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Holding Court: James Wright

photo of James WrightHolding Court is an interview series that features the authors of the new books on display in the King Arthur Flour café in Baker-Berry Library.

In this week's edition, we speak with James Wright, President Emeritus and Eleazar Wheelock Professor of History at Dartmouth College.  Wright's book, Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2017), recounts the experiences of the young Americans who fought in Vietnam and of families who grieved those who did not return. An important addition to the literature on the Vietnam War, Wright interviewed well over one hundred people for the book and traveled to Vietnam, producing a military history that focuses on the human experience of combat at a pivotal moment in the war, 1969.

What is your book about?

This book is about the human face of the Vietnam War, the on-the-ground experience of those who served there. It focuses on the Baby Boomers. They grew up in the Fifties and many served in Vietnam in the Sixties.

Where do you get your ideas?

I lived through the era, serving in the Marines before the war, spending the war years on college campuses, including arriving at Dartmouth in the dramatic year 1969-70. It has been a haunting part of my life ever since. And after I wrote Those Who Have Borne the Battle (2012), an overview of all of America's wars and those who served, I knew that I had to try to tell the story of those who served in Vietnam.

What does research look like for you? What element of research could you not live without?

With the remarkable digital revolution, the nature and the tools of research have changed markedly since I published my first book in 1966. But the basic principles are the same: research widely and thoroughly, seek to know and to understand your subject fully before you start imposing your presumptions on what happened and what it means. The facts and then informed judgment--and a good narrative structure, good story-telling skills, are the basis for professional history.

I have found the online access to research sources indispensable. And I could not work without Baker Library. It has sustained me through several books, from the Circulation and Inter-Library Loan professionals, to Government Documents and Periodicals and Rauner Library.  Thanks.

What do you think the library of the future will look like?

It will be a repository of knowledge and of information, digital and tangible print, and it will be the home of library professionals who can engage with and advise and assist those who seek to access this knowledge and this information.

What advice would you give to an aspiring scholar or writer?

Read widely and read critically and enjoy navigating an intellectual path that no one has ever followed before. And remember Daniel Patrick Moynihan's warning: Everyone is entitled to their own opinion; they are not entitled to their own facts. Your intellectual path will take you down some trails that you had never anticipated. Enjoy the discovery.

And finally, what do you read for fun?

It is hard to stay away from history--I am just setting out to read Ron Chernow's biography of Ulysses Grant. I am reading a book by my former student, Jake Tapper, The Hellfire Club, and my wife Susan and I thoroughly enjoy the mysteries of Louise Penny.


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