Litwack shares his creative process at ‘Writers @ Work’ event

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs


Leon Litwack

Leon Litwack is Alexander F. and May T. Morrison Professor of American History
Noah Berger photo

20 March 2002 | It’s never quiet during Leon Litwack’s midnight-to-noon writing marathons. In the wee hours, strains of Guns ’n’ Roses, Miles Davis, Beethoven or rappers Black Star emanate from the Berkeley history professor’s study.

Music — be it classical, jazz or hip-hop — is an important part of his writing process, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author told an audience in Doe Library’s Morrison Room last Tuesday.

“What I listen to depends on my mood and what I’m writing about,“ said Litwack, a featured speaker in the campus “Berkeley Writers @ Work” series.

For the past two decades, he has been documenting the experience of blacks in America. His 1980 book, “Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery,” won him the Pulitzer Prize. “Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow,” published in 1998, also received critical acclaim. His third book, now in progress, is an account of the African American experience during World War II.

Though a historian by profession, the arts — poetry, painting, photography and music — greatly influence Litwack’s work, he said. Blues music, with its plaintive words and emotional chords, is a particularly fertile resource, he said.

“The spirit and anguish in the work of artists like Charlie Patton, Son House or Muddy Waters illuminates the past in ways that are difficult for a written account to capture,” said Litwack. The blues relates history with “pressure on a guitar string.”

For his research, Litwack also delves deep into oral histories and other primary-source documents to uncover powerful stories of individuals who fought for dignity in the face of suffocating oppression.

“My goal is to do justice to these rich and elegant sources,” he said, “so that the reader can hear and feel their voices.”

Litwack’s renowned books start out humbly, as long-hand scribbles on tablets of paper. He then transcribes his work onto a computer — making edits as he goes along, and reading his words aloud to test out their rhythms. All the while music fills the room.

“Some days are better than others,” he said of writing. “Sometimes it’s agonizing, but mostly it’s exhilarating."


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