Popular Historians and "Historian’s Historians"

I was recently reading a short biography of Princeton Civil War historian James McPherson in the Summer 2009 newsletter of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities. (It was recently announced that McPherson has won the NJCH lifetime achievement award. I would also be remiss if I did not add that The Way of Improvement Leads Home was chosen as an NJCH “Honor Book” in 2009.).

Here is a passage from the NJCH blurb on McPherson:

“A colleague at a California university recently remarked to me that I would be forced to choose between becoming a ‘popular historian’ or a ‘historian’s historian.’ He strongly hinted that I was in danger of becoming the former,” wrote James M. McPherson in 1995. “Why couldn’t I be both?” McPherson responded. “Surely it is possible to say something of value to fellow professionals while at the same time engaging a wider audience.”

“Forced to choose?” “Danger?”

Frankly, there are far too many so-called “historian’s historians” out there who think this way. Kudos to James McPherson for a career well spent in the service of both academia and the general public.