Academics and Research / News

History professor writes for NYTimes “Disunion” series

On Oct. 31, 2010, the New York Times began an unusual news series that tracks the nation’s secession crisis and ensuing Civil War. The “Disunion” series follows the events of the crisis on a daily basis from several angles.

DU’s Susan Schulten, associate professor of history, was asked to contribute to the series by examining the crisis from a geographic and cartographic perspective. She is currently writing a second book about the rise of thematic mapping in American history, and from 2008–09 she was a member of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission in Colorado.

“I’ve been interested in Lincoln and the Civil War as both a researcher and a teacher for years, and I’ve thought about the meaning of maps for nearly two decades,” Schulten says. “So for me, the convergence of the two subjects made this a very tempting offer.”

Schulten’s first piece ran Nov. 11 and focused on President Lincoln’s election victory on Nov. 6, 1860. Her second story ran Dec. 9 and focused on a map of slavery favored by Lincoln. It was among the 10 most viewed and emailed stories that day.

“It is a significant amount of work, and very challenging to write for a wide rather than an academic audience,” Schulten says. “But I enjoy thinking about historical problems, and especially love the elusive goal of trying to recapture the causal connection of events at the time.”

Because of her expertise in mapping, Schulten plans to write about the geographical dimension of the crisis, both through old maps from the period and also new maps that illuminate the crisis.

Clay Risen, staff editor and co-editor of the series, says Schulten is a perfect fit for their project.

“She had the expertise we were looking for and really got what we were doing,” Risen says. “She’s also a very fun person to work with and very diligent.”

Risen says a writer made the original suggestion to follow the events of the Civil War chronologically. The editorial staff liked the idea and decided they had an opportunity to use technology to discover new angles to American history and make it accessible to a wide audience.

“No one else has done this before,” Risen says. “The Civil War was one of, if not the turning point in American history, yet people know very little about it.”

Risen and Schulten have been surprised, yet delighted by the response and feedback the series has generated.

“It never ceases to amaze me that the Civil War continues to be a source of tremendous interest for Americans,” Schulten says. “I was also fairly surprised at the intensity of the comments on the pieces we run, which recalls Faulkner’s observation that ‘The past is never dead; it’s not even past.’”

Schulten’s articles will run about once a month through April 2015.


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