Richard Kreitner is a contributing writer at The Nation and most recently the author of Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union. He’s been published everywhere from Slate to The New York Review of Books, and also writes “Only United in Name,” an occasional newsletter about politics and history. Before moderating a Zócalo/Center for Social Innovation at UC Riverside event entitled “Are American States Better at Protecting Human Rights than the Federal Government?,” the Brooklyn-based writer spoke in the virtual green room about Montreal’s mountain, dreaming of northern places, and why he’d like to travel back in time and meet Emily Dickinson’s editor.
What’s the last book you read?
I’m in the middle of a biography of a fairly obscure individual called Donald Trump. Four years into his presidency, I decided to read this book, the definitive biography, by Wayne Barrett, the reporter who dug into him the most. This came out in like 1992—four or five Trumps ago. It was titled, at the time, Trump: The Deals and the Downfall.
There’s nothing surprising about the way his presidency has turned out, if you know in detail how he rose to renown in the first place. It’s always been the same tricks, same lies and deceits.
To which book do you most often return, to re-read or look things up?
There are several answers, depending on the context. I guess I’ll go with the professional one. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and also his Democratic Vistas. Whenever I try to get back to zero, to get back to equanimity, to reset, I go back to Whitman because his conclusions after the Civil War about what the country was and what it could be are the right ones, the most inspiring ones, and the real truth.
You studied philosophy at McGill University in Montreal. What do you most miss about Montreal?
The mountain, Mt. Royal, where the city gets its name. It’s like my Whitman answer. Anytime you need some perspective—on life, on studies, friends, romance, politics—you can just head up the mountain.
You grew up in Wayne, New Jersey. What’s the most important thing to know about Wayne?
The important thing is what I wished I had known when I was growing up there; that there’s more to it than meets the eye. I hated it growing up. It was all strip malls and highways. It felt like nothing real, a non-place.
Since I left, I’ve learned more about it. In March, my wife was pregnant, and we went to Wayne for the birth. We were living with my parents for two months. It was a horrible time in the world, but it was actually nice for me. You can’t go home again, but we kind of did. I was able to revisit it. There’s a river a half mile from my parents’ house which nobody knows about. There’s a park there, but my parents don’t go there, their neighbors don’t go there. It’s like this hidden remnant of this past, this forgotten natural world. It’s below the surface—you have to go digging for it.
Has the pandemic had any other silver linings for you?
It’s meant a lot of family time. My son’s birth. My daughter, who would have been in day care otherwise and my wife, who would have gone back to work in a few months, we were all together. The silver lining is that having young kids has made it a lot more endurable. I would have a much harder time getting through it if not for them. [My daughter] just turned 2, and [my son’s] 6 or 7 months old. They are just so oblivious to the carnage all around us that it’s endlessly delightful to spend time with them.
Your book is about disunion and secession. Which American would-be secessionist would you most like to have had a meal with?
That’s easy. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who is this incredibly colorful flamboyant character. He’s most known to history for two things. One was he was Emily Dickinson’s editor. She wrote to him in the Civil War—he was a well-known critic—and they had a long correspondence, and he shepherded her work to publication after she died.
The other was that he was the commander of the first Black regiment in the Civil War, and he wrote a remarkable book about it: Army Life in a Black Regiment. Before the Civil War, he was for disunion. He wanted to break it up, because it was a pro-slavery union. He convened the only northern disunion convention, in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1857, after the Republicans lost the presidential election.
He was a dashing figure, he was into calisthenics, he was a feminist, and he engaged in physical brawls to try to free captured slaves from federal custody.
What’s the best show you’ve streamed during the pandemic?
I just watched this two-part series on PBS NOVA. It’s about the history of writing. The first part of this was called “The First Alphabet,” and it’s the story of how human beings came to use written symbols to designate abstract ideas or actual things in the world that weren’t present, or how particular letters came together to form words. It was deep, thought-provoking, and very well-made.
Who is your political hero?
I would say Bernie Sanders, an unexciting choice. It’s the way that he totally changed the American political conversation in 2016. I was at The Nation at the time, he came by the office in 2015, maybe 2014, to say he was running. We asked him skeptical questions about the politics, and how people respond to the word socialism, and he just breezed past those and said that Americans were ready to talk about all these things. I thought he was wrong; I was stunned by the success that he had. Plus, a Brooklyn Jew!
He’s had some blind spots, some missteps. He’s not the most fantastic politician, but I think he’s done pretty well in advancing his ideas. If Biden wins in two weeks, and Democrats have an opportunity to launch a political transformation, I think the history books will remember Bernie Sanders extremely well.
What place on Earth where you haven’t been would you most like to go?
I often waste time by going on Google Maps and just going to extremely far northern regions of Quebec or Scandinavia and just clicking around and seeing what they look like. I’ve done a lot of travel in the U.S.—I’ve driven north to Montreal, but I’ve never driven further north than that. I would like to go far northern Canada, Scandinavia, Russia, maybe Alaska. The far north intrigues me.