Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Q & A: Donald S. Frazier

Donald Frazier is a professional historian and head of the Grady McWhiney Research Foundation. He has authored or edited Cottonclads!: The Battle of Galveston and the Defense of the Texas Coast, Blood & Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest, and Love and War: The Civil War Letters and Medicinal Book of Augustus V. Ball, and he is currently at work on the third of a four volume history of the Civil War in Texas and Louisiana (which he informally refers to as his "Louisiana Quadrille"). The first two books, Fire in the Cane Field: The Federal Invasion of Louisiana and Texas, January 1861-January 1863 and Thunder Across the Swamp: The Fight for the Lower Mississippi, February-May 1863 have been well received here and elsewhere.  This series and the publishing arms of the GMRF are the subject of the following interview.

CWBA: Thanks for joining me.  As the President and CEO of the Grady McWhiney Research Foundation, are you involved in the day to day operations of State House Press/McWhiney Foundation Press?

DF: I am. Heavily involved. I’ve done everything from raise funds to design books. I certainly supervise the work-flow.

As far as the nuts-and-bolts of State House Press, our publishing process follows a typical academic press pattern. Submitted manuscripts are reviewed by a rotating editorial review board (currently Ty Cashion, Sam Houston State University; Charles Grear, Prairie View A&M; Stephen L. Hardin, McMurry University; and Anne Bailey, retired from Georgia College and State University; and Robert Sledge, retired from McMurry University). This august body reviews the submissions, winnows out the fiction, poetry, and other genres we don’t publish, then evaluates the rest for suitability given our market reach and areas of emphasis and expertise. Some of the criteria they use is marketability, commercial viability, scholarly importance, natural markets, author involvement, and shelf life. The manuscripts that we believe to be best suited for our list are then sent out to readers in appropriate fields to get them to render an opinion on the suitability of the offering along with any remarks they might have about revisions or even rejection.

The good news is we have a double blind review process. The better news is we can render an opinion fairly rapidly and are unencumbered by academic fads. Just like the old days, we let the marketplace influence what we sell. There are plenty of university presses out there to publish esoteric studies of limited interest to the general reading public.

One of the biggest projects to come along is a book by former Genesis front man and recording star Phil Collins. Turns out he is a huge Alamo fan. Here is a link to a video about that project.

I also teach at a small liberal arts college, McMurry University, and have been involved is spinning up a new program, The Texas Semester. Here is that website.

Tons of stuff to do in the history business; I haven’t even mentioned the various museums I am involved with.

Back to State House. I have been accused of running a vanity press by some of my more hidebound academic colleagues since I publish with State House Press. I don’t mind—these sorts are usually unburdened by creativity. The simple response is, “if State House Press isn’t good enough for me, then why should I ask YOU to publish with us?” I like to think of this as leading from the front. The more complex answer is, “why should I let some academic press get the proceeds from my scholarly efforts? Why shouldn’t I plow them back into our own non-profit publishing house so we have funds to publish other scholars’ works which may not get picked up by more academic presses?”

We are part of the Texas A&M University Press Consortium. We get all the good of this academic press association, but don’t have to suffer a lot of the bureaucratic and academic nonsense that comes with it.

In the end, our books will either sell to interested readers, or they won’t. We are not subsidized by the state or any other entity. We are free enterprise. When I publish with State House, I am taking the same risk I am asking my other authors to take. We live by donations and books sales—not by being a line on a government budget.

CWBA: The publication of Jeff Patrick’s excellent Wilson’s Creek study marked a long period between Civil War Campaigns and Commanders series releases. Are there plans to increase the output of this series during the Sesquicentennial?

DF: Our Campaigns and Commanders Series has had a mixed history. For every big seller like Jeff Patrick’s, there are a half dozen languid sellers. For instance, I think Shea’s book on Pea Ridge and Prairie Grove is one of our best, but sales are sluggish. Our book on Hood at Atlanta, Sherman’s March, Raphael Semmes, and the Battle of Mobile are all well written and stirring tales. Yet, we can’t move them like I would like. At the same time, we are competing with the Park Service series (my tax dollars at work) and presses at state-subsidized universities and they are much better funded. At the end of the day, then, we have to publish books that we think have a chance at actually selling somewhere before we will take the risk. For instance, we have no titles for sale at the Gettysburg Visitors Center even though we have titles that would be appropriate.

That said, we also have not had recent submissions to the series. We had one on Sumter that went back to the author for revision and that was never heard from again. I also had the promise of a submission on Gettysburg, but it also vaporized. So, there really isn’t much to offer at this point. It’s a shame. I like our series of approachable history books.

On the other hand, we are publishing the edited diary of an officer aboard a steamboat contracted to the Confederates on the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. We also have a promising manuscript on prostitution in the Civil War.

CWBA: In addition to Patrick's, I also really like Richard Lowe's 1863 Texas Overland Expedition contribution to the series. Getting to your “Louisiana Quadrille", if I recall correctly (and please correct me if I am wrong), the project began as a two-volume history of the Sibley Brigade. Can you describe how the series evolved and how you integrated your more specialized original concept into a broader study of the war in Texas and Louisiana?

DF: Actually, in graduate school at TCU, I set out to do a one volume muster in-to-muster out history of Sibley’s/Green’s brigade. However, some of my fellow McWhiney Seminar colleagues challenged me to think differently about these campaigns and operational history in general. They wanted to know WHY these guys were joining, heading to New Mexico, heading to Louisiana, and fighting at Galveston. Not just in a troop movement sort of way, either, but in a broader sense like where it all fit in the context of that time and place. Why did these guys go? Why New Mexico? Why Louisiana?

In hunting these answers, the material grew and expanded and different sorts of theses emerged. In the end, I wanted to write a book that answered these lager questions, and at the same time did right by the men who suffered through this conflict in these exotic fields. In order to get their story told—and the larger story told—I had to break it up. Blood and Treasure was the first offering, followed by the Louisiana Quadrille.

CWBA: Charles Grear recently addressed similar concerns with Why Texas Fought in the Civil War (TAMU, 2010).  The scope of the Quadrille series volumes increased substantially between Fire in the Cane Field and Thunder in the Swamps – the former a relatively brief overview of a two-year stretch of time and the latter a massive, minutely detailed microhistory dealing with a much shorter period of a few months. From a reader’s perspective, the delay in the release of Volume 2 in order to deliver a definitive level treatment of the 1863 Bayou Teche Campaign was certainly worth the wait. How did that change come about?

DF: Sources and scope determined the lengths. Fire in the Cane Field was a shorter book about a longer time because there were fewer players and the movements were more easily handled in broader strokes. The fights were fairly straight-forward, and brief. The sources less concentrated as well.

In Thunder Across the Swamp, there is a lot of operational history to talk about, and tons more sources to support it. In addition, I needed to put the rather complicated campaign into the context of the Mississippi Valley Campaign—from both Northern and Southern angles. The book is probably 150 pages longer that it might have been otherwise because of all the maps and the images. As long as I was doing a book on the topic, I wanted it to be comprehensive in terms of all the visuals that I could put together for it.

CWBA: Did your expansive transformation of Vol. 2 affect your plans for 3 and 4? Will the content of the final two volumes remain the same?

DF: No idea. The war in Louisiana gets remarkably complicated in 1863, and not only will I be dealing with smash-mouth operational history, but also with the evolving policies surrounding the raising and deployment of Black troops. Then, there is a bloody and ugly guerilla war as a constant undercurrent. There are a lot of moving parts to consider, and watching Louisiana bleed out in the summer and fall of 1863 is heartbreaking.

The sources will dictate how extensive a bunch of this gets covered. I will constantly have to fight the urge to follow rabbit trails that I might find interesting but that don’t necessarily advance the thesis.

One thing is for sure: I like plowing new ground, but grubbing stumps is hard!

CWBA: No serious full length 1864 Red River Campaign battle histories exist, and, among the large number of campaign summaries that have been written, none really represent a significant upgrade in depth and breadth to Ludwell Johnson’s classic study [although Gary Joiner has done excellent work on the naval and hydro-geography of the campaign]. How do you plan to address the campaign in your series?

DF: Well, I think the reason that is the case is because during the centennial, folks wanted to write about big splashy campaigns with lots of drums and bugles. However, all of the armies that fought up and down Red River had a past—as I am discovering, a pretty interesting and extensive past. I will probably be one of the few people on earth who will have followed many of these stories for the entire length of the war, and I suspect that nuance will suggest plenty new to say. When you throw the states of Texas and Louisiana in almost as characters in the story, it makes for a richer story, I believe. It certainly delivers a great deal of context. Readers who hang with me through all four volumes will leave, I hope, with a deeper understanding of the subtleties, undercurrents, and rawness of the nation’s great tragedy.

I am a huge Gary Joiner fan. I think his understanding of the hydrography of the Red River Valley is revolutionizing how we look at this part of the world and its role in the Civil War. I rely on his path breaking work a lot.

CWBA: You create the maps for your own books, as well as lending your services to other authors. How did you get into cartography?

DF: I needed maps in graduate school. I played Avalon Hill war games as a kid, and learned early on that in many ways geography was destiny. It is the canvas upon which the history is painted. When I needed maps, I discovered that it was easier for me to become a graphic artist that it was for me to train a graphic artist in the arcane ways of the historian. I’ve subsequently created more than 2000 maps for scores of publishers on a huge variety of subjects--everything from the extent of prairies in North America at the time of European contact to present-day firefights in eastern Afghanistan. It has made me something of a historical polymath because I learn a whole lot about a great number of things.

CWBA: Thunder Across the Swamp has almost 60 maps, an extraordinary amount given the increasing neglect of even minimal levels of cartography in Civil War publishing. Have you found drawing your own maps essential to getting the number and quality of maps you need? Do you have a philosophy of mapmaking and the relationship of cartography to military history?

DF: Maps are vital to military history. If I had published with anyone other than State House Press, I would have been limited to far too few. I would have charged a customer between $5,000-$6,000 for that extensive of a map program. However, I consider my cartography to be part of my scholarship. I guarantee that having to rebuild the land forms and human geography that influenced the history I am writing is as difficult a chore as any part of the research process. In addition, I have discovered that the ability and capacity to do geographical research oftentimes changes, or certainly influences, the writing of the historical narrative.

CWBA: In your opinion, what are some important aspects of the Civil War in Louisiana and Texas (military history or otherwise) that remained neglected by the literature?

DF: Well, one thing I would love to see someone work on is the toll the war took on civilians and non-combatants. I would love a good old fashioned number crunch analysis on property damage, lives lost due to famine, brigandry, and exposure as a result of the war. In Louisiana, I am especially intrigued by the numbers of Africa-American dead as a result of the bewildering consequences effects of emancipation, conscription, and freedom. Freed slaves suffered.

There are also some political tones that I wish I could hear more clearly, but I will never voluntarily get dragged into an extensive study of Louisiana politics. I’d rather learn how to make my own Boudin Sausage than that.

On the Texas side of the Sabine, I have been intrigued by the political and economic “middle course” the Lone Star State seems to steer. I bet if we look hard, we will discover many a Texan growing happy and comfortable by trading with US agents. I’ll have to brag on a former student—Chuck Grear. He was sitting in my office at McMurry when we got to talking about WHY Texans fought in the Civil War. He went on to make that into a well respected book. So, in answer to your question, I am always happy to pass along research ideas to fellow travelers.

CWBA: Thanks for participating in this interview, Don. When might we see Vol. 3?

DF: Here’s hoping for 2013. There are a lot of great characters and stories to develop.

In addition, I am considering a new approach in this volume, Blood on the Bayou. The sources for the next two volumes are probably only 20% different that those used in Fire and Thunder. I wonder if, instead of grinding feverishly on the footnotes, I instead lightened up on the footnotes and had source essays for each chapter. In many ways I think that a good cogent essay about where the sources are, and their context, might be more useful to future scholars than the more mechanical source-and-page format I do now. Clearly I want to note direct quotes, but I find myself typing “ibid” a lot. That seems kinda goofy to me. In addition, footnotes get chewed up when the books go digital for Kindles and iPads. What advice would you or your readers have for me?

One thing is for sure: I need to get it done. I should get a year-long sabbatical in 2013-2014. I’ll need every day of it to do right by the Red River Campaign in the last of the Louisiana Quadrille.

I may have developed a bad habit of taking on very ambitious projects.

CWBA:  Well, I do think a really well done scholarly bibliographical essay can be a fascinating and immensely useful feature of a book, but I would have a rough time with giving up the traditional citation method entirely.  This is very rarely encountered, but I always like it when authors employ both -- notes and a source essay at the end -- but that doesn't help you simplify things!

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