Renowned history and politics expert Douglas Brinkley talks conservationism at UCSC.
If you ever find yourself feeling cocky about all your achievements and accolades, contemplate Douglas Brinkley’s life for a while. Among the Rice University history professor’s accomplishments: He’s CBS News’ history commentator; he was selected as Rosa Parks’ official biographer; he’s Jack Kerouac’s authorized biographer; he’s the literary executor for Hunter S. Thompson; he’s written several articles for Rolling Stone, including profiles on Ken Kesey, Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut as well as a cover story on Bob Dylan; he’s a contributing editor to Vanity Fair; his books include 1992’s Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt Naval History Prize-winning “Driven Patriot,” 1999’s “The Unfinished Presidency” (believed by many to be largely responsible for Jimmy Carter’s winning of the Nobel Peace prize) and 2006’s Robert F. Kennedy Book Award winner “The Great Deluge”; he’s a member of the Council on Foreign Relations; he was invited to the White House twice to discuss history with the president … and the list goes on.
On Saturday, January 29, Brinkley presents his lecture “Change: Mobilizing the Historical Narrative” at UCSC.Here’s what attendees can expect from his visit:
Good Times: Tell me about the talk you’ll be giving here in Santa Cruz.
Douglas Brinkley: Well, I’m going to be talking about my Wilderness Cycle. I’m writing the whole history of the U.S. conservation movement, and the newest installment is called “The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960.” The book begins with John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, leaving San Francisco by steamer, headed up to Alaska’s Inside Passage in 1879. Of course, he always wrote a lot about Yosemite, where you’re watching how glacial processes work, but in Alaska, Muir got to see the real glaciers. And he went by canoe and hiking all over what is today Glacier Bay National Park area and would do what they called wilderness journalism. He went back and became the first eco-tourist for Alaska, ’cause he came back to the Bay Area and said, “Go to Alaska. Everybody must go. This is God’s wilderness kingdom.” And my book covers [everything] from Muir to the saving of ANWR, the Arctic Refuge, in 1960 by Dwight Eisenhower: this crusade of environmentalists, and how they worked nonstop to try to preserve the natural integrity of the Alaskan landscapes against the extraction industries. In Alaska, it’s always been about people rushing in to extract from the land: first the gold rushes, then silver, and copper was big, and coal, and now, of course, it’s oil. And usually mercantile interests, big development interests, hold sway in the United States, but the sheer magnitude and beauty of Alaska inspired a lot of the artists to dedicate their lives to protecting the wilderness there.
GT: Can you explain what you mean by “mobilizing the historical narrative”?
DB: Well, all I’m trying to do is keep moving the narrative forward, because I’m trying to do a multiple-volume history of conservation. We live our lives chronologically, so you can’t really understand what occurs in any era if you don’t know what happened before. Nobody’s done a kind of narrative of all of these [people whom] I consider heroes of wilderness preservation in America. Just as we always in history remember great sports figures, movie stars or presidents, we also need to start honoring these early conservation environmentalists who made America so special—particularly where Santa Cruz is located, because it’s these land trusts and nonprofits like the Sierra Club that have kept up the vigilance of saving all those great spots in California for posterity.
GT: You’re known for your political and historical writing, but you’ve also done pieces on people in the arts like Kurt Vonnegut, Ken Kesey and Bob Dylan. Do you feel this is an extension of your historical and political work?
DB: Well, what’s so exciting for me about “The Quiet World” is that I’m bringing both sides of myself together: I’m able to do profiles in the book of Gary Snider, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Rachel Carson, yet I’m also doing U.S. government political history with Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes or Secretary of Interior Fred Seaton, or dealing with FDR as president or Eisenhower in the White House. So I’m morphing all of it together, which I think gives the reader a clearer idea of how all these places got saved, because it’s the art community and the spirits from John Muir forward—it’s really been the ones who have been the drumbeat of almost a religious rhapsody about protecting species in the wild.
Douglas Brinkley speaks at 7 p.m. Saturday, January 29 at Humanities Lecture Hall, UCSC (1156 High St., Santa Cruz). For more information, go to whatsnextlectures.com.
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