I am teaching our department’s historical methods course this semester. One of the questions that I asked the students was why they chose to study history. Answers ranged from “I chose it by default” to “I’ve always loved reading and writing, so history was a natural fit.” I shared with them my reason for majoring in history, which boiled down, like one of the students, to choosing a major that allowed me to read and write. (At one point, I was a double major in history and English; history won out because of a professor who is now my colleague.)
After class that afternoon, I began thinking about books or stories in my childhood that might have influenced my interest in history. The major influence was probably Biblical history. I attended a fundamentalist Baptist church and fundamentalist Baptist-affiliated church-schools throughout my childhood. Biblical stories and lessons about the history of the Bible permeated my childhood years and probably still affect my view of the past in ways that I don’t realize. For example, I still remember the overhead transparencies that my dad used in his lesson on the city of Petra one late Sunday afternoon.
A second and related influence that came to mind was a book in Paul Hutchens’ Sugar Creek Gang series. The Tree House Mystery dealt with Jim Crow racism and the Klan. It has stood out to me over the years because no one in my life talked about race. Except for periodic racist jokes that I can recall adults making, African Americans might as well not have existed in my young world. (Looking back, race was present in other books that I read as well. For example, one of my favorite books, which I read multiple times, was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.)
Historical biography was also prevalent in my reading. For example, I read most of the books in the Garrard History Series. After thirty years, give or take, I don’t recall how well they were written or how accurate the history was, but they made frequent appearances on my reading list. I also read collective biographies, such as books on the history of the Los Angeles Lakers (Bill Libby’s We Love You Lakers) and the Harlem Globetrotters (George Vecsey’s Harlem Globetrotters, I think).
Given my interest in political history, I’m surprised that I didn’t read a lot of political history. Aside from books in the Garrard series, the only explicit political work that I remember reading was the transcript of the Iran-Contra hearings. (Insert nerd jokes here.) Surprisingly, the 1980s G.I. Joe comic book series clued me in to the social and political turbulence surrounding the Vietnam conflict in the 1960s and 1970s in ways that nothing else did.
As for historical sites, our school field trips and church outings often took place at Red Clay State Historic Park, the southeastern Cherokee’s last capital in the antebellum period. We also spent a lot of time at the Civil War battlefield at Chickamauga and Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga.
Looking back, my background is probably not the normal path taken by my colleagues, but I guess it’s not too strange that I found my way into the historical profession. At the very least, my example shows that one doesn’t have to have everything planned out in high school to wind up in a career that one loves.