Author Q&A - Michael Kazin

The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History clocks in at a hefty two volumes, 992 pages and $250 sale price. 

It also features nearly 190 entries written by more than 170 leading historians and social scientists. The encyclopedia’s editor, author and Georgetown history Professor Michael Kazin, spoke to The Hill about this in-depth look at the forces that shaped American political history.

Whose idea was this? How did this come about?
Actually, the Princeton people approached me. They have a series of encyclopedias on various topics … and this is one they thought would have fairly wide appeal. 

How long did it take to get this put together?
A little more than three years.

The entries are essays instead of fact and figures. Is that the trend now with encyclopedias?
Yeah, especially with the Internet. I said very early on to the Princeton people, let’s not do any biographies. There’s Wikipedia … and it’s fairly easy to find really good biographical material on anyone who’s been in politics. … [Our] decision implies … that individuals are, for the most part, shaped by, limited by and helped by larger institutions and social forces. Most historians believe that. Most historians don’t believe there are any “great men of history” that were very popular in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Most historians are social and economic historians as well as political historians, so that drove that decision as well.

How did you pick the topics?
I did a lot of it myself and in consultation with the people at Princeton University Press and my associate editors. Basically if you read a lot, write a lot and teach about this subject, you know the important topics in the field and what people are writing about. 

Is there an entry that your recommend everyone read?
It’s what interests people. [Alex Keyssar on the history of voting], for sure. Perhaps the one on the presidency by Stephen Skowronek, who’s a leading political scientist, not an historian by trade, on the presidency. … I like the one I wrote on Americanism. The one on the Bill of Rights by Jack Rakove, who is a leading historian on the Constitution — he won a Pulitzer Prize for a book on the Constitution. 

What kind of audience is this meant for?
Since it costs about $250 it’s unlikely it’ll get picked up in airports. I don’t think you can get it on Kindle yet. … Clearly, primarily for libraries but … also journalists. … I also think it will have a presence overseas. There’s a lot of people interested in American politics and American policy overseas.

Have you read the whole thing?
I proofread the whole thing. … I went over every entry and made corrections.

Any final thoughts?
We all tried real hard to make sure that these essays were written so that a high school student in a History of Government class could use them. These were not written just for other scholars. … I think history, for the most part, should be written for people interested in history.