Alexis Coe is a New York-based historian specializing in presidency, women, and political history. She’s also the author of Alice+Freda Forever, a historical narrative published in 2014 chronicling the previously little-known murder of Freda Ward, and of a forthcoming biography of George Washington titled You Never Forget Your First. Alexis is nothing if not dedicated to making sure story is told accurately, deeply, and often. She even spent three months in a redwood forest living a feminist Walden followed by a week reenacting the Gold Rush migration on a wagon ride from Nevada to California and writing about both.
Girls At Library: What was the name of the first book you fell in love with, that turned you into a lifelong reader?
Alexis Coe: Matilda. I read it early, repeatedly, obsessively. I spent the first 18 years of my life probably looking for my Miss Honey.
AC: I know, this is going to be a sad way to open. I think, like many quiet girls who grew up in unhappy homes, I was bookish early on. So, Matilda was important to me. I loved the Ramona series. I loved the Babysitter’s Club, Little Women, and others. But, I did also, for better or worse, spend a lot of time at the library alone and around the third grade, I read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Surely because we had the same name. That’s definitely how that happened, but it lead to some very confusing next steps, including, I believe that I also read Contract With America, which is a Republican text.
GAL: [laughs] Quite the combination!
AC: Yeah, those were my formative texts, Matilda and Contract with America.
GAL: Why do you read?
AC: I’m constantly trying to understand something, whether it’s the past or it’s the world around me or myself. Books hold some kind of answer, whether it’s their explicit purpose or not. It’s usually not a definitive answer, but it’s gonna get me on the road there.
GAL: What led you to become a historian?
AC: I was actually an English major in college. I kept approaching papers and study through context. I kept wanting to know about the history of, for example, Irish literature and what was going on politically. So, I was in an honors college, in which you did a lot of tutorial work and professors kept encouraging me to take history classes because it was just clearly my approach. I started taking history classes and I entered thinking that I was more interested in Irish literature and this was all to support that. Then, very quickly, I fell madly in love with American history. It moved me and felt substantial, but related to literature and everything else that I felt moved by. I just kept pursuing it. I also had several great male professors, actually, who really encouraged me. I was just good at history and literature in college and in general academia. I’ve never really worked in a real office. So, I don’t even know what life would be like otherwise. I’m endlessly fascinated by stories of offices and how they function, but for me it’s always been about the texts and about primary sources. I didn’t really know that any of these things existed. I grew up in L.A. We don’t have these things, so even finding out that special collections existed in my college library was mind-blowing to me. Then, I moved to New York and I just kept pursuing this. I actually left academia between my masters and my PhD for the New York Public Library. That was because I was just sort of becoming a little sad about the reach of the scholarship even from the most prolific and popular historians I knew. At the time I was living in Brooklyn Heights, across the street from the Brooklyn Historical Society. I walked over and said, “Do you have any use for me?” and that was it.
GAL: That’s so lovely.
AC: Yeah, it happened really naturally. I get a ton of emails from aspiring historians and I have one of those trajectories that when you look at it makes perfect sense. But, of course, at the time it didn’t at all and I was just making the best decision that I could at the time with the information that I had. I tried to go towards things that felt difficult and ambitious, but didn’t necessarily feel like work. They just felt like a part of my being the way college did.
GAL: I have to ask you this, since you’re a historian: if you were forced to live inside a period of American history, which one would you choose and why?
AC: If I were a white man, this would be such a fun question to answer. When I’m studying a time period in American history, I think, “I’m so glad I wasn’t alive during this era.” I don’t think women or people of color think that way, but I know that white male historians think about it all the time. They talk to each other about it. Symposiums, without a doubt, everyone ends up talking about this at a bar. You know, I do have a time period, it’s fairly recent, November 4th, 2008, the night Obama was elected. I’m gonna go with that.
GAL: Who’s your favorite author?
AC: Let me divide this. I do read fiction. People think I maybe don’t, but I do. My favorite fiction authors are definitely Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Edna O’Brien, and Maile Meloy. I just finished and was in conversation with Jennifer Egan about Manhattan Beach. I loved it. For a novel, it’s pretty historically accurate. But, my favorite historians…so, okay, my favorite non-fiction writers who are not historians are probably Sarah Manguso and Joan Didion. Then, my favorite historians are Gordon Wood, Eric Foner, Catherine Clinton, Tara Hunter, Drew Gilpin Faust, Kevin Kruse, and Robert Caro.
GAL: Who’s the most overrated male fiction author you can think of off the top of your head?
AC: Philip Roth.
GAL: What’s next on your reading list?
AC: Next on my reading list is a bunch of books probably that no one wants to hear about.
GAL: We do! For work or pleasure?
AC: It’s completely for work. I’m reading Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency which is a biography of George Washington. The next one up is The Washingtons by Flora Fraser. And then, I can tell you that eventually the book that I want to read for fiction, should I ever get the chance, I think I’ve got the 60th hold or the 100th hold or something on Men We Reaped, but I’m also pretty excited about any book by Jesmyn Ward.
GAL: Which library do you frequent?
AC: I go to the Brooklyn Public Library, the central library because it’s closest to my home. I live in Park Slope, but pretty much almost Prospect Heights.
GAL: Do you possess any secrets about the New York Public Library?
AC: I think the greatest secret is that, at least where I worked, which is in Bryant Park in the central library is that it’s not circulating library. So, it has treasures and secrets. My job there was as the Research Curator in the exhibitions department. My days were spent going to special collections for a year at a time and simply amassing information that I carried around and put in spreadsheets. The second year of each project would be spent curating an exhibition, but also connecting writers and artists and different people with these materials to help us in some way. Often, they would write essays about it. So, in my mind, when anyone mentions, for example, Virginia Woolf, I don’t think necessarily of her novels, but I think about her walking stick which is in the Berg Collection and I think about the time that I paired that in an exhibition case with the final page of her last diary.
GAL: Treasures indeed.
AC: I think the secrets that I have are just these wonderful material possessions and primary sources. Then, I think the biggest secret is just, again, that they have phenomenal collections. They have one of the largest collections of artist books in the US, but I don’t think anyone’s going to go there looking for Matisse’s Jazz and that’s unfortunate.
GAL: How long did it take you to write Alice and Freda Forever?
AC: Alice and Freda took me…
GAL: Took you forever?
AC: [laughs] It’s a difficult question. I found the story in college. At the time I was focused on political history and citizenship and would not have taken on a story about a same sex love murder because I wanted to be taken seriously as the historian. You’re never going to get tenure if you do something like that. So, I sort of put it in the back of my mind. I started working at the NYPL. I didn’t fancy myself a writer of books. I fancied myself a writer of exhibition guides and texts and labels, but not of books. But yet, all my friends who worked in publishing or who had such aspirations weren’t interested in it. It just didn’t appeal to them and so I very quietly, for about three or four years, would just do research on it in all my free time when I was curator at the NYPL. I read 19th century newspapers and that’s when I started to realize that none of the accounts agreed with each other, even though there were all published the same day, because it was during yellow journalism. I started to plot out these connections and so all this happened over time. By the time I actually signed up to write the book, I had been quietly doing this for four or five years, so the book itself took about eight months to write the first draft.
GAL: Do you have a very strict routine when you’re working on your books since you don’t go to an outside office?
AC: I try to. On occasion I go to The Wing or if you have a book deal, you do get office space at the NYPL, or the Brooklyn Historical Society. But, I tend to like home. I like home because I get up very early.
GAL: When you read for pleasure, is there a place in your home where you love to read? Or an accessory you love to have with you, such as a warm blanket or a pet or a cup of tea?
AC: If I’m reading fiction, well two things. I like to read fiction and books in general, but this works better with fiction most often because I can’t always take notes. I like to read fiction either on the couch or on the bed with Rosie, my dog, on my stomach. Not that I have a choice, she would insist on this anyway. That’s also how I plan to retire. I also love to read and walk. I know it’s awful. It’s dangerous. I do it only in spaces where I cannot be run over. But, it’s the best. I live a quarter of a block from Prospect Park, and so I do that whenever the weather permits and I love it.
GAL: Is it important for you to physically hold the book that you’re reading or can you read on a device?
AC: I hate reading on a device. I much prefer books. Not only because I feel like I commune with them and they’re important to me as objects. I don’t mean that to sound precious. I just mean it as a fact. They’re my most prized possessions. Books are the things I’m most materialistic about. But also, I amputate. I tear these books apart and so it maybe would be easier if I learned how to master a device. I’m sure it would be easy to find different parts of the book, but I start out at least with a physical book. Sometimes when I’m writing or I need to check a quote or something like that I’ll work with a digital copy. If I’m reviewing a book, I like a digital copy in addition to a hard copy.
GAL: Are you a re-reader?
AC: I don’t reread the entire book, but I tend to open up to a passage or poetry is lovely to pick up and it will open right to the part that you want it to.
GAL: Do you have any favorite poets?
AC: Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, Yeats. I definitely read a lot of poetry, but those poets have meant a lot to me over the last ten, fifteen years. I have a good deal of their poetry memorized. So, I’m like the crazy person muttering to herself as she walks her dog. I memorized a ton of Bishop when I was…I lived for three months a feminist Walden for a magazine called Pacific Standard. It was just me sort of contemplating changing California and the history of boom and bust culture but also getting over a breakup. It was just me and Rosie and Elizabeth Bishop on a creek for three months with no…the closest market was ten miles away by car.
GAL: How did you feel after that was done?
AC: I felt more confident and independent than I have ever felt because I had to quickly acquire real skills like how to build a fire in order to stay warm when you live in a redwood forest. Or, how to live in a place where you don’t necessarily see your neighbors, but once in a while you hear them or you run into them and they skew heavily towards middle aged men.
GAL: Did you thrive in such conditions?
AC: The first morning I woke up, I was so cold and I was covered by seven blankets and had Rosie, my dog. I could not figure out how to build a successful fire, and YouTube couldn’t stream. "I didn't have a strong internet connection. So, I could barely check email. It took me two days to figure out how to build that fire.
GAL: So, we have a friend who has a sanity shelf, which is dedicated to books she returns to again and again to reread for pleasure, knowledge and solace. What books would be on your sanity shelf?
AC: I think it would have the aforementioned childhood favorites, poetry, probably something by or on Eleanor Roosevelt, and Eric Foner’s books on reconstruction. For some reason, both of those people just remind me of pursuing an examined life in this way. Also, the Constitution.
GAL: That’s wonderful. It should be by everybody’s bedside and on their sanity shelf, especially here and now.
AC: Yeah, I reviewed a book on Madison for the New Yorker recently and he is, of course, the father of the constitution. I think it’s so interesting to read his notes on it, but I think it’s good to remind yourself when read the document, that it was written against the backdrop of crisis and therefore it can sustain a country in trouble and arguably has.
GAL: How do you choose the books that you read for pleasure?
AC: Well, for work and for pleasure, I get sent a lot of advanced reading copies. Publishing houses send me their catalogs, which I try to read but, of course, easily get overwhelmed. I do tend to trust anything from Graywolf, Knopf, and Viking, my own imprint. My research dictates that I read certain texts, but I also love, and I’m lucky enough to know, a lot of reviewers and trusted sources online. So, I look to friends like Lisa Lucas and Maris Kreizman, and a lot of other lady historians to tell me what to read.
GAL: If you were to write your memoir, what would you title it and why?
AC: It Makes Sense in Retrospect. I think that’s the Alexis Coe story.
GAL: Would you recite some Elizabeth Bishop for us off the top of your head?
AC: I just want to preface it by saying that the interesting thing about the poem that I'll recite, because I feel like this will be good for your younger readers, is that I first memorized this poem One Art in college because it was one of my favorite professor’s favorite poems. I think that she was offering extra credit if we learned it. So, it was very much a brown-nosing move. Then, when I got to the cabin and I was living that feminist Walden I described earlier, it came to me on a walk with Rosie and the lines resonated completely differently. I thought it was kind of precious before. The refrain made me cringe at first and then it was altogether changed for me. The line that I think about is “lose something every day, accept the fluster of lost door keys, that hour badly spent. The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” I hope these add up correctly. I think the next stanza is “Then practice losing farther, losing faster, places and names and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster.”
GAL: Thank you. I wish I was recording this for ears to hear. As you change as a person, the book or passage or piece changes, too. When people say they never reread a book or never reread passages, that’s a loss for them and they should. Or perhaps they possess perfect memory and don’t need to.
AC: A loss for them completely and I think it’s a wonderful road to self-discovery.
GAL: Which three books would you recommend for the GAL reader who wants to learn or delve into American history if they haven’t studied it for some time?
A Life in Secrets
(WWII lady spy ringmaster leads a resistance and, in the aftermath, tirelessly searches for answers, and tries to live with what she finds out.)
(A maligned First Lady gets her due.)
To 'Joy My Freedom
(A staggering look at how newly freed black women built theirs lives in an American South that responded with crushing segregation and inequality.)
(A troubling, beautiful biography.)