Doris Kearns Goodwin tricked me into reading the work of a historian. I didn’t necessarily have anything against reading history, but there are so many books out there that I usually insisted on the need to concentrate on fiction. There’s an enormous canon of classic literature that I’ve still barely touched, and the procession of hot new works that Must Be Read never stops. Who has time to read something that, frankly, was probably basically covered in school. Not even college, but school! Like 4th grade. But then Goodwin, with a Pulitzer on her shelf and acclaimed nonfiction tomes about such pivotal figures as LBJ, JFK, and FDR (all the triple initial bigs, basically), published a book about baseball.
The first Goodwin book I purchased and read was Wait Till Next Year, her memoir about growing up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, including a piercing focus on the heartbreak when the team moved west. As with my deep background commitment to comic books — which meant lovingly tracing the history of Marvel Comics to at least as far back as Fantastic Four #1, published approximately a decade before my birth — I felt my baseball fandom came with an obligation to study all that came before. Part of what distinguishes baseball from the other sports, after all, is the resonance of the eras that have come before, a need to know names like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron as assuredly as those players populating the most updated rosters. It is a sport in love with its own lore, and I deferred to that enduring affection. In writing about the Brooklyn Dodgers and their defection, Goodwin was covering what I understood to be one of the more heartrending occurrences in the high-sky arc of the game’s past (of, let’s be plain, its history). It was irresistible.
So years later, when Goodwin was basking in accolades following the publication of Team of Rivals, the familiarity I had with her writing gave me the fortitude that may have otherwise been lacking when considering the task of reading a book about Abraham Lincoln that numbered nearly one thousand pages. Daunting as it may have been (and I must admit the door had also been cracked by my reading of Robert Caro’s great,weighty Master of the Senate, just one entry of his epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, a few years earlier), I knew Goodwin’s prose would be approachable and sensibly modern. There would be no mustiness, no urge to blow dust of the pages. In considering why Lincoln has served as such a common subject for histories, Goodwin quoted Ida Tarbell’s assessment of the storied president as companionable. The same can be said of Goodwin’s writing. Smooth and assured, it’s always easy to spend time with it.
Another strength of Goodwin came to mind often as I read her most recent ranch house-sized book: she has a smart historian’s gift for illustrating the useful parallels to our current times that can be found in the past, doing so without pushiness or other self-congratulatory signals of intent. There’s plenty that can be found in that latest work, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, that can be accurately viewed as a firm but gentle condemnation of the history-repeating mistakes of our current times, most notably the damaging acquiescence of a major political party to the most extreme, reactionary divisions within their ranks. Echoing that first Goodwin book I read, there’s also a defeated appreciation of a better past, in this instance a time when journalists took their task as the gatekeepers of society seriously and society changed for the better because of their efforts.
We read history to make sure we don’t damage the future by repeating mistakes. That’s a cliche. Goodwin is the first historian — though not the last — to make me see the truth in it.