Expanding the Genre
Alexis Coe Writes an Accessible Washington Biography
There aren’t many “old boys’ clubs” left in the historical discipline. Women work as professional historians studying all time periods, all places, and in all kinds of professional capacities. And yet with the publication of You Never Forget Your First (Viking, 2020), Alexis Coe became the first woman historian to publish a biography of George Washington in about a century, and the first woman of any profession to do so in nearly 40 years.
Does it matter that George Washington studies in particular, and presidential history more broadly, remains a very male arena? Coe received quite a bit of attention for answering this question with a decisive yes, dubbing many of her predecessors “the Thigh Men of Dad History” in the book’s introduction. She noticed that these male authors were obsessed with Washington’s body, emphasizing the power of his thighs as he sat on a horse or how he clenched his jaw. Coe told Perspectives in an interview this June that Washington studies has been “overwhelmingly dominated by white men, in a way that you don’t see even for other presidents.” With this volume, Coe said, “I set out to write a book that was true, and different, and that added any kind of diversity in approach, perspective, and, of course, author. I set out to take a giant leap away from hagiography and great man history—and really mean it.”
Coe has taken a wandering path on her way to becoming an expert on America’s first president. While enrolled in a PhD program at Sarah Lawrence College, she found herself interested in pursuing a nonacademic career. She lived across the street from the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) and walked over one day to offer her services. This was in 2008, when such institutions were just starting to experience the long-term financial devastation of the Great Recession, and BHS was eager to take on an unpaid staffer. Coe became a graduate student intern in the oral history department. She quickly went all-in on public history, eventually leaving her graduate program in favor of public work. Coe said, “I felt for the first time like I could be both in the archives and out in the world, engaging with people.” Her BHS supervisor, Sady Sullivan, encouraged Coe to take a look at job postings at various kinds of historical organizations around New York City.
Coe went all-in on public history, eventually leaving her graduate program in favor of public work.
One listing in particular caught Coe’s eye—research curator in the New York Public Library’s (NYPL’s) exhibitions department. To Coe, “it sounded like a dream, but also the end of my academic career.” But after starting this job, Coe proceeded to get what she termed “a series of master’s degrees,” in addition to the actual MA she’d already earned. The exhibitions were on a two-year cycle, so she could spend months in the archives working on various projects. As she related, “Any given day, I could be handling Virginia Woolf’s walking stick and her diaries in the morning, and looking through cuneiforms in the afternoon, and reading New York City guidebooks from the ’40s and ’50s in the late afternoon.” Her experience at NYPL culminated in work for the library’s 2011 centennial exhibition.
After that job ended, Coe moved to California to care for the grandparents who raised her. While there, she turned to a project that had been percolating in her mind for a while: the 1892 case of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, a pair of teenage girls in Memphis, Tennessee. Mitchell and Ward planned to run away together to live as a married couple. When Ward got cold feet, Mitchell killed her, and the trial became a 19th-century newspaper sensation. Coe first encountered the story during grad school and kept coming back to it. During this year in California, she started work on the book project that became Alice + Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis (Pulp Books, 2014). At the same time, Coe started writing freelance articles for outlets like The Atlantic and The New Republic.
Her writing success led her to branch out into other formats. Coe began co-hosting a podcast for Audible called Presidents Are People Too! along with former Daily Show head writer Elliott Kalan. In 2016, Audible was pouring money into their original content, so Coe and Kalan were given nearly carte blanche to make their show. “Anything I was interested in or curious about, I could really go out into the world and experience,” Coe said, “in a way that I think is often neglected when it comes to the intersection of public history and history.” When making an episode on Jimmy Carter, for example, she traveled to sit in on Carter’s Sunday School class in Plains, Georgia. Coe and Kalan had the opportunity to visit archives around the country and speak with experts. And, of course, during the research process, she would pick up three to four biographies on each president. Coe would find points of agreement and disagreement between them and pick out enough to fill a half-hour show. As she said, “That process worked, almost always. Except when it came to George Washington.”
Coe wrote with the assumption that the readers “don’t need to hear everything you know.”
In Washington biographies, Coe found a strong consensus. As she told Perspectives, “It’s monolithic.” Coe went on, “To me, these books are unappealing to new readers.” In writing her own book on Washington, Coe wanted to “write a book that would interest women and people of color, and others who have felt as if this very traditional genre has left them out or left them behind.”
Some of Coe’s choices in You Never Forget Your First were guided by that expanded readership. The book is slim, just 304 pages, and published by a popular press. While other biographies have attempted a comprehensive narrative, Coe wrote with the assumption that the readers “don’t need to hear everything you know.” A reader trusts that the author has read and researched widely in the archives; they don’t need to see that on the page. Coe explained, “I think about my reader as if it’s someone I’m meeting at a party who I want to take something away. It doesn’t have to be every date and every example. It simply has to be the main point.”
Humor is something that has held a place in much of Coe’s work. In writing Alice + Freda, Coe’s early readers noted how the book was “darkly funny.” After that, Coe said, “I didn’t try to [be funny], I just stopped stopping myself from not doing it, and decided I would just be myself.” You Never Forget Your First started as a working title, something that would grab her agent’s and editors’ attention more than “new Washington biography” in emails. When the title was read aloud as part of her biography at events, it always drew audience laughter. Only later did she realize that what she’d been thinking of as temporary, the press had always planned to use. Like the title, the phrase “Thigh Men of Dad History,” which she returns to throughout the book, is humorous but is also a strong critique of the kind of presidential scholarship that’s come before. Coe’s humor is just one more way to bring in new readers and to make serious history accessible to those who would not usually gravitate to such books.
The success of You Never Forget Your First demonstrates that there is an audience for this style of history; it quickly became a New York Times best seller. In the brief period between the book’s release in February and the abrupt end to her book tour in March (necessitated by the pandemic), Coe spoke to audiences around the country about her take on Washington. At Mount Vernon, hundreds of people attended her talk. “The people who show up at Mount Vernon often have memberships, they go to all the talks, they own all the books,” Coe said, “and they were also pretty excited for something new and different. If the idea is to make sure that George Washington is relevant to new generations and that we are constantly considering him and his contributions, his conflicts, and his contradictions in our world and our country,” she feels like the book has been a success.
The book was also timed to be released alongside another project, the History Channel’s new documentary series Washington, for which Coe was a producer and appeared on camera. This project was Coe’s first on the other side of the camera, and she juggled work on the series with finishing the book and two other jobs—hosting the women’s history podcast No Man’s Land and curating the ACLU centennial exhibition.
What’s next for Coe? Amazon Studios is making a film of Alexa + Freda Forever, though production has been delayed due to the pandemic. Coe is also thinking about how to amplify the voices of other women historians. For several TV networks and publications, she has become “the default youngish woman right now to have on your television show and in your documentary and to interview for articles,” as she put it. “But I would like it to feel less lonely.” Coe has been working with several women historians, both graduate students and tenure-track faculty, in a mentoring role. She’s thinking about how to formalize this mentorship and to share her success. She has put together a roster of women historians who she could point the media toward. When we spoke in June, she was focused on making a list of Black women, because of the Black Lives Matter protests. Now that Alexis Coe has broken into the “old boys’ club” of presidential history, she’ll be fighting to keep the doors open for other women.
Laura Ansley is managing editor at the AHA. She tweets @lmansley.
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