History Professor Reveals Intriguing Private Letters of a Discounted American President

Nellie_coverAs far as historical presidential power couples go, the Tafts aren’t likely among the first to come to mind, but based off of Lewis Gould’s edited collection of their personal correspondence during William Taft’s most trying years in office, perhaps they should be.

My Dearest Nellie: The Letters of William Howard Taft to Helen Herron Taft, 1909-1912″ consists of 113 letters that “not only reveal the inner workings of a presidency at decisive moments but also humanize a chief executive to whom history has been less than kind” says Gould, Eugene C. Barker Centennial Professor Emeritus in American History at The University of Texas at Austin.

Filled with his commentary on current political issues and rationale for his decisions as well as his growing distaste for Theodore Roosevelt, frustration with his weight and golf score, and even the hottest gossip from the nation’s capital, Taft’s collection of letters to his wife Nellie are rivaled only by those between Harry Truman and Bess.

Gould recently sat down with ShelfLife@Texas to talk about Taft, the value of letter writing, and the birth of the modern United States.

“My Dearest Nellie” is the most recent in a long list of books you have written or edited about the presidents of the first two decades of this 20th century. What draws you to this particular topic in American History?

I had teachers at both Brown and Yale in the 1950s and 1960s who explored the national politics of the Progressive Era in fascinating ways. Soon I was intrigued by, and then committed to understanding, the period when the modern United States was emerging. I came to it after studying state politics first in Wyoming and then in Texas, but even in writing those books I was interested in the interaction between public life on the national level with developments in the states. But turning to Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson felt like coming to a natural area of emphasis.

Watch Lewis Gould discuss his new book on C-SPAN Book TV.

Watch Lewis Gould discuss his new book on C-SPAN Book TV.

What is the value in reading the private letters of presidents past, and why do you think no one had really taken the time to look at those between President Taft and his wife Nellie before?

The cliché is that historians read other people’s mail for a living, and the quality of letter writing in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era was more impressive than in our own day. With email and Twitter, there is not the care and thoroughness with which people once conveyed their thoughts. President Taft wrote many of his letters in longhand. Others he dictated to a secretary at the end of a busy day. Either way, speaking to the one person he trusted above all others, he conveyed his problems, gripes, and accomplishments with a high degree of freedom. In the process, he revealed much about his relations with Congress, the press and the public. He was very direct and often indiscreet, and his letters turned out to be fascinating. Unlike Theodore Roosevelt, whose letters have been published in eight volumes, and Woodrow Wilson, whose papers have been published in almost seventy volumes, Taft’s letters are still available only on microfilm. This small volume of 113 letters is my attempt to redress the balance.

You say that although these letters will not warrant calling him a great President, they do reveal a more thoughtful occupant of the White House than scholars have acknowledged. Can you give us an example? Did anything you read surprise you, even as an expert of this historical period?

The extent to which Taft involved himself with legislation was a surprise. In the various battles of his administration over the tariff, for example, in 1909 and 1911, the President courted lawmakers, used leaks to the press, and wielded patronage to get his goals enacted. Things didn’t always work out as he planned, but it was not because he was aloof. Many people have argued that Taft was lazy. He procrastinated a good deal, but when he put his mind to it he could produce speeches, messages to Congress, and letters to other politicians with great efficiency. He was also well read — not the speed-reader that Roosevelt was, but a man who knew the classics and Western literature. How many recent presidents could toss off an allusion to a Latin poet in the course of a letter to their spouse?

What do you most hope readers will take away from “My Dearest Nellie?”

Taft was a very unpretentious and down-to-earth chief executive. The wife of a Texas congressman called him “the most perfect everyday gentleman” she had known among the presidents of her time. His letters are filled with human touches and an awareness of his own foibles. In the summer of 1912, when it was clear that the American people were not going to give him a second term, he wrote to Nellie: “I have held the office of President once, and that is more than most men have, so I am content to retire from it with a consciousness that I have done the best I could, and have accomplished a good deal in one way or another.” The rationalization of a losing candidate? Sure. But it also reflected a lack of bluster and arrogance that one rarely finds among modern politicians. Spending a decade reading Taft’s mail was a rewarding experience.

The idea for this book came to you while you were writing another book called “The Modern American Presidency.” Did any new ideas strike you while writing his one?

Right now I am resting from the work of editing the Taft letters for publication and writing a brief biography of Theodore Roosevelt that has just been published by the Oxford University Press.

Four Questions for Poet Mark Strand

StrandPrint versionOn January 26, 2012,  UT’s Michener Center for Writers will host a visit by one of America’s premier poets, Mark Strand.  In a career spanning six decades, Strand has been recognized with the highest honors the poetry world has to bestow:  he was U.S. Poet Laureate in 1990-91, served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and has won such distinguished awards as a MacArthur Fellowship, the Bollingen Prize, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Bobbit Prize, and in 2009, the Gold Medal in Poetry of the American Academy of Arts & Letters,  to name just a few.  His dozen volumes of verse include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Blizzard of One,” “Man and Camel,” “The Continuous Life,” and the forthcoming “Almost Invisible,” in addition to books of prose fiction and essays, translations, children’s books, and art monographs.

Born on Prince Edward Island in Canada in 1934, Strand began college in the 1950s studying painting—and the visual arts continue to be an important part of his creative life—but he soon turned to poetry, completing a Fulbright year abroad translating Italian poetry, then earning an MFA at the Iowa Workshop in 1962.  Over his long career he has taught at Harvard, Princeton, Iowa, and the University of Chicago and now divides his time between Spain and New York, where he is a professor in Columbia University’s School of the Arts writing program. From his home in Madrid, he answered questions about his work.

A past U.S. laureate, recognized with the poetry world’s top honors and scores of books to your credit, you have a curious track record of publicly giving up poetry—first back in the 1980s, when you took a years-long hiatus from publishing poems, and again last year, when you said in an interview that you had “nothing left to say,” and were turning again to the visual arts, your first calling.  Is this a kind of break-up/make-up cycle in a lifelong love affair with poetry, or something else?

It is true that I have given up the writing of poems several times. Once a book is written, I feel that I have said what I had to say. And it also seems that what I had written never measures up to what I had hoped to write. So I decide that it might be best for me to do something else. Lately, this “something else” has been the making of collages, something I have dabbled in in the past, but which now seems to have become a fixed daily activity, and one that I have no desire to relinquish. So, I don’t know if I’ll write more poems. It seems more likely that I shall write more prose pieces, that I’ll finish a memoir on my parents, and that I’ll write more essays about painting.

If you’ve written about childhood and family experiences in your poetry, how is it different to approach it in prose, with this memoir?

I don’t really care for the few autobiographical poems that I have written. One becomes a secretary to oneself. And the facts take on a disproportionate importance. I am less interested in my outward biography than I am in the other biography—the inner one, the move from poem to poem, thought to thought, etc.  The book about my parents—and I have written only the first draft, a mere 85 pages—is being written because their story is interesting and unusual. I may be the only poet in America whose father served four years as an inmate in San Quentin Penitentiary.

Even your earliest work was often concerned with absence and endings, almost from the viewpoint of a much older person surveying life’s losses. How does your 70-something self reflect on those poems now?

Those early poems only show that I have always been conscious of mortality.  I have always felt lucky to be alive and, at the same time, wondered when my luck would run out.

Though humility requires that you argue the point, the rest of us can agree that you, W.S. Merwin and the Arab poet Adonis are three strikingly handsome poets of the same generation, something that’s often been commented upon. Do you think the public’s perception of a writer’s physical appearance alters in ways—good or bad—their perception of the work?

I cannot say with any certainty that my looks have impacted positively or negatively the public consideration of my work. But if one takes the whole of his life into account, rather than just the writing life, I would say that it is better to be good-looking than not.

Mark Strand will read at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 26, 2012 in the ACE Building, Avaya Auditorium 2.302, located on the southeast corner of 24th and Speedway on campus.  The event is free and open to the campus and Austin community.  Parking is available in the nearby UT Garage at San Jacinto and 24th.

American Studies Professor Reads and Signs “A Mess of Greens” at Special BookPeople Event

1839856Foodies, scholars and bibliophiles will come together at a special BookPeople event featuring a reading and signing by Elizabeth Engelhardt, associate professor of American Studies and author of “A Mess of Greens: Southern Gender and Southern Food” (University of Georgia Press, 2011) at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20.

Special guests will include Carol Ann Sayle, of Boggy Creek Farm, and Stephanie McClenny, of Confituras. Enjoy special tastings inspired by the book along with Saint Arnold Brewing Company beverages.

About the book:
Combining the study of food culture with gender studies and using perspectives from historical, literary, environmental and American studies, Engelhardt examines what Southern women’s choices about food tell us about race, class, gender and social power.

Shaken by the legacies of Reconstruction and the turmoil of the Jim Crow era, different races and classes came together in the kitchen, often as servants and mistresses but also as people with shared tastes and traditions. Generally focused on elite whites or poor blacks, Southern foodways are often portrayed as stable and unchanging—even as an untroubled source of nostalgia.

“A Mess of Greens” offers a different perspective, taking into account industrialization, environmental degradation, and women’s increased role in the work force, all of which caused massive economic and social changes.

Engelhardt reveals a broad middle of Southerners that included poor whites, farm families, and middle and working-class African Americans, for whom the stakes of what counted as southern food were very high.

About the author:
Having grown up in western North Carolina and spent much of her life in the South, Engelhardt is dedicated to preserving Southern culinary heritage. Her other books include “Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket” (University of Texas Press, 2009), “Beyond Hill and Hollow: Original Readings in Appalachian Women’s Studies” (Ohio University Press, 2005), and “Tangled Roots of Feminism, Environmentalism, and Appalachian Literature” (Ohio University Press, 2003). She is the coordinator of the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Texas branch of the Southern Barbecue Trail Oral History Collection.

BookPeople is located at 603 N. Lamar Blvd. Visit the BookPeople website for more about the event.

Fore more about “A Mess of Greens,” read Engelhardt’s Q&A.

“Smart Thinking” book signing events in Austin and San Antonio

art“Science shows clearly that smart thinking is not an innate quality,” says Art Markman, psychology professor and director of the Human Dimensions of Organizations program at The University of Texas at Austin. He claims that the ability to think like the great innovators of our time is a skill that can actually be developed. “Each of the components of being smart is already part of your mental toolbox,” Markman says.

How, you ask?

Here’s the formula: “Smart Thinking” requires developing Smart Habits to acquire High Quality Knowledge, and to Apply Your Knowledge to achieve your goals.” In his upcoming book “Smart Thinking,” (Perigee Books, January 2012) Markman teaches readers how to do just that. He will be at book signing events in Austin at 7  p.m., Wed., Jan. 4 at BookPeople and in San Antonio at 5 p.m., Thurs., Jan 5 at The Twig Book Shop.

He recently sat down with ShelfLife@Texas to discuss the book and some of his most exciting findings.markman-art-SmartThinking

In the introduction to your book, Chief Learning Officer for Procter and Gamble Craig Wynett and Dr. Mehmet Oz praise you for developing a unique mix of “leading edge science” and “news you can use.” Why do you think so few books like yours are being published?

This kind of book is a tough one to get right.  There are a lot of great scientists who know the research on thinking, but few of them have spent time working with people outside of the research community that would provide experience to guide practical recommendations. In addition, most researchers focus on a narrow area of study. Books like this require drawing from across the discipline of psychology. There are also a number of books by people who have worked in business and executive education settings. These books provide recommendations for more effective thinking, but they are not rooted in the underlying science.  As a result, the recommendations are brittle. They work in some cases, but when they fail, it is not clear why.

You are adamant that “smart thinking” and intelligence are not the same thing. What is the difference?

There are lots of tests out there that aim to measure intelligence and aptitude. These tests often focus on abstract reasoning abilities. But, being smart is really about solving problems effectively in real situations. That kind of problem solving requires knowing a lot about the way the world works and having good strategies for applying that knowledge when you need it. Those abilities are just not tested by intelligence tests. As a result, we all know people who “test well” but are not successful in life, and others who are not “book smart” but always seem to find a way to do something interesting.

How and when did you start developing your ideas for “Smart Thinking” and what research did you draw upon to develop the “smart thinking” techniques?

I have always had an interest in how to bridge the gap between research and the application of that research in the world.  About seven years ago, I started working with companies to help them bring research into their businesses. For the past six years, I have worked with the people of Procter & Gamble.  They asked me to teach some classes to their employees to help them be more effective problem solvers. The information in this book emerged from those classes.

I had to synthesize research from many different areas.  One core component of this book draws from work on habits and habit change. You cannot be smart without developing good habits. The second core element comes from work on learning and knowledge. A key to smart thinking is understanding how things in the world function. There is a lot of important work exploring the difficulties of acquiring this functional knowledge and examining ways to improve this type of learning. Finally, many solutions to difficult problems arise as the result of analogies between a problem and a solution from another area of expertise. The book draws extensively on research on how analogies are formed and used.

You have a wonderful anecdote in the book in which you use these techniques to help your son figure out an answer to a tough question on his homework using his own existing knowledge. Have your children begun to embrace these smart thinking techniques? How do you try to incorporate your advice into your own life?

I certainly hope my kids have started to use some of these techniques for themselves, though I’m not qualified to write a book on parenting. I do try to use these techniques myself. I talk a lot in the book about ways to redescribe problems to improve your ability to find good analogies. I spend a lot of time using those techniques in my work as a scientist.  In addition, I have used a number of the suggestions for developing and changing habits for aspects of my life including learning to play the saxophone as an adult and changing the way I eat.

In “Smart Thinking,” you emphasize the fact that “smart habits enable us to perform desirable behaviors automatically.” What do you mean by this and why is it important that we perform our daily tasks without much thought?

It is hard to have to think about your behavior all the time. Most of the time, when you are thinking about your behavior it is because there is one thing you would like to do, but you have to fight against your habits to do it, which is exhausting. It is much more effective to structure your world in a consistent way so that the things you want to do happen automatically. After all, who wants to think about the route they take home from work, where to find the trash can in the office or how to flick on the light switch in the kitchen?  The more things you can compile away as habits, the more you can focus on what interests you.

Throughout the book you have written little interjections called Instantly Smarter, which are tips that readers can begin employing immediately. What are some of your favorites?

I like the tips on remembering names, because so many of us have difficulty with names. We have trouble with names because they are completely disconnected from every other aspect about a person. We want to learn facts that are connected to the person rather than independent ones. So, our difficulty with names reflects something important about the psychology of memory. There are two other sets of Instantly Smarter tips I really like:  One focuses on the importance of sleep in being smart.  The other examines ways to help you pay attention when you feel like you’re losing it in a meeting or class.

What is one habit of smart thinkers that you think will most surprise readers?

Most people think that smart thinkers think differently than they do. That message was even brought out explicitly in Apple’s great ad campaign “Think Different.” In fact, even the smartest thinkers are using the same procedures that everyone has. Where they differ is in the range of things they know about and in their ability to find descriptions of problems that enable them to use the knowledge they have when they need it.

What is the primary piece of advice you hope readers take away from “Smart Thinking”?

The main piece of advice is that you can become smarter.  A musician improves her skills through dedicated practice and an understanding of music theory. Likewise, by understanding the way you use knowledge to solve problems, you can develop smarter habits to learn more about the way the world works and to describe problems effectively.