by Susan Ferber, Executive Editor, American and World History, Oxford University Press
A Books That Matter Essay

What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, by Peggy Pascoe (Oxford University Press, 2009)

Book Cover: What Comes Naturally

What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America (ISBN: 9780195094633)

I had inherited so many files for so many overdue books. It was hard to know what would ever come to fruition. Every year I would see Peggy Pascoe at the Western Historical Association conference. Over tea we would commiserate about constant sinus infections, and she would apologize for being late and tell me that, really, she was working on it and she didn’t want to give it to me to read until she felt it was ready. Every year I’d also hear from others about all the invaluable reviews she was doing of young scholars’ and colleagues’ manuscripts, editing their work closely and helping them to publish the very best versions of their books.

Peggy’s manuscript was 14 years overdue on the contractual deadline. Any commercial press would have dropped the project by that point. But good things often come to university press editors who wait. What Comes Naturally was going to examine local and state miscegenation laws—widespread race-based legal restrictions on marriage—across the United States and how they affected those who tried to marry from the Civil War to the 1960s. It was a brilliant idea for a book and much anticipated by historians. It was also an immense research job, requiring many trips to archives around the country, made even more challenging after Pascoe and her partner adopted two babies.

Then came the day when she told me she had been diagnosed with cancer. She was determined not to leave her book undone. Soon after, I attended a panel on Peggy’s career held at a conference, which seemed a little like attending a memorial service for someone still alive, and one paper was about her forthcoming book. Another was on Peggy as manuscript reviewer and an in-depth analysis of the kind of work she did as a series editor for the Crossroads series at the University of California Press and for other historians. (This was later published in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives as “The Art of Manuscript Reviewing: Learning from the Example of Peggy Pascoe.”) I’d never felt so intimidated by the idea of editing a project. Clearly Peggy was a master editor. While I’m not normally fazed by the prospect of working on anyone’s prose, this bar was set high.

When Peggy delivered a manuscript, I sat down immediately to work on it, worried that time was of the essence. It was all that I hoped it would be and more—sweeping in scope, erudite, full of archival gems, aiming to make arguments in the conclusion about the shift from discriminatory laws based on color to ones based on sex. Fortunately I found some ways to improve the manuscript and offered some suggestions, trying to weigh my concern about not having been tough enough against my sheer awe for the achievement on the pages. Peggy was such a professional that, even when she was undergoing many rounds of chemo, even when she couldn’t sit for more than half an hour at a time, she worked on finishing her book, revising after I’d edited, reviewing her copyedits, reading her page proofs, answering all her emails. I knew it was a great physical feat, not just an intellectual one. Her partner, Linda Long, did superb photo research so there were some unusual images of people and places that are rarely seen, such as the courthouse wedding of a couple that many in society legislated and fought to keep apart.

Every step of the way, I worried that Peggy wouldn’t make it to the next one. Her immune system was so weakened. The drugs weren’t working. She was experiencing horrific side effects.  But her spirit was so strong, I knew she was fighting to spend more time with her daughters and to see her finished book. She complained about having to spend time battling the health insurance company, but she seemed to find joy in spending time having massages and having herself taken care of, time I knew she hadn’t made on a regular basis when life was so busy. She never neglected her graduate students or her responsibilities as a faculty member, even when she had to stop teaching.

I’ll never forget the day What Comes Naturally came in from the printer, and because there is a superb photo of it, the day Peggy got her first book in the mail. It was more than being an editor, getting to publish her work; it was an honor and a mitzvah.

Not only did she live to see her book published, but Peggy survived long enough to see it win five prizes and the public acclaim of her colleagues. She was even able to receive four of these awards in person.  The last time I saw her when was when she went to San Diego, to the American Historical Association, both to be honored in person and to attend a panel about her book. We sat next to one another during the panel, but she was firm about not wanting to speak, to let others interpret its meaning. She was such a humble person, I knew that this panel had embarrassed her, but it is so rare to hear others talk about how a book, so soon after publication, had sparked and inspired new research agendas. We had lunch outside that day, overlooking the marina. We talked about so many things apart from the book, as we had increasingly done over email. I have thought about those conversations many times since–how hard it is be a workaholic and to have to learn how to prioritize what is truly important and what you don’t want to leave undone in life. Those lessons will never leave me, even though Peggy sadly departed this earth two years ago.

Peggy was a consummate professional, a generous and gracious soul, and someone who continues to inspire me because of the work she did, not just as an author but also as an editor.

Read “In Memoriam: Peggy Pascoe” (AHA) and visit Dr. Pascoe’s University of Oregon faculty page