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America, Empire of Liberty

Friday 10 July 2009, 14:43

David Reynolds David Reynolds

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Editor's note: Radio 4's 90-part history series America, Empire of Liberty, ends today at 1545. Writer and presenter Professor David Reynolds reflects on the experience.

"I hear you're doing some programmes about US history. How many?"
"Ninety", I would say, a little sheepishly.
Pause. Frown. "Nineteen?"
"No. Nine Zero".
Longer pause. Then we chat about the weather.

That sort of exchange occurred many times while writing America, Empire of Liberty. So much so that I stopped talking to friends and colleagues about the project. It was, indeed, a marathon. Listened to continuously (if you could bear to do so), it amounts to nearly a day of radio - twenty-two and a half hours.

But I never had any doubt that this was a wonderful opportunity to share my own accumulated experience of teaching American history. Ideally I'd have liked another year for research and writing, particularly when doing a book of the series as well, but scholars always want more time. Anyway I couldn't disagree that a presidential election year was the ideal moment to 'do' American history - and that was before Obama came on the scene.

Having written and presented some history films for television, I enjoyed the different discipline of radio. Very austere: no images, just words. Or, more exactly, I had to find the words to trigger the listener's imagination. That was the greatest challenge and the most fun. Hours spent in the University Library or on the internet (amazing how much historical source material is now available in electronic form) looking for the quotations and the stories that would bring my big themes to life.

The acid test was whether I could see the event in my mind's eye. Even better, if it made me smile, like Abigail Adams in 1776 enjoining husband John to 'remember the ladies' when writing America's Declaration of Independence (episode 17). Or if it brought tears to my eyes: President Lincoln's Christmas letter of condolence during the Civil War to young Fanny McCullough about her soldier father (episode 36). Discovering that was a moment I shan't forget.

Other pleasures? The steady flow of e-mails from listeners from Britain and, thanks to the website, from many parts of the world (America, Africa and India). Messages from people who'd arranged their tea breaks in order to tune in at 3.45. And from listeners who offered their own interesting takes on subjects as diverse as the Indians and the personal computer. Best of all, from many who said they'd hated history at school or had given it up at O-level/GCSE but had really enjoyed the series. Winning the Voice of the Listener and Viewer Award for the Best New Radio Programme of 2008 and receiving a Sony Radio Academy Award Nomination were the icing on the cake.

Regrets? Much, of course, had to be left out, even in ninety programmes. Economic history is hard to convey in popular form. Stories of tycoons such as Andrew Carnegie or labour unrest such as the Pullman Strike work well on radio; statistics usually got squeezed out. Fortunately, I was able to get some of that deeper background into the book.

Also thanks. To some wonderful BBC professionals, particularly editors Maria Balinska and Sue Ellis and producer, Rosamund Jones. To Mark Damazer, Controller of Radio 4, for his commitment to history on the air. And to the much-criticised Beeb: what other broadcasting institution in the world would be crazy enough to commission a project of this magnitude?

As a teacher, I believe that history is too important to be left in an academic ghetto: it should be part of the public culture of a civilized society. The invitation to offer a very long view of Obama's America and where it has come from was a great chance to practise what I preach.

David Reynolds is Professor of International History and a Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge

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