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A Conversation with Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

July 10, 2011

EC Hoffman PodcastThe American Civil War started inspiring novels well before the four years of unpleasantness came to an end at the Appomattox court house, and the literary flow shows no sign of slowing as we observe the conflict’s sesquicentennial. From The Red Badge of Courage, through Gone with the Wind, to the exquisite Cold Mountain, this brutal episode continues to inspire a vast trove of literary treasure. Indeed, if you go to the web bibliography maintained by the University of Texas (http://www.uta.edu/english/tim/civilwar/index.html) you’ll find Civil War historical fiction nicely toted up in any number of categories, but “diplomacy” will not be among them. Despite the fact that the Union’s survival depended largely upon our diplomats’ ability to keep Europe out of the conflict, the subject has been almost entirely ignored in fiction. Well, a professor of diplomatic history at San Diego State University is changing all that.

Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman’s award-winning novel, Broken Promises, dramatizes the pivotal mission of the American minister to Great Britain, none other than Charles Francis Adams, son of one president, grandson of another, as he sought to prevent Britain from assisting or recognizing the Confederacy. The setting romantic, the intrigue pervasive, and the stakes (the fate of the United States) enormous—it is a riveting read. One might expect such elements as these to launch dozens of historical novels, but alas, it took the eyes of a foreign policy expert to see them as the perfect mix for a great story.

So, what is a respected diplomatic historian doing writing historical novels? Of course I asked her, (podcast at right) and she revealed her dirty little secret: she was a literature major as an undergraduate. Now, as a teacher of survey courses, she finds herself a generalist who is constantly learning new things, and of course, a story teller who knows a great drama when she sees one. And while the narrative of the Civil War is compelling enough, the story of Charles Francis Adams—a man with both a family and a national legacy to maintain—is a uniquely American tale. He bore the dreams of his father and grandfather on his shoulders as he assumed his mission.

Professor Cobbs Hoffman is currently writing a synthesis of American Foreign Relations from its origins to the present, but she is also working on a new novel on the foreign policy of the American Revolution. I’m sure the coming monograph will be excellent, but I’m anxious to see the next novel.

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