Nieman curator Howard Simons used to tease our class of ’77 about the number of members who abandoned journalism. Mel Goo became a lawyer; Dolly Katz, an epidemiologist. Al Larkin stayed at The Boston Globe, but switched to the business side. And then there was Cassandra Tate. She got a Ph.D. and became, god help us, a historian.
Now battling cancer, Cassandra published her first book, “Cigarette Wars,” in 1999 with Oxford University Press. Written in the elegant, colloquial style and with the reportorial precision that won her a Nieman from a tiny newspaper in Idaho, the book was a slim masterpiece which the ultimate arbiter of such efforts, The American Historical Review, called “[A] compelling work of cultural history. Better than any other scholar to date, [Tate] highlights the frenzied attempts by various reformers to rid society” of cigarettes through various efforts before and after World War I.
The reporter-turned-scholar, a devout Pacific Northwesterner, long worked for the Seattle online site HistoryLink.org, contributing occasionally to Columbia Journalism Review and other national magazines. Her second book, “Unsettled Ground: The Whitman Massacre and Its Shifting Legacy in the American West,” will be published November 17 by Sasquatch Books.
“Cigarette Wars” was a revelation. Readers learned that The New York Times condemned nicotine’s “disastrous effects” — in 1879! Cigarettes were thought perilous because, among other noxious side effects, of their link to sex. And yet America’s love affair with consumerism — coupled with tobacco’s addictiveness — delivered the “coffin nails” from evil.
“Unsettled Ground” is even more unsettling: the story of Second-Great-Awakening missionaries who went West as young men (and women) to save the Native Americans but mainly brought misery via the measles and more and more settlers, culminating in a 1847 massacre that made the mission’s leader, Marcus Whitman, a martyr for more than a century, his name given to both Whitman County and Whitman College in Washington state, his statue chosen to represent the state in Washington, D.C.’s halls of Congress.
It turns out Tate did not abandon journalism. She has enlarged it. Howard Simons would be proud.