When I was growing up in Colorado, my family took two-week vacations every summer by car, driving all over the United States in search of historic sites, amusement parks, roadside attractions, and national parks. When I wasn’t wandering around these places, I was looking at them through the car window or trying to find them on the map. It’s not surprising that when I decided to write about American history, I did so with an eye on the landscape.
Throughout my career, I have been most interested in unloved places. I studied the muck and the mire of swamps for my first book, Trembling Earth, and the many different kinds of ruins created by the Civil War in my second book, Ruin Nation.
In my new book, The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West (Scribner, 2020) deserts take center stage.
All of these landscapes challenge the people who try to live in them, travel though them, convert them, or eradicate them. They have long histories of contestation and violence.
My desire to uncover these histories – and their connection to broader developments in American culture – drives most of my work.
Along the way, I have become an expert in the history of the Civil War and the West, and of 19th-century America more generally. I have written articles and columns on these topics for New York Times, Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, and Preservation Magazine. I also write a regular column, “Stereoscope,” about the Civil War in popular culture, for Civil War Monitor.
I earned my BA in History and Literature from Harvard University and my PhD in American Studies from the University of Iowa, so you can call me Dr. Nelson. I have also taught U.S. history and American Studies at Texas Tech University, Cal State Fullerton, Harvard, and Brown.
I will be exploring another of America’s weird places in my new book project, This Strange Country: Yellowstone and the Reconstruction of America, which will be published with Scribner in spring 2022.