it. Hughes was always more comfortable going deep on the great white dead than he was in investigating the potential meaning and impact of the living; this book made me wish he’d chosen to be a biographer instead of a critic. (Honorable mention: Sheila Hale’s 864-page Titian biography. Same problems, similar solutions.) Amazon: $20.

Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, by T.J. Stiles

Serious books about serious historical figures are supposed to be written in a dry, just-the-facts, artless academic style, right? Wrong. As a semi-Missourian who came to love the state and its tortured history, I remember buying and reading Stiles’s great James biography just a few days after it was published. His use of narrative to bring the many threads of the James story together — the guerrilla-warfare that Missouri experienced during the Civil War, James’s role in it all, and his continuing banditry thereafter — made such an impression on me that I thought that if I ever got to write a book, that this was how I was going to do it. I tried. Amazon: $16.

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, by Linda Gordon

I just wanted to write a book this good. Gordon’s look at Lange is an epic of early-to-mid 20th-century American history in which an artist is a leading star. Gordon describes place and time with verve and intensity, details Lange’s movements and actions within those times, and the result is the best thing ever done on an artist who showed us the twentieth century that many Americans wanted to ignore. Another thing I learned from Gordon’s Lange: Approach my subject as an historian, not an art historian. Amazon: $15–25.

To learn more about Carleton Watkins: Making the West American — and to buy it — visit!