Publication Date

April 14, 2022

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Career Paths, Professional Life

Just as there is no one career path for historians, there is no one retirement at the end of a historian’s career. Perspectives invited six historians to share their own tales of retirement. From new research to travel, personal health issues to spousal deaths, these writers discuss their lives after retirement. While the job has ended, for most, the historian’s work isn’t done.

Two orange-brown adirondack chairs sit on a wooden deck facing a lake, green trees and grass cover the opposite shore. The sky is blue and partly cloudy. There is a brown and green lake house and mountains in the distance.

Some might expect a slower life during retirement, but these six historians haven’t rested on their laurels. Evan Williams,

In Retirement, but “I Don’t Feel Noways Tired”

Eight years into my retirement, I have learned that, at least for me, retirement is a process and a state of mind, not a fixed status. After 30 years of teaching courses on Russian and European history and world civilizations at Howard University, followed by 13 years at Boston University teaching others on modern revolutions, the history of racial thought, and Blacks in modern Europe, the specific activities I had thought I was retiring to pursue remain elusive.

Allison, in a suit and yellow and blue tie, and Shirley Blakely, in a black dress and cream shawl, at the 2018 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities.

Allison and Shirley Blakely at the 2018 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. Courtesy National Endowment for the Humanities

Allison and Shirley Blakely at the 2018 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. Courtesy National Endowment for the Humanities

The pandemic impeded my short bucket list of must-visit places, but the alluring features of their past glories had already been sullied anyway by the impact of environmental crises and political and cultural turmoil. What has most caused my failure to advance my retirement plans is the second lesson I have learned about my relationship to the concept of retirement: old habits die hard, and I have never become good at saying no to worthy projects. That played a role in my accepting this essay assignment—that, and constant reminders from my 94-year-old mother-in-law, Maudie, that it is healthy for the aging to keep the mind and body as active as possible. This leads me to repeatedly break my resolution to once and for all stop living under deadlines set by others. I have kept a lower profile sufficiently well to have an admirer of my work politely confess that he had thought I was deceased, but I still rarely experience a period without at least one manuscript review, conference paper, or guest lecture deadline. I also continue to serve on the National Council on the Humanities, to which I was appointed by President Obama in 2011, keeping me connected to the teaching, research, and writing in the academic world. The virtual parallel reality fostered by COVID has made these activities even more feasible. So another lesson learned for me is that assumptions made about freedom in retirement are often illusory.

In retirement, I hoped to turn to projects that I hadn’t had time for during my teaching career, both personal and academic. I wanted to write various types of songs and strengthen my rudimentary skills on the guitar and piano. I also wanted to try my hand at writing children’s stories. As a college teacher, I’ve long desired to reach students earlier in their lives, when they may be more receptive to the multicultural messages I have to offer. I have also regretted seemingly always being the bearer of bad news, never having history to teach or stories to tell in my courses that have happy endings. The current resurgence of evidence that the American Civil War has never really been settled is just one reminder of this. What might I achieve with stories on an elementary level that accentuate the positive and highlight human potential for shaping a better world? Another pet project I have envisioned for decades is to translate into English poems of Alexander Pushkin that treat cultural diversity. The single most revered figure in Russian cultural history, Pushkin was of Black African ancestry through his maternal great-grandfather Abram Hannibal, who rose from enslavement to Peter the Great to mathematician and major general as an engineer in the Russian army. Current developments in Russia have reminded me that Abram’s son Ivan Hannibal, a general and admiral, founded the city of Kherson during the expansion of Russia under Catherine the Great, which, as I write, is a fiercely contested city in Vladimir Putin’s current attempt at Russian expansion. As if these projects were not enough, an unanticipated Berlin Prize fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin for the spring of 2021 prompted me to resume work on an interpretive history of the Black diaspora in modern Europe that I have started and put aside numerous times over the past two decades.

One unwelcome development I did not plan on during retirement is waning health—in my case, pinched nerves in the lower back that decrease leg performance, as well as replacement of both hips in 2018. I had neglected to think about aging issues because, although some related symptoms had emerged during my last decade of teaching, my body has been very resilient throughout my life, notwithstanding minor leg and head injuries in Vietnam at the onset of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Meanwhile, the pandemic has raised my awareness of public health in general, augmenting my over-50-year marriage to a commissioned officer in the US Public Health Service. Most of our medical care comes at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where any self-pity I might have felt was quelled forever the first time a young soldier with an artificial limb held a door open for me. Since my wife, Shirley, is also a consummate seamstress and quilter, the early stages of the pandemic saw us making nearly 200 two-ply face masks to donate to local hospitals and nursing homes, with me measuring, cutting, and trimming fabric and pinning together pieces for her to sew.

In retrospect, what in the world ever led me to suppose that I would have any greater control over my retirement than I have had over the pattern of my entire career? That has been from the start a classic example of the ancient expression in several world cultures that “men plan, and the gods laugh.” Sputnik went up during my junior year in high school, so I planned to become an engineer to help make certain Russia was not going to be ahead of us. Instead, Russian history and literature became my focus by the end of my formal studies, later joined by my deep interest in European dimensions of the Black diaspora. Retire? How can I when history keeps coming alive all around me and just won’t leave me alone?

Allison Blakely retired in 2014 from Boston University, where he was professor of European and comparative history and the George and Joyce Wein Professor of African American Studies. This essay’s title draws on the title of a traditional Negro spiritual.

Time to Pick and Choose

I retired just over five years ago, earlier than I had planned. I knew that I did not really need to work any longer for financial reasons, but what pushed me to retire early was the 2016 presidential election. As an executive at the National Archives, an executive-branch agency, I oversaw the liaison office responsible for working with the incumbent president, and I realized that if I did not retire, I would spend my last work years struggling with the incoming Trump White House. I also knew retirement would give me the opportunity to finish some projects and start others that had always seemed to be out of reach because of the long hours I invested in my job.

I went to graduate school expecting to enter the academy as my father had, but my career took a different path. Two weeks after my dissertation defense, I started work as staff historian at the American Association for State and Local History, an AHA affiliated society known for its engagement with history at the grassroots level. After eight years, I jumped (literally over a weekend) to the discipline’s senior learned society to serve as deputy executive director of the AHA. After a decade there, I shifted away from professional associations and into senior management in the federal government, racking up over a decade at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and then a bit over five years at the National Archives. What connects these positions was long hours with little time for my own research and writing.

So retirement for me meant getting back to the actual substance of history instead of facilitating the work of others. And it meant that I no longer had to shift focus as I changed employers. Those of us working outside the academy often do not have the opportunities to pursue our own scholarly interests in new posts but instead must be prepared to leave projects behind or at least put them on the back burner. Now I can pick and choose what interests me most.

While I started out as a historian of post–World War II US politics, I’m now building on what has engaged me as a practicing public historian. My first challenge was finishing The Oxford Handbook of Public History, a massive undertaking that involved recruiting and working with an international roster of public historians. I had recklessly agreed to be co-editor while at the Smithsonian, and the work proved nearly impossible while I was still attending to my responsibilities there and then at the Archives—my only time off to work on it had come during the 2013 government shutdown.

Ethics has probably been the one constant from my career into retirement.

I then shifted to more personal projects, particularly writing and speaking on museums and trauma, a topic that arguably found me rather than the other way around. Beginning with September 11 and continuing through traumatic events such as Hurricane Katrina, the National Museum of American History took a lead role in shaping discussion within the museum community about dealing with distress and loss, and I was asked repeatedly to write and speak on the tensions that arose between theory and practice—requests that continue today, a decade after I left the museum. Thus, while some colleagues found things slowing down during the pandemic, I was suddenly more in demand. For example, I was invited to give a Zoom lecture to a group in Israel on museums, trauma, and loss, and asked by colleagues in Greece and Australia, who were developing a new book on museums and trauma, to contribute an essay on the historical roots of and the contemporary ethics of collecting trauma. While this work was rooted in my experiences at the Smithsonian and had already yielded several scholarly articles, I’ve now been able to read more broadly, engage more fully in emerging theory in different contexts and disciplines, and dig deeper into some of the knottier issues of practice that public historians and museum professionals are confronting in the stressful context of contemporary life.

That work on the ethics of collecting trauma and loss is rooted in a larger long-standing interest in ethics, going back to my years working with the AHA’s Professional Division. When I look back, ethics has probably been the one constant from my career into retirement. After I left the AHA, I chaired another organization’s ethics-and-standards committee, including revising their ethics statement and developing position papers on unfolding issues; served as founding chair of the Smithsonian Ethics Advisory Board; published on various aspects of ethics; and taught ethics for 20 years in a multidisciplinary museum management program, building on my experiences and helping midcareer colleagues sort out the complexities of professional ethics.

Otherwise, retirement has encompassed what you might expect for any retiree—I do what suits me when I want to. I continue to appear on professional programs and serve on committees when the fit is good, agree to write book reviews when the books engage me, accept invitations to write guest blogs when the subjects are provocative, mentor graduate students embarking on careers, and consult with a variety of museums and archives in the United States and internationally. Just as my career has followed a trajectory very different from that of most historians, I suspect many of my choices in retirement have been different as well.

Finally, to be completely honest, one reason I retired when I did was that my first (and probably only) grandchild was on the way, and within a few months, I became a very proud grandfather. Retirement has given me the flexibility to pursue what engages me intellectually and still have plenty of time to be a doting grandparent, without worrying about the management responsibilities—from budgets and personnel issues to schedules and deadlines—that marked decades of relentless but nevertheless very rewarding work life.

Jim Gardner is a former executive at the National Archives, the National Museum of American History, and the AHA and a past president of the National Council on Public History.

Advice from the First Retirement Decade

I taught my last class at the University of Iowa 10 years ago. A few months later, former students, colleagues, and friends celebrated in a remarkable symposium during which I sometimes felt that I was listening to eulogies at my own funeral. A decade later, I find I have some recommendations for others thinking about their own retirement.

The smartest thing I did—and I strongly recommend it to other faculty—was to embrace the three-year phased retirement offered by my university. (And if they don’t have one in place, negotiate!) At half time during those years, I slowly detached. Some students scrambled to enroll in my classes, knowing I would not be around much longer; newer graduate students kept their distance, hesitant to develop a relationship. I attended department meetings but refrained from voting on matters that would affect colleagues in the future; it was clear to all that I should not be asked to serve on searches, for the same reason. This is also a time to negotiate for what you will need to remain productive in retirement, such as your email address, library carrel, and parking privileges. In some institutions, this will be easier than at others. I took these privileges for granted until, during the three years, I encountered an old friend who had simply retired, cold turkey. My story brought her close to tears. Once she had announced her retirement, there followed six months of farewells, dinners, celebrations—and a short time to empty her office. After that, she felt herself suddenly invisible, and it hurt.

This is a time to negotiate for what you will need to remain productive in retirement.

You should also start now in preparing your own archives. We are ourselves, all of us, historical artifacts. We have made our careers, such as they are, in a certain time and place. The papers that fill our filing cabinets are our archives, and they should be treated with respect. Because I have been part of the revitalization of women’s history in the last 50 years, the Schlesinger Library asked for my papers; others will find that other specialized libraries or their own institutions’ manuscript collections will welcome all or part of their own materials. Gathering my papers, I was shocked at the mess. There are syllabi with no dates. There are talks that I don’t remember giving, at places not clearly identified. There are op-ed drafts that were rejected, but I don’t know by whom. Most archives will not accept letters of recommendation—Anne Firor Scott sent them to their subjects, warming their hearts. Start now, however far you are from retirement, by scheduling a conversation with your own institution’s archivist to clarify your understanding of what to keep and in what order.

After you’ve settled all that business, you are left to face blank paper and a blank computer screen. This is hard, of course, for those of us who require hands-on archival research in distant locations, denied to us by the increasing infirmities of aging and now by the barriers set by the pandemic. A successful novelist friend once observed, “Every new page I write is the hardest thing I’ve ever written.” She confesses that she turns to anything easier—a letter of recommendation, a memo to a dean—to keep from facing the creative challenge of the blank page.

Linda K. Kerber (center) with colleagues stand on a brick sidewalk in front of the Peace Palace in The Hague.

Linda K. Kerber (center) with colleagues at the Peace Palace in The Hague. Courtesy Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion

Linda K. Kerber (center) with colleagues at the Peace Palace in The Hague. Courtesy Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion

I’m lucky to be deeply engaged in a book, Legal Ghosts: Statelessness in a Nation of Citizens, which bounced off my 2007 AHA presidential address. When I began my inquiries, the books I borrowed from the library had last been checked out in the 1950s. Now statelessness has become an urgent global matter. My work has propelled me into a community of scholars and activists and onto the inaugural board of a remarkable new NGO. The Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, based in The Hague, is dedicated to promoting and protecting the human right to a nationality and the rights of stateless people generally. The institute keeps me deeply engaged with colleagues in Europe and the Americas and in the issues that make the headlines—not only in prepandemic meetings in London or The Hague, now in Zoom meetings, but in reviewing articles for our journal, commissioning research studies, and other practical work.

Before I retired, I took for granted that when I entered my library carrel my brain would switch its focus onto my historical research and writing. But then COVID deprived me of access to my carrel, and while writing at home, I am assailed by competing signals—“run the clothes in the washing machine, deposit the checks at the bank, did I buy more milk?” I had not appreciated how the serendipity of the day—teaching classes, consulting with students, random encounters with colleagues, attendance at talks by visiting scholars—oiled the gears in my brain. I am, however, sustained by Zoom. I’m a member of several groups of friends and colleagues who meet roughly every six weeks to schmooze and a larger writing group that meets every weekday morning. It is a strategy I heartily recommend.

Finally, I recommend looking for ways to make the world better. Since my retirement, my husband, Dick Kerber, died; his absence still haunts me. I’ve found great consolation in a project established in his memory by former patients and colleagues. Dick was a cardiologist whose research focused on cardiac resuscitation, and the goal of the Rotary-Kerber HeartSafe Community Campaign is to increase the survival rate of sudden cardiac arrest victims in our county by training laypersons to intervene effectively using CPR and an automatic electronic defibrillator. Learn CPR. The life you save may be your partner’s or your friend’s. To paraphrase the Talmud, “Who saves a life saves the world.”

Linda K. Kerber is May Brodbeck Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of History and Lecturer in Law Emerita at the University of Iowa.

Traveling New Paths Alone

Retirement came abruptly to me in 2008. My husband died three months after an esophageal cancer diagnosis, placing me in a brutal reality of widowhood I had imagined I would reach someday but not necessarily under such conditions. We had planned to retire together, but contemplating the path ahead alone certainly changed the nature of my future.

I decided to close my office at Arizona State University, say goodbye to colleagues, and move back to Maryland to be closer to my two children. They were now the only family I had. I had completed a book recently, but there was no joyful celebration when I received finished copies in the mail.

Facing me was the decision of how to reshape my life based on my academic experience. I did not want to garden or take up public service or any of those choices offered to retired people by well-meaning advisers. I wanted to remain a historian. My skills and experience were not retired to a closet, like an antique that one treasures because of its value but remains an object outside oneself.

My skills and experience were not retired to a closet like an antique.

I had no intention of disengaging from the topics that had defined me as a historian, and ahead of me remained some issues that were worthwhile to study. Since I had already begun collecting materials for a new project on the men of the mendicant orders in colonial Mexico, I had only one choice: to move on. I began attending conferences and writing again. My career had been devoted to women’s history, but I was ready to explore the other side of the fence. It was an invigorating challenge: Could I really see through men’s eyes? Working on men’s history also gave me further understanding of what I had written in the past about women. I must confess, however, that this new project was almost like being a novice again. The advantage was that I was not breaking into the field, as I was when I began writing on women. There were plenty of publications and theories of masculinity to make the experience of plunging into a new field more comfortable. I am still working at it, and a book on mendicant friars is almost finished.

What else could a retired historian do? I began editing manuscripts and organizing a book of readings on a topic for which I only recently discovered I had some affinity: theater and performance within women’s cloisters. It really sounds as if I had had a sort of strange turn in my head; I had to choose between literature and history long ago. But this was history but with a literary turn, an opportunity to study how a text could be used as a medium to entertain and at the same time release the meaning of an enclosed way of life. Performance for nuns and performing nuns? The exterior made interior on a stage? Most definitely a discovery for me and one that strengthened my resolve to never give up on the archives.

Asunción Lavrin in a white button down shirt stands on the grass in front of the Taj Mahal. There are groups of tourists walking on the concrete sidewalk leading to the Taj Mahal.

In her retirement, Asunción Lavrin has found great joy in world travel. Courtesy Asunción Lavrin

In her retirement, Asunción Lavrin has found great joy in world travel. Courtesy Asunción Lavrin

Is retirement only about discovering what are the outer stretches of one’s field and writing until the inkwell is dry? I also turned to traveling. Relieved from the ties to semesters, quarters, departmental meetings, and, yes, grading, retirement gave me the freedom to engage in travel and explore the world, a metaphor that I often used in my writing. I have traveled to places that are beyond the comfort zone of many American tourists, including New Zealand, India, the Andean glaciers, and Tierra del Fuego, as well as to some that are more within the scope of organized tours, such as eastern Europe, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. While not being a flaneur, I returned to Paris and visited Berlin for the first time. It is not simply a commonplace to say that traveling opens the mind. Travel has renewed my intellectual and aesthetic horizons. It has been a pleasure of old age and retirement to experience the calm and beauty of mountain landscapes in the Chilean Andes and the human density of the streets of Jaipur or Delhi. On learning about the mosaics of Byzantium in childhood and how they were found in churches in Ravenna, I wrote on my copybook, “Travel to Ravenna.” And I did! And when I was there, I was in awe about having fulfilled a dream. Do we have a tool in history to measure the experience of converting dreams into realities? Well, one wonders if there is any reality to being “retired.” No, retirement is not being shelved or being out of circulation. It is another form of engaging with oneself and the world.

Asunción Lavrin is professor emerita at Arizona State University.

Same Calling, New Challenges

Sic transit gloria? That is the ultimate, painful question for all retirees, and in 2016, I had to face what comes next. After 50 years connected with LaGuardia Community College and the City University of New York (CUNY), it was time to begin breaking away.

I softened the blow by taking advantage of CUNY’s three-year phased retirement program, which enabled me to teach half my workload while keeping my benefits. In addition, I received reassigned time to work with the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives. These arrangements enabled me to stay involved with the college while slowly severing connections with it. A mild stroke underlined the need to reassess. So did the increasing difficulty of traveling by subway and bus to the college. Nonetheless, I still had trouble parting and continued to adjunct one course a term for three more years. Finally, COVID-19 and the prospect of remote teaching drove me out of the classroom altogether. However, I still miss it.

The advantage of teaching at a community college is working with highly motivated students, most of whom are the first in their families to attend college and who appreciate the opportunity to learn. Because they embody untapped potential just waiting for recognition and encouragement, it is a perpetually rewarding environment in which to teach. So, too, the faculty are delightful to work with because they are so committed to the mission of serving the underserved. But the disadvantages become strikingly evident with age. As a remnant of early 20th-century biases against what were then called junior colleges, the assumption persists that community college faculty lack academic credentials and do not need time for research because they do not publish. (Note that almost all of LaGuardia’s full-time faculty have terminal degrees and many publish.) This stereotype translates into heavy course loads with high enrollments. In fact, our 10-course requirement was only recently reduced to nine a year. Multiply that by the standard three teaching hours per course per week; plus preparing classes, holding office hours, and correcting writing assignments and essay exams; plus committee work and other college activities. It’s no wonder I was exhausted.

This balance of work and leisure provides continuity between past and present.

Even so, it was hard to give up my office and my routine. I regretted losing contact with most of the colleagues whom I had known for decades. However, I gained precious time for research and writing. Thus, I was able to complete the third edition of my history of New York City, and I agreed to do a second edition of my history of New York State. Most importantly, I could finally focus on a biography of Charles Evans Hughes that I had been researching and writing in fits and starts during and between terms. After the pandemic closed the libraries, I bought books and learned how to obtain material online. Further microfilm manuscript research was impossible. Difficulties notwithstanding, the work provided a solid bridge to full retirement. At the same time, it became clear that this is my last major book.

Lest I seem like a total nerd, know that I garden in summer, feed birds in winter, swim five mornings a week, take walks in the afternoons, and visit the Brooklyn Botanical Garden frequently. I took advantage of NYC’s rich cultural resources prepandemic and look forward to better times. Nonetheless, this balance of work and leisure suits me just fine because it provides continuity between past and present while allowing me to write unencumbered by teaching.

My grandchildren have been a source of joy mixed with worry over their vulnerability to COVID. They opened new avenues of inquiry for me. When schools closed, I sought interesting workbooks for typically uninteresting topics, like penmanship. Much to my surprise, there are many such resources for basic skills as well as hands-on activities like science experiments and crafts. In addition, I rediscovered children’s books, which I always enjoyed reading to my children and now share with my grandchildren. (My eight-year-old grandson recommends books for me to read.) Perhaps I could even write short children’s biographies based on material in my histories of New York City and New York State. My older son is beginning a photography project related to my first book, Work and Society, so perhaps I can be helpful (albeit discreetly). After I finish my current projects, these would be more modest, less pressured ways to continue writing history—same calling, different audiences, new challenges.

The pandemic itself has highlighted the bad and good aspects of retirement for me. I never considered myself old before being inundated by horrific mortality statistics and constant warnings for people over 65. They clarified the fact that I really have had my day in the sun, that success was truly fleeting. It was humbling to see how quickly I could be replaced and my office reassigned. However, because security and exhaustion can stifle creativity, retirement has been liberating. It enabled me to address unfinished agendas, get my affairs in order, and pursue interests lurking in the background or long starved by immediate demands. If nothing else, COVID-19 made it all the more important to appreciate what I have now and maximize whatever time I have left.

Joanne Reitano is professor emerita at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York.

What You Can Carry with You

Two weeks before my scheduled retirement in the winter of 2020, COVID-19 shoved me out the door. It canceled the last weeks of classes and banished me from campus. I cannot say I left Stanford University unwillingly—every cloud has a silver lining—but I did not expect to have my retirement coincide with such a sudden narrowing of the world.

I had always supposed that the great advantage of academic life was that the best parts of it were portable. You leave behind what you no longer (or never) wanted to do but keep what you like and can still do well. I can still research, and I probably write better than when I was younger. I no longer teach, but I have come to believe that professors teach best in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. The United States too often seems a gerontocracy, and I do not want to be a guy in his 70s explaining the world to teenagers.

I knew that in retirement I could no longer undertake the kind of books I once did, which take a decade or more to conceive, research, and write. I still have the interest, but only fools start something in their 70s that they cannot complete until well into their 80s, if at all. COVID only reinforced my convictions, when the archives were neither open nor accessible.

A photograph of an empty lake bed with tire tracks running through the sand.

Writing a history of California with his photographer son was one of the most satisfying books Richard White has written. Jesse Amble White

I have always been intellectually restless, more interested in what I have not yet done than in what I have already explored. My son, Jesse, is a photographer, and in his landscape photographs I was astonished to see things that I missed in traveling the same places. His photographs gave the California landscape new meanings for me. The book we did together, California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History, began as a wager. I bet I could turn his photographs into a history of California. I lost the bet—the book was too partial to be a complete history of California—but it is still one of the most satisfying books that I have ever written. It came out after I retired, and like so much during the pandemic, which was also when American racism once again became so glaringly visible, it got lost in larger events.

Still, the book created a mold for what I want to do: write books that absorb me but that depart from the kind of work that makes academic reputations. If I am curious, if I can use skills that I already possess, if the project can be finished in a few years, and if it is not something I have succeeded at before, then I am game.

For several years, I taught a class on the death of Jane Stanford, who died of strychnine poisoning in 1905 “at the hands of person or persons unknown.” I used her poisoning as a way of getting students in the archives to work with original sources. But we could only scratch the surface in 10-week classes. I had already done a big book on the Gilded Age, and I thought that writing a book on her death could reveal the politics, power struggles, and scandals of Gilded Age San Francisco. Her life and death were inseparable from Leland Stanford Jr. University, American capitalism, Boss Ruef’s San Francisco, Chinatown, the urban underworld, 19th-century spiritualism, and the people—upstairs and downstairs—of the Stanford mansions.

Like a detective, I sifted scattered sources to determine not only who killed Jane Stanford but how and why.

But Who Killed Jane Stanford?, as my books usually do, surprised me. As a story of Gilded Age privilege, inequality, corruption, politics, and the press, it resonates with the present. In an age of surreal conspiracy theories, it is a reminder that conspiracies can be quite real. In an age of staggering inequality, it is set in another age of staggering inequality. Its main characters are rich people who created monuments to themselves and whose lives are reminders that the problem with philanthropy is very often philanthropists. We live in a world where murderers walk free and powerful people go to great lengths to preserve secrets. Such things are not unique to our time.

The second surprise is that I wrote not only a history but also a detective story that could fit in the true crime genre. I was not a reader of mysteries or crime fiction before retirement, but I sought the advice of my brother, Stephen, a crime writer. He taught me how to create a plot. Like a detective, I sifted scattered sources to determine not only who killed Jane Stanford but how and why. My reading changed with my writing. I read Dashiell Hammett, many of whose stories are set in San Francisco. He might as well be a historian when he opens The Maltese Falcon with Sam Spade instructing his client, “Suppose you tell me about it, from the beginning, and then we’ll know what needs doing. Better begin as far back as you can.”

Finishing the book, confined by the pandemic, I kept going back over the sources, looking for details that I might have ignored. That search produced another surprise. I had wondered why the police and detectives did not pursue the suspects in Jane Stanford’s death. I ended up thinking that they not only pursued them but found them.

When the book was in press, I had a final surprise, one I wish I could have avoided. My wife, Beverly Purrington, died from an undiagnosed neurological disease. Her death plunged me into a grief that, like Jane Stanford’s anguish over the death of her only child, seems to have no bottom. I found myself lost in a sorrow similar to the mourning that launched the story I tell in the book.

That, too, is part of retirement.

Richard White is Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Emeritus, at Stanford University.

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