Past is Prologue
An Interview with Historian Marc Simmons
With more than 40 books on the Southwest to his credit, Marc Simmons has been called New Mexico's historian laureate. Although this isn't an official title, it's one he richly deserves. For decades Simmons has dug deep into our region's past and come up with striking and highly readable books on local history.
His Albuquerque: A Narrative History is a beautiful, definitive account of how our city came to be. Sadly, it's long been out of print. Thankfully, UNM Press recently published an abridgement of the first half of the book under the title Hispanic Albuquerque (UNM Press, paper, $19.95), and a companion volume covering the second half will be released in the near future.
Simmons will be in Albuquerque on Tuesday, June 15, to present episodes from Hispanic Albuquerque as part of the Second Annual Voices of the Southwest Lecture Series, which also includes such local literary big shots as Rudolfo Anaya, Tony Hillerman and N. Scott Momaday. The Alibi recently had a chance to talk with Simmons by phone about his vital work.
From a very early age, Simmons knew he wanted to be a historian. "In sixth grade I read my first book on Southwest history," he says, "and within a very short time I was married to history. The passion lasted, and I've done nothing else for the rest of my life. As a kid I was interested in cowboys and Indians, the Old West and all that, and it matured into a more serious interest. Most people grow out of it. I didn't."
In a nation populated largely by people with three-minute attention spans, Simmons has been a persistent defender of the need to repeatedly examine our shared histories. "Being able to reflect on our past is one of the things that makes us distinctly human," he says. "It's also the cement that holds all other knowledge together. History is the underpinning of everything. That's putting it on a rather lofty, grand scale, I guess. (laughs) But history is just lots of fun, too. You can find anything you want in history, dive into it and enjoy it."
He's written dozens of books, some of which, like New Mexico: An Interpretive History (UNM Press, paper, $10.95), continue to be enormously popular. Other Simmons titles haven't faired quite as well even though his out-of-print books are often the best in his catalog.
"I really like Albuquerque: A Narrative History," he says. "I refer to that as my Michener book, because of its size and weight. It's the heftiest book I've ever done. It didn't do anything for the book, but it got the Golden Spur Award from the Western Writers of America. Soon after that it went out of print. (laughs)"
"Another book that was really a commercial flop but is still one of my best books is Massacre on the Lordsburg Road: A Tragedy of the Apache Wars."
That book tells the story of the murder of Judge H.C. McComas and his wife by Apaches near Silver City in 1883. At the time, the murders caused national hysteria, partly because the Indians kidnapped the McComas' six-year-old son, Charley.
"A lot of things fell into my lap while writing that book," Simmons says. "I related the circumstances in the introduction. I felt the spirit of the McComas family was pushing me to write this story because it had never been told in full. No one knew quite how it happened, and I was able to piece it all together 100 years after the event. I thought it would sell famously, and it never did anything. But I'm still glad I wrote it."
Although his books are very readable, Simmons rarely aims for a mass market. "People always tell me I don't write on the right subjects, that I should write about General Custer and Billy the Kid. I don't like those kinds of books. There's a box car load of books on both those subjects. I want to write about things that I can take a fresh look at that nobody knows about. I wrote the first biography of Oñate, the first comprehensive history of Albuquerque, the first description of the McComas massacre and so on. I like to do those things, but they don't sell. That's the reality of the market. It doesn't matter much to me. I hope 100 years from now someone will pick up a book like this and say, ’Oh, look, here's the McComas story.'”
The historical figure Simmons has focussed on more than any other is Kit Carson. Last year, he published a book called Kit Carson & His Three Wives (UNM Press, hardcover, $24.95), which examined Carson's domestic life, a subject that had never received much attention. The book is the first in a series by Simmons that will cover several different aspects in the life of one of the most famous and controversial figures of the American West.
"After 30 years of scouring archives all over the country," Simmons says, "I've got plenty of good material on Carson. I was going to do a definitive biography, but I realized it was going to be so huge that publishers would probably stick an $80 price tag on it or something. I was also worried that I had so many things coming at me that I might not get around to doing it.
"Then the opportunity came up to give the annual Calvin P. Horn lecture at UNM. They invited me to do that, and they specifically asked me to do something on Kit Carson. One of the requests is that you deliver a small book based on your lecture. I thought, well, OK, I'll cover Kit's family life, and I'll be able to do that in greater detail than I would even in a comprehensive biography. It made a nice size book, and I was very pleased with the result."
At the same time, a couple books came out on Carson by other authors that addressed subjects Simmons had hoped to cover in his biography. "So I gave up on the definitive biography bit," he says, "and decided I would do these topical books. I already have the second one written. It's on Carson's young years. No biographer has ever covered more than a few paragraphs on that."
Simmons has a couple other Carson books he's considering as well. He wants to do one on his military career. "I also think I'm going to do a collection of essays on small topics," he says, "none of which is individually worth a whole book. I have all kinds of other possibilities."
Simmons first became interested in Carson in the late '60s around the time he published an article in New Mexico Magazine called "Kit Carson: Hero or Villain?" "I'd already committed to doing a long project on Carson, but I suspect it was the beginnings of the anti-Carson rhetoric everywhere that spurred me on. I already knew his story, and I said, ’Hey, even Indians had said wonderful things about him.' I started to take on his cause, and the vitriol got worse."
Over the years, Simmons has had a running debate with John Nichols, the author of The Milagro Beanfield War, on this subject. "Nichols is the el primo of Kit Carson haters. He never misses an opportunity to slander Kit. Our first run-in was on Channel 5, PBS. They were doing some kind of series on the history of Albuquerque, and we were both on it. I'd known John for a while. All you have to do to set John off is mention the name Kit Carson. We had this little crossing of swords on the TV screen.
"We really went at it. When we were through, the lady who interviewed us was dismayed by the heat we'd generated when we went at each other's jugulars. She said, ’I wouldn't have put you two on together if I'd known you hated each other.' We said, ’We don't hate each other. We're good friends.' John then said, ’This is really great stuff. We should get a tent and go on the road with this dog and pony show.'” (laughs)
"Anyway, there weren't many Kit defenders around at that time. I think it's historical slander, actually. If you can make a case based on evidence, that's perfectly legitimate. I wasn't interested in defending some of the other figures in the West, but the more I read about Carson and sort of got inside his head, which is very hard to do, I realized he was one of the good guys."
Simmons is in his 80s, and he knows he doesn't have time to write all the books he'd like to write. "I have to watch my time and prioritize," he says, "I've got a couple more books in my head that I think I can do fairly swiftly if I can continue writing up into my 90s. I thought in my golden years I'd be able to relax and read a lot of the books in my library but ... no such luck."