National Humanities Medal
“Kids are very bright. I’m not going to write down. If anything, I’ll have them read up to me.” With that, Albert Marrin, who at last count has published some three dozen nonfiction books for young readers, sums up the essence of his writing style, one that has gained admirers not only from his intended audience, but also among school librarians, booksellers, and parents. Marrin’s “excellent eye . . . for arrangement and selection of material,” as Deborah Stevenson, editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books put it, brings “freshness to well-trodden literary ground.” Old Hickory: Andrew Jackson and the American People, for which Marrin received the James Madison Book Award in 2005, is a case in point, a work telling the story of Jackson in relation to his times in such a way that young and old alike find it a compelling read.
“I’m interested in different kinds of leadership—accountable leadership—accounting to some overarching moral principal,” says Marrin. In that same vein are an armful of other biographies, including George Washington and the Founding of a Nation, Commander in Chief: Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and The Great Adventure: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of Modern America. He has also revitalized interest in several subjects that have been lying dormant among young readers for a generation or more: exploration and discovery, pirates, the Civil War, and cowboys and Indians. His biography of Sitting Bull garnered the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for nonfiction, and he also has penned biographies of Napoleon, Stalin, and Hitler.
Once Marrin had become a tenured professor of history with a number of scholarly titles to his credit, he realized he missed telling history stories, as he had often done in some rather rough classroom settings when he had been a social studies teacher in South Bronx secondary schools. He started writing for young readers in the late seventies, when he started work on Overlord: D‑Day and the Invasion of Europe, which was published in 1982. When he began writing books and getting fan letters from kids, he says, “I saw they were interested in what I had to say.”
The storyteller part of him was largely the result of listening to his father recall his difficult youth in Russia. Conscripted as a boy soldier into the Red Army during the Russian Revolution, the elder Marrin would recount his experiences to young Albert. Having survived harsh times in the old country and then experiencing hard times in the U.S. during the Depression, he impressed upon Albert “how chancy things are.”
A carpenter, his father built him a bookcase, in response to Albert’s early interest in reading. “My father understood what America was about,” says Marrin. In fact, the promise of America was later realized by the son, the only member of his family to attend college. At Columbia University, while working on his Ph.D. in British history, the concept of liberty under law became the lodestar for his academic work, and later guided him in writing many of his historical books. His mentor at Columbia was noted historian R. K. Webb. “My dad gave me the curiosity. Professor Webb helped me find out about myself,” remembers Marrin.
Able to weave personal perspective and historical material, his work is peppered with fascinating details, as seen in his magisterial Empires Lost and Won: The Spanish Heritage in the Southwest. In describing the Pueblo Indians, he explains that their name, “Anasazi,” means “the ancients,” and that they arrived in the Southwest three thousand years ago or more and hunted mastodons and bison “twice the size of their modern descendants.” About the Mexican War, a “small” affair, he points out 11,300 American lives were lost, 1,500 as a result of enemy action, while the rest died of disease. And he evokes the strong pull of Texas fever on men in frontier towns who dropped everything and headed for the promised land: “Streams teemed with fish and bullfrogs big as a man’s head. Along the river bottoms lay rich black soil and stands of fine timber. The soil grew pumpkins that only a strong man could lift and sweet potatoes large enough to serve an entire family.”
Introspection and thoughtful consideration of sometimes unpleasant or controversial subjects have marked much of his writing career. His close encounter with a rat when he was a kid playing at a construction site led to his highly acclaimed book for younger readers, Oh, Rats!, which, he says, was his way of “doing a case of self-analysis” and treating his rat phobia. Marrin the historian still finds plenty to gnaw on while writing science, relating, for example, in Oh, Rats! how President Kennedy once clobbered a furry unwelcome guest at the White House with a shoe. The antiwar sentiment, campus agitation, and general turmoil he saw at Columbia University in the sixties and seventies led to publication in 1992 of the very well-regarded history for young adults America and Vietnam: The Elephant and the Tiger.
“I research as if I was researching for the adult general reader,” he says. The professor emeritus, who retired as head of the history department at Yeshiva University in 2001, wishes at times that he had the power of somehow creating and distributing a kind of, what he calls, collective mass forgetfulness. “Sure, history can be a tool for understanding,” he says, “but it can also be used as a weapon. Historical memory fosters grudges. History continues to draw blood.”
By Steve Moyer