B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.
By Hope Green
Americans tend to think history happens to other people and on other continents, observes Thomas Fleming. Recent events on U.S. soil have changed that view for many of us. But Fleming has spent much of his career reminding people of history's universal impact.
A veteran of World War II, Fleming is the author of more than 40 books of historical fiction and nonfiction, and most recently published a controversial book on the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, The New Dealers' War: F.D.R. and the War Within World War II (Basic Books, 2001). He investigates not only the fateful decisions of politicians and generals, but also the way history touches individual American lives.
Fleming will discuss his life and work when he delivers the 15th Abraham S. Burack Lecture at Metcalf Hall on October 2. Abraham Burack, who died in 1978, was the owner, publisher, and editor of The Writer magazine and Plays magazine, as well as a former president and longtime board member of the Friends of the Libraries of Boston University. His wife, Sylvia Burack, is editor emerita of The Writer and a member of the Friends of the Libraries board.
Fleming has had a long-standing tie with BU: he has been donating his papers to the University's Special Collections for the past 40 years. Among the items on file are the interviews he conducted for a book on West Point and notes from his research on everyday life during the American Revolution. Eventually he plans to send over a large amount of material on World War I.
"I feel it's very appropriate that I give this talk in Boston," he says, "because Boston in my mind has been a sort of sister city to Jersey City, N.J., where I grew up."
Fleming is the son of an Irish-American World War I hero who was a leader in Jersey City politics for three decades, starting in the 1920s. Like Boston at the time, the city was dominated by an Irish political machine. "Irish politics was the be-all and end-all to me when I was growing up," he says. "We were always interested in what was going on in Boston."
During Fleming's childhood in the late 1930s and 1940s, Irish-Americans in Jersey City and elsewhere simmered with resentment over their poor treatment by Protestants. Fleming saw that bitterness in his father, and during his youth had the sense of being an outsider in American society. Yet he wanted terribly to change his outlook and become, as he puts it, "part of America in a spiritual sense."
"I never wanted to be an Irish-American writer," he says. "My whole idea was to get across that bridge and be an American writer." Immersing himself in American history, and writing books on colonial families and military men, has helped him build such a bridge. Besides his well-received early novels, with stories set in the waning days of Irish-American political power, Fleming has published acclaimed biographies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. He has written extensively on the American Revolution and both world wars. Seven of his novels trace the fortunes of one family in particular, the Stapletons, through different historical periods.
"These novels are my exemplars of how people are hammered by history, tortured by it, absorbed by it," he says. "They say a lot about the American experience."
Starting with the Revolution, Fleming says, Americans have been torn by what he calls "the great dichotomy": the clash between American ideals and brutal political and economic realities. It was a conflict he saw firsthand as a sailor aboard the warship U.S.S. Topeka in the Pacific at the close of World War II, and later while he was conducting research for a history of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He lived at West Point from 1964 to 1968, and interviewed officers and their families as the controversy over America's involvement in Vietnam intensified.
"That was my first really strong exposure to America's secular idealism," Fleming says. "These guys have this ideal of duty, honor, country, but in the real world, in the Army, a lot of other things are going on. There's throat-cutting careerism, hostility from the civilian community, and always the possibility that at the bottom line, there's going to be a body bag."
Marital strife is common under such conditions, and 10 years after publishing West Point: The Men and Times of the U.S. Military Academy, Fleming wrote a best-selling novel based on what he saw, called The Officers' Wives. "This was my bearing witness to how this dichotomy of American life affected individuals when they were caught by history, by this clash between idealism and realism," he says.
The same conflict resurfaces in Fleming's most recent book, about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Here Fleming challenges the mythology surrounding FDR and delivers a harsh critique of his role as commander in chief. In particular, he blames Roosevelt for prolonging the war by insisting on unconditional surrender for Germany, for failing to act on behalf of European Jews being massacred in the Holocaust, and for his dealings with Soviet Russia's dictator, Josef Stalin.
"I think my status as a semioutsider has played a part in creating that book," Fleming says. "The New Deal was when liberals and Irish-Americans were really outsiders. We looked on New Dealers as allies, but we weren't really part of their game plan. We didn't like their flirtation with the communists; we didn't like a lot of things about them."
New Dealers were bent on dislodging the old Irish-American political machines, such as New York City's famous Tammany Hall and the patronage system led by Frank Hague, Jersey City's mayor from 1917 to 1947. But to many Irish-Americans, Fleming says, these simultaneously corrupt and charitable organizations were almost as revered as the Catholic Church.
"The New Dealers," he says, "didn't begin to understand the loyalty of Irish-Americans to each other and to the organizations."
The Abraham S. Burack lecture is a Friends of the Libraries members event. Attendance is by invitation only. For further information on the Thomas Fleming papers at Special Collections, call 617-353-3696.