Sunday, May 16, 2010

7 Questions: Philip R. Abbott

Having a wife, daughter and son-in-law as writers, not to mention your own writing, do you find yourself constantly reading rough drafts?

I read a lot of Patti's work, but not really as a critical voice. Mostly I am there to encourage her although if something jumps out at me, I do mention it. My preference in stories are for ones that are somewhat ambiguous so my most common contribution to her work is to say maybe you don't need that last line or two. I read a lot of fiction but don't write it myself so I wouldn't feel comfortable saying much more than that. She complains that I am not critical enough but I know when to get out of the way.

We both read Megan's final first draft and sometimes the final version. Early on in her career, she sent us more versions of her work, but now she turns to her agent or husband for that job. What we see is a pretty polished version.

Although Patti has read early versions of Josh Gaylord's novels (and several earlier unpublished novels) I have not. I would feel even less comfortable weighing in on his work.

Can you tell us a little about your own work?

I am a political theorist. Most of my most recent books concern the American presidency. I am currently working on a book on bad presidents--what constitutes a bad president. I also did one on accidental presidents--those who took office due to an assassination or death. Another dealt with Franklin Roosevelt and his use of earlier presidents as exemplars. I've done several textbooks and books on subjects such as American inventions, the American family, and some traditional political theory.

I also write on utopianism and just finished an article on whether utopians should have perfect bodies to be published shortly in FUTURES.

I got my Ph.D at Rutgers and teach at Wayne State University in Detroit-although I spent a year teaching in England and a semester in Amsterdam.

Who was the worst US president?

Buchanan appears as the very worst in almost all presidential rankings. But to me the more interesting questions is why was Buchanan so bad. The dominant view emphasizes his indecisiveness--Buchnanan was immobilized by the threat of succession. A more intriguing view, one suggested by Lincoln himself in his House Divided address, is that he had a plan that almost worked, the nationalization of slavery. From this perspective Buchanan was still bad but more like Richard III than Richard II.

What would you consider the most defining moment in our country's history and why?

Most scholars would identify the following as defining moments in U.S. history and I would agree: 1787: The Second Founding and the Constitution; 1800: the election of Jefferson; 1860: the beginning of the Civil War, the election on Lincoln and the Southern secession; 1932: the Great Depression, the election of Roosevelt and the programs put into place during his first two terms to deal with it; 1963, the assassination of Kennedy.

What has changed good and bad in academia since you received your Ph.D?

Research is more interdisciplinary than it was a generation ago. Scholars see the world in broader terms. Professors are more creative in designing courses and research projects that cross disciplines.

The Internet and email have changed things. It is much easier to prepare manuscripts for publication than it was. It used to take years before a book or article appeared.

Teachers are able communicate more easily with students. Everything happens faster. Methods of teaching changes daily with online courses and power point. (This has a downside, too, of course. Online courses certainly don't offer the intense and intimate experience a class of 15 does).

On the negative side, there is more plagiarism. Texting and cellphones in the classroom are a real distraction for everyone.

There are fewer jobs for professors. Salaries have declined with the new economy. There is more pressure than ever to publish.

New Ph.Ds going onto the job market are now expected to have delivered conference papers, had articles published.

College resources go toward technology rather than classroom buildings, teachers, scholarly travel.

How did you meet Patti?

I grew up in a resort town--New Hope, PA--where Washington crossed the Delaware and the site of a summer theater, restaurants, shops. My father owned a small luncheonette and newstand there so I came back every summer from college (American University in D.C.) to work. Patti, just graduated from high school, had a summer job there in a restaurant around the corner. We met one day when I was sweeping the front sidewalk and she was looking for her roommate. The same night we ran into each other again. Oddly enough, we'd both been there the summer before (in a town of 800 people) but never met.

If you could have dinner with any three people, living or dead, who would you choose?

I always thought six made a good number at dinner: Shakespeare, Euripides, Jefferson, Freud, Janet Malcolm.


Paul D. Brazill said...

Smashing interview. What a talented family!

David Barber said...

Another interesting interview David and as Paul said, a richly talented family. Great job!

Chris said...

What those guys said. Great interview. I'd happily pour the water and wine at that dinner party!

Anonymous said...

I would have so many questions for Jefferson.


Jodi MacArthur said...

How neat to be surrounded by writers. I think this interview intriguing. I find what Philip said about Buchanan interesting,"Buchnanan was immobilized by the threat of succession" Indecisiveness and leadership are not a happy couple.

Great interview!

David Cranmer said...

I'm glad everyone is continuing to enjoy these mini-interviews and agree the Abbotts are one talented family.

Dean, I've always been interested in Jefferson and my visit to Monticello was a highlight of many such visits to Founding Fathers' homes.

Jodi, I read a bio on Buchanan a few years back and his presidency is fascinating to read.

Oscar said...

I assume you took the photo. David; nice background! I am surprised Mr. Abbot didn't put WW II and the Marshall Plan as defining moments in US history. Enjoyed the interview.

David Cranmer said...

I didn't take the photo but am sure Patti or Phil will mention the locale when they stop by. I agreed with all the defining moments except the Kennedy assassination. I would probably place the moon landing or Watergate ahead of it.

Laurie Powers said...

Fascinating interview. I'm especially interested in his studies on the presidents. Might like to read his books, so maybe he could post the titles here. (Or I can look them up via author name). I agree with you on the events that were most influential, especially seeing the Great Depression and FDR's presidency listed as one. I wouldn't see Kennedy's assasination as one, though; 9/11 would be my choice.

Scott Parker said...

Love the interview and the history material. As to the election of 1800, not only did Jefferson take office, Adams voluntarily left it. First of its kind. I'd throw the moon landing in there for all of humankind. And I'll toss in 9/11. It'll likely be to this century was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was to the 20th C.

Cloudia said...

Aloha from Spring Time in Waikiki!

Comfort Spiral

pattinase (abbott) said...

The photo was at the famous tulip gardens (Kukenhoff?) outside Amsterdam. Thanks for the interviews!

David Cranmer said...

Laurie, I've heard the case made that if Kenndy hadn't died we would have gotten out of Vietnam sooner (maybe) and Johnson, Nixon, and Watergate wouldn't have happened. But that's certainly a lot of what ifs? I’m looking forward to Mr. Abbott’s book as well.

Scott, Has the Archduke Ferdinand ref been made with 9-11 before? I don't necessarily agree with that analogy but its certainly food for thought.

Cloudia, Are you from Hawaii?

Patti, It's insightful interviewing someone on the other side of the writer for a change. Thanks again to you and Phil.

Chris said...

You can hang a lot of what ifs around the shenanigans of the 2000 election as well.

Anonymous said...

Yes to dinner with Janet Malcolm. I would be intimidated and would just sit and learn from this unparallel talent.


Scott Parker said...

The assassination of Ferdinand set off all the major events of the 20th C. Back in 2000, when they were asking who was the Person of the Century using the definition of "who most influenced the 20th C," my choice was Gavrilo Princip. You could argue that, without him, the 20th C. might've turned out differently. He set off a chain of events that directly led to WWI, WWII, the Cold War, and, eventually, 9/11.

With 9/11, it has likely set off a decades-long struggle between the West and Muslim countries. I hesitate to call it a "war" but it'll certainly be a struggle with skirmishes throughout. Unlike actual wars or even the Cold War, victory will be nebulous and hard to pin down.

As to the 2000 Election, there were probably shenanigans but there were likely more in the election of 1876. Talk about a back-room deal. The 2000 contest likely won't have long-term ramifications and, to be honest, it seems ancient history now.

David Cranmer said...

Chris, interesting to think about for sure. We would have gone to Afghanistan but not Iraq. If Gore had done eight years, there would be a fairly good chance Obama wouldn't be president now.

Joan, I would be quiet myself. I would have to talk to Jefferson (and probably come off looking like a fool) but with the rest I'd be sitting like a babe sucking my thumb.

Scott, You mention the election of 1876 and another I would submit would be Harding's unusual rise to the presidency in 1921.

Your thoughts on Gavrilo Princip had me scanning the web for the past hour. A subject and time that in fascinating to study.

Chris said...

I guess the big "what ifs" related to 2000 are those that say 9/11 wouldn't have happened either, which dovetails to no Afghanistan, no Iraq, and, like David said, probably no Obama -- at least not yet.

But "what ifs" don't make defining moments.

Clare2e said...

I'm one of those who'd be cowed by that company, too, but I'd keep pouring to make sure they all had a lively conversation for me to learn from!

David Cranmer said...

Chris, Our generation will certainly be talking about 2000 for many blue moons to come.

Clare, Thank god you would be there. Please ask Shakespeare which plays he wrote. A simple thing really but we can at least clear that up.

Todd Mason said...

Indeed, the Kennedy hit wuoldn't make my list, but I wasn't present for it...personal history and impact will tell..

Interesting and telling i/v, David. Thanks.

David Cranmer said...

Todd, Glad you enjoyed it. I easily could have asked Mr. Abbott another fifty questions and not scratch the surface of what he has to offer.