You know that feeling when a big, juicy package addressed to you greets you after a full day at work?
That tingling of anticipation to see what the person has to say after toiling in the vineyards for weeks and months and years?
I had that in spades this evening.
That’s because, after a lovely bike ride home, I found childhood friend Steve Kantrowitz’s More Than Freedom: Fighting for Black Citizenship in a White Republic, 1829-1889, sitting in an envelope on the dining room table.
I’m confident the work is headed for serious acclaim.
Eric Foner, one of the deans of American history, has already given it a very strong, if not glowing, review in The Nation. One of the highest marks of praise was Foner’s favorable comparison of Steve’s work with that of Bancroft and Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Hahn’s book a decade written earlier.
Speaking of Hahn, he’s one of two Bancroft winners whose endorsement appears on the back cover of Steve’s book. (Aaron Douglas’ evocative Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery to Reconstruction graces the front).
You’ve heard it first here.
I’m optimistic that Steve’s book will get strong consideration for this kind of recognition.
As thrilling as that is, that’s not the only reason I’m excited about Steve’s work.
Any book is a tremendous accomplishment, and this one, which casts its gaze to the North with an insistence that the American story can only be fully understood by looking at pre- and post-Civil War, has the potential to expand our collective understanding of where we’ve come from ever so slightly.
Beyond that, it also represents Steve’s emerging into the kind of thinker and historian we always knew he could become.
That’s saying a lot.
After all, we first met 35 years ago.
We were both in All Town Band – he played trombone, while I tooted away on the clarinet and bassoon – and we both participated in Sixth Sense, a townwide literary magazine.
Then in his science fiction phase, Steve wrote with a depth and sophistication that far exceeded my own or that of anyone else in the anthology.
Even then, it was apparent the boy had chops.
When we were applying to college, our senior English teacher Margaret Metzger gave Steve one of the strongest recommendations ever in her more than 30 years of teaching.
“If you don’t take him, I don’t know what you expect American public education to produce,” she wrote, in essence, in her closing to Steve’s early application letter to Yale.
He got in.
Steve spent about a year after college teaching in the Bay Area, but somehow you always knew he was headed for academia.
He did just that, winning a Mellon Fellowship to study at Princeton.
While there, he wrote his dissertation about Pitchfork Ben Tillman, the cantankerous and rabble-rousing South Carolinian governor and senator who both expressed and played a key role in shaping what Steve called the reconstruction of white supremacy.
Five years later, after snagging one of the best available history professorships that year, a post in Madison, Wisconsin, he published that work through the University of North Carolina press.
It was a creative book, and one could feel, particularly in the initial chapters, Steve going through the required tasks of demonstrating that he had read and understood what had been written by others before him before he started to spread his own intellectual wings.
This newest work has no such intellectual hoops for him to jump through. Instead, it’s a launch right into the guts of his subject – a look at black Boston and, among other things, the interactions between white abolitionists and black Bostonians, some, but not all of whom, were former slaves.
On a profound level, Steve is looking into the question of what happens when you win a major victory in a freedom struggle.
Steve’s plugged away at this work for at least a decade, laboring through a Bunting year at Radcliffe, the decline and death of his younger brother Jeff, falling in love with his eventual wife Pernille, and becoming a father to her boy Elliot and their child Sophie.
There was a period after several of our friends had gotten married when Steve and I would call each other and say, with half-joking anxiety, “We’re behind!”
Over time, we’ve learned even more than we knew before that each of us in on our own path.
We also have, through our choices of wives who had children, jumped ahead of those whom we felt we had trailed.
With this book, Steve has arrived at a different level of intellectual maturity, judgment and potential influence.
One of the greatest treats in life for me is knowing family and friends over time, watching the journeys of our lives unfold, and making the connections between what happened so many years ago and where we have now taken ourselves.
The timing of Steve’s book coming together, and its publication more generally, could not be more auspicious.
Shortly after holding it lovingly and starting to read the first few pages. I watched the Democratic National Convention with Dunreith.
John Lewis, the fearless warrior for justice, talked about the Freedom Rides he took part in in 1961, the year Barack Obama was born.
Now in his 70s, Lewis said that we are a different country now than we were then, and pointed to Obama’s election in 2008 as evidence of that change.
Yet, as the president and several other speakers noted throughout the evening, the work of full citizenship is not yet done – especially when one holds up the standard and vision that members of Boston’s black community held of a citizenship of the heart, not just the law.
It is true that the work is not, and may not ever, be done.
But it is also true, that through his diligence, research, and bold, synthesizing analysis and interpretation, Steve has pointed us toward a different understanding of the national citizenship project that can inform how we see the present moment and the future ahead.