An interview with Eberhard L. Faber, author of Building the Land of Dreams: New Orleans and the Transformation of Early America
What inspired you to become a historian?
It took a long time for me to become a professional historian; I was a touring musician for almost fifteen years before going back to school to study history. But I was always fascinated by history. As a kid I remember reading William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. During my music years I remember reading Robert Caro’s The Power Broker in the back of the tour bus. History is simply a way of looking at the world and trying to understand it. I’ve always looked at the world this way.
As far as how I got interested in New Orleans and the South, it happened early in grad school at Princeton; I wrote a research paper for Linda Colley about the short-lived British colony in West Florida formed in 1763, and all the sources that I read pointed to New Orleans as a crucial strategic point in that era. The next year I wrote a paper for John Murrin about the South in the War of 1812, culminating with the Battle of New Orleans. The year after that I moved down to New Orleans for what was to have been a year of research; we got hooked and live here still.
What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing Building the Land of Dreams?
Well, so many things. But perhaps it would be the biographies of the many people who moved to New Orleans in the months following the Louisiana Purchase, from the northern United States but also from across the Atlantic: England, Ireland, and France especially. In the book I call them the “generation of 1804” because they arrived right after the Louisiana Purchase. They were a varied cohort, and they fought amongst each other a lot, but I found their energy, ambition and idealism very appealing. One common characteristic was that they were all sincere believers in the world-changing possibilities of republican rule. They thought this radical experiment that the United States had only recently embarked upon was going to rewrite everything about human history. In New Orleans they ran into a conservative creole planter class that believed in none of those things, and they had a rude awakening of sorts. It’s a fascinating encounter.
What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?
I think it has been a very common assumption that the United States imposed certain changes on Louisiana after 1803. That the course New Orleans and its wider region took, in the early nineteenth century, was an outcome of the policies of Thomas Jefferson and other American statesmen. What Building the Land of Dreams shows is that there were already very powerful entrenched interests in the area and that they, not the United States, ultimately had the power to dictate outcomes. What Jefferson and Madison could do was actually very limited; while the creole elite, on the other hand, initially threatened by republicanism, figured out that it actually gave them tremendous power to design the regimes – of law, of slavery, and race – that they had long wanted under colonial rule.
What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about what you do?
Well, as far as my work in particular, I don’t think enough people know it for any major misunderstandings to have developed. As for the profession, I think there is a very wide gap between what the general public thinks of as “history” and what historians do in colleges and universities. If you go into a book store, many of the history books will be about military history (and at least half of those will be about the Civil War) and of the rest, a good portion will have Presidents on the cover. This leads many people to believe history is mostly about battles and Presidents, whereas in fact the field is so much bigger than that. The fact that it’s not understood is the fault of the field, of course. We need to do a better job of reaching the public and engaging their interest in historical issues.
What is your next project?
I have two. One is a biography of the lawyer, legal reformer, and politician Edward Livingston, who was Mayor of New York and then fled from a scandal in 1803 to New Orleans. He ended up deeply entangled in New Orleans politics and power struggles and plays a major role in Building the Land of Dreams. I read almost all his personal papers in the course of writing the book and would love to focus on him exclusively for my next project.
The other one is totally different: a history of the music industry in the United States since the invention of the gramophone in the 1890s, with an emphasis on the parallel history of the rise of American capitalism.
What would you have been if not a historian?
Well, that’s easy, since I was a musician (guitar player, songwriter, bandleader, arranger, record producer) for fifteen years before turning to history. I still play actively, too, within the limits imposed by writing and teaching. If the question is what would I have been if I was neither a musician nor a historian – well, my original hope was to be a professional baseball player, but at 5’ 5” that was never entirely realistic.
What are you reading right now?
I’m currently reading Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams. It covers some of the same historical ground as my book – even including the word Dreams in the title! – but from a very different attitude and perspective. I find it alternately infuriating and revelatory. Either way it’s certain to become an important part of the discussion on the antebellum South. Other wonderful books I’ve read lately include Sarah Carr’s brilliant exposé on the New Orleans public school system since Katrina, Hope Against Hope; Robert Gordon’s classic history of Stax Records, Respect Yourself; and Greg Iles’ epic Southern mystery novel Natchez Burning.
What was the most influential book you’ve read?
I always come back to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, an allegorical novel about Europe before the Great War. Although it’s fiction, it contains great intellectual history, and combines themes that are essentially historical with deep exploration of human psychology. The same is true of War and Peace, which also had a profound effect on me: a meditation on the meaning of history and the sources of historical change, inextricably intertwined with such “interior” issues as the nature of human suffering and the attempt to find meaning in the universe. All historians should read these books. They remind us of the spiritual dimension behind the often dry academic debates that tend to cloud the field.
Meanwhile, in the realm of historical scholarship, I could mention so many – Henry Adams, Schlesinger, Hofstadter, Genovese, Gordon Wood, Rhys Isaac, William Cronon, Alan Taylor, my mentors Linda Colley and Sean Wilentz – but the one book that truly did influence me more deeply and permanently than any other was Richard White’s The Middle Ground. I don’t even think I’m very much like White as a historian, temperamentally and aesthetically; he’s a burrower, while I’m a wanderer; he eschews drama completely, while I am simply incapable of living without it. But the method, the dedication, the integrity, the matching of evidence to ideas, the rigor of the concepts, the sense of change over time, in that book, all of that is just so beautiful to me, and it remains a very distant and unreachable benchmark of sorts.
Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to finish your book? Where do you write?
I like to write in libraries. I really love a nice library: the sensation that you are being enveloped in quiet and ideas and books, and that your work is going to merge into this enormous sea of scholarship that surrounds you. I wrote most of the first draft of Building the Land of Dreams on the C Floor of Princeton’s Firestone Library, 3 floors below ground level, in a tiny carrel. I wrote most of the revised version at the Community Coffee shop at the corner of Jefferson Ave. and Magazine St. in New Orleans (which is appropriate, because developing Thomas Jefferson’s part in the story was one of the biggest changes in the second draft).
As far as method and process, I think research and preparation is really 80% of the task, the actual writing is the final 20%. I spent lots of time on research; I read Edward Livingston’s papers in their entirety (140-some boxes worth), I read the New Orleans Conseil de Ville records in their entirety from 1803 to 1819, I have read pretty much every piece of secondary literature on early Louisiana ever written. It all goes into a big database (although, life being what it is, there’s always lots of stuff that never makes it into the database, too). By the time I actually start writing I have a very good idea of what I am going to say, including exact phrasing in many cases. The phrases have been building up in my head during showers and long drives for the months prior to writing them down. When I actually get going I write fast, and I write a lot. I have to trim a lot, too, eventually. The final version of Building the Land of Dreams is probably about equal in size to the pile of stuff that got left out and discarded along the way.
The whole project took almost seven years from beginning to end – three of which were spent working on the project pretty much full time, and four of which were spent balancing the writing and research with teaching.
Why did you write this book?
I think I wrote the book because I had the very good fortune to have the institutional backing of Princeton University and Loyola University New Orleans; because I have a wonderfully supportive family; because I have a terrific network of colleagues and peers including a handful of close friends in my grad student cohort, my mentors at Princeton and in New Orleans, and the brother/sisterhood of Louisiana historians; in short because I am a very fortunate person in many ways. Good work doesn’t just spring from the genius of the author, but from very particular social circumstances in which the author is embedded. When I switched from a music career to an academic one, I knew I still wanted to be a creative person. I was lucky to find a great topic I could throw myself into and a great network of supporters to help me towards the finish. And lastly, in the final phase of turning this from a “project” into an actual book, I have also benefited greatly from the support and advice of Brigitta van Rheinberg, Quinn Fusting, and everyone else at Princeton University Press.
How did you come up with the title or jacket?
Building the Land of Dreams – well, the phrase “Land of Dreams” comes from two places. One is William Blake’s poem, from the Pickering Manuscript, written around the time of the Louisiana Purchase. Blake never traveled to New Orleans, but the poem suggests the expanded mental universe of possibilities in the midst of the Age of Revolutions – and those world-changing possibilities were very much a part of the mental landscape of early 19th century New Orleans in the years after 1803. The second source, of course, is Spencer Williams’ “Basin Street Blues,” made famous by Louis Armstrong’s 1926 recording, which led to the “Land of Dreams” becoming one of the Crescent City’s many nicknames – and which, in the line about the banks of the Mississippi being “the place where dark and light folks meet,” also speaks to the central place of race in the city’s history and in my understanding of it.
The book’s jacket is a painting by John Boqueta de Woiserie, A View of New Orleans Taken from the Plantation of Marigny. It was painted in 1803, in celebration of the Louisiana Purchase and the American takeover, and it shows an eagle hovering over New Orleans, with a banner in its beak that reads “Under my wings/everything prospers.” It shows the enormous optimism with which some people, at least, greeted the prospect of American rule; the linked faith in personal liberty and material prosperity; and an unironic faith in the American promise that seems, in this cynical era, all too naïve. The book is the story of the various ways that promise was both betrayed and fulfilled.