February 21, 2001: On the Campus

Driving Ms. Davis
An interview on the road is worth the flat tires

By Annie Ruderman '01
Illustrations: Phil Scheuer

Natalie Zemon Davis is a legendary figure in the ranks of the Princeton University history department. A while back she wrote an account of this 16th-century French guy who pretends that he's another French guy, and it basically changed the way the historical profession works. (The Return of Martin Guerre was later made into two movies.) Plus, she can remember a time when departmental meetings were an almost-all-male affair. With those credentials I figured she'd be an ideal candidate to interview for my thesis, which is a historiography of Princeton history department senior theses.

So I sent an e-mail Professor Davis's way: Would the now Canada-based professor be coming to Princeton any time before April 10? I was in luck -- she actually wrote back! -- she'd be here for a dissertation defense mid-December. But she had to go to New York City straight away; maybe we could meet for a few minutes, but an interview? Sorry.

I was undaunted. How was she planning to get into New York, I wanted to know. If she didn't have any prior travel arrangements, I could drive her in exchange for an interview. (I planned to put a tape recorder in what used to be my ashtray.)

I have to admit I was surprised when she agreed. After all, my mother won't even get into the car when I'm behind the wheel. (In fairness to Professor Davis, I did not mention the fact that I have had encounters with both the garage and the tree at the end of the driveway back home. I did, however, warn her that I have accrued two moving violations in my time, one for going too slowly.)
We left Princeton at half-past four on a Friday afternoon. If poetic foreshadowing had been at work there would have been tropical storms forming on the horizon. God was not symbolically representing our experience, though, and the sky was clear. Never having driven into the city before, I charged the Henry Charles Lea professor of history, emerita, with directions. (In fairness to me, she did not tell me that she no longer drives.)

It felt like a ride with a brilliant grandmother. We discoursed and we blundered and perhaps I am venturing on the threshold of disrespect by offering the tale of our travails here. But we did miss the Lincoln Tunnel. I did get three flat tires driving down 44th Street. And we did have a very serious conversation about which way was east and which way was west when we entered New York City. But my thesis is the better for it.

Our journey begins bumping down Route 1 with little commotion and even less inspiration. All is humdrum as we cover the usual suspects: her time at Princeton, the courses she taught, the students she remembers. Then I ask about E. P. Thompson, whose 1963 The Making of the English Working Class altered social history, and we miss the Lincoln Tunnel, and calamity and conversation grow up together. By the time we pull into the Howard Johnson in Hackensack to ask for directions, we are digging apart my thesis, and she is a half-hour late for dinner.

Professor Davis is dishing out ideas for one chapter when we turn the wrong way into New York City and talking me through potential pitfalls of another when it starts to sound like we are driving over a bridge. Only there are no bridges on the stretch of 44th Street around Times Square. We pull over and park just in time to save the back fender from hitting the ground.

Actually, it isn't just one, but three flat tires, but I don't find that out until later. Professor Davis leaves for her dinner engagement, a short walk away. I spend an hour registering for AAA and two hours waiting for them to come. It is well past midnight when they dump me at a ramshackle all-night used-tire stand. I receive three new used tires for $50 and am finally ready to head back to Princeton, inspired.

But the car won't start. Somehow the battery has begun to leak acid all over the engine. It is 1:30 a.m. I must look pretty desperate because I manage to persuade a guy in a tuxedo, his limo driver, a serious man who is blocked in behind me, and a tow-truck driver to push my car into a nearby gas-station lot.
But the end of the road is this: If you ever get a chance to talk with Natalie Davis, do it. She is worth three flat tires, one leaky engine, two hours in the cold, and a stop at the HoJo.

Annie's running pages/fines tally: Pages: 15 (count 'em, 15); Fines: $38.75. February is comeback time. (ruderman@princeton.edu)

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