Interview: Alexis Coe on Making Sense in Reverse

Interview: Alexis Coe on Making Sense in Reverse

"If I write a memoir one day it will be titled 'It Makes Sense in Retrospect'."

Alexis Taines Coe is an historian, author, host, commenter, and consultant. She is the author of the narrative history book, Alice+Freda Forever, and is a consultant on the movie adaptation. Her second book, You Never Forget Your First: A Mostly Feminist Biography of George Washington, will be published by Viking (Penguin/Random House) in 2019. She is curating the ACLU's 100 exhibitions, is a consultant for Lena Dunham's forthcoming HBO project, and is the in-house-historian at The Wing, where she delivers a monthly lecture and/or panel on women's history, and the host of its upcoming podcast.

She has appeared on a variety of CNN shows and was featured in five of the American Dynasties: The Kennedys, and is set to appear in American Dynasties: The Bushes. She also appeared in Leonardo DiCaprio's Frontiersmen on the History Channel, and did a series of short videos for Biography. She has also appeared on NPR, CNN, C-SPAN, and many others. She has lectured at Columbia, Sarah Lawrence, and NYU. She has given talks sponsored by Hulu, Chanel, and Madewell. She co-hosted the Audible series, "Presidents Are People, Too!" with Elliott Kalan, former head writer for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart."

We spoke with Alexis about her unusual career path, her favorite historical underdog, and the advice she finds herself giving over and over.

You are having such an interesting career. You're an author, public historian, TV consultant, podcaster and more. Was all of this your original plan?

I had no idea that I would end up here. I always say that if I write a memoir one day it will be titled "It Makes Sense in Retrospect".

I made a series of decisions in my career that seemed like the best idea at the time, and most of them have worked out pretty well, but the riskiest by far was the first move: to leave grad school after my master's but before my Ph.D.

I did that because I had been working at the Brooklyn Historical Society, first as a graduate intern and then on a project basis and I loved it. I loved creating history that was open access and available to the public and that was based on the community.

While working there, I had been going to conferences and doing all the things I was supposed to do to eventually get a tenure-track position [in academia]. My boss at the Brooklyn Historical Society pointed me in the direction of a job listing for a research curator at the New York Public Library. Those jobs come up very rarely, and she thought I should just go in and try.

I went into the interview with the woman who ran exhibitions at the NYPL, and there was a huge group outside her office, including five of the most intelligent women I had ever met in New York.

I was fairly certain I wasn't going to get it and I wasn't sure that I wanted it, which is a quite freeing experience because I just answered all the questions completely honestly, including a question about what I thought of the exhibition downstairs that was currently on show. And I said I hated it. I thought that they had such great materials but it had been presented in a way that would appeal to the least number of people, and she agreed.

We hit it off and I took the job, which was like a dream. The exhibitions work on a two-year cycle so it was a year of me pretty much on my own mining the special collections, all the treasures the NYPL has behind locked doors, then spending the second year curating it with a senior curator. That was ideal because my favorite place to be as a historian is definitely the archive, but at the same time taking the job was sort of like jumping off a building when there's no entrance back in. Once you leave academia at that point it's highly unlikely that you can go back. But it worked out just fine!

Your specialties include everything from presidents to feminism to the old west. Is there a running thread that connects them all?

There is a thread. I specialized in graduate school in American women's political history which means that I had to know American women's history and political history. Through political history, I found that I had a great interest in presidential history.

The knowledge of the west comes from growing up there and being quite excited about living there for a few years in my late 20s. I used to frequent the different historical societies and museums in San Francisco and I became obsessed with gold rush era journals, which served me well later when I wrote a feature for the New Republic in which I took a seven-day wagon ride from Nevada down to California at three miles per hour.

I think the thread that runs through most of my work is some integral sense of identity, of civil rights, and of justice.

Your upcoming podcast series for The Wing will be about "rule-breakers and names that may not have made headlines." What's the research process for stories that haven't made headlines, especially about women?

Researching women versus presidents or any man in political history is so much more challenging.

Their materials were not valued in the same way as men's, so often their journals, their diaries, and their letters weren't preserved, or they were simply overlooked or only read for details about men's lives. Often you have a woman in history who seems to only serve one function to most historians which is as some sort of domestic witness. They lived in the house with a great man, so therefore historians only read their personal documents for clues about that great man. They're missing an entire narrative.

Do you have a favorite underdog in history?

I spent years studying the American revolution and it still, to me, is amazing that we won. It's amazing that we declared independence. It's amazing that we overthrew one of the most powerful nations in the world at the time and I'm just in awe of it. The thing about the revolution is, for so long the story was told by old white men and it was told in a very specific way. There's been wonderful scholarship in the last five to ten years that shows that it was really very much a civil war, America's first civil war. While most people would think that the story of the revolution is dead and gone, it's actually really evolving.

Why do you think you are so fascinated by those events?

I think that the fact that I have a career is an improbable victory. [When I published] Alice+Freda Forever I was a writer on the west coast who nobody knew. Then it became the little book that could. I think the most improbable victory was when I was hoping that maybe a hundred books would sell and it made the New Yorker's to-read list. That was, for me, for someone who had no connections at the time, was just a huge triumph.

I think another point that's interesting is, in 2014 I had a really hard time, even on the heels of Alice+Freda, teaching women's history. People still wanted more presidential history from me, they wanted stories about men. Just in the last couple years, that's changed. I think that within itself is probably one of the greatest surprises of my career. It means good things for women's history in general and for a new generation of women's historians.

Can you share more about the ACLU 100 project?

I'm curating a celebration of their 100 years and looking at the most important cases, the most interesting work that they do outside of the courtroom. It's really renewed my faith in our ability to recover from terrible, reprehensible periods in our history. This will take the physical form of ten pillars that will be located throughout the United States, each thematically different but linked together, starting in 2020.

If you give career advice, what's some advice you find yourself giving over and over?

I get dozens of emails from everyone from tenured professors to recent graduates asking me for career advice. I tell them, first and foremost, don't study my trajectory, it's not a roadmap. I think rather the philosophy is interesting, which is to take calculated risks and to make sure that whatever you work on, you're truly passionate about.

Someone once described writing a book or a book proposal as being the architect of your own prison, so you'd better like it. So I think about everything I do like that. You just have to work really, really hard and it's a lot easier to work really, really hard if you absolutely love what you do and feel that it's so important.


Image courtesy Alexis Coe, photographer Sylvia Rosokoff

Note: Since publication of this interview, the Wing has shuttered.