Over at blog of the Historical Society, Randall Stephens has posted an excerpt of Michal Jan Rozbicki‘s review of Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. Rozbicki, who teaches at St. Louis University, offers a scathing critique of what he calls “learned hagiography,” an approach to writing that employs “old-fashioned hero worship, elite-centered topic, seductive narrative aimed at popular readership, solid scholarly research with a heavy apparatus of citations, and a didactic political objective.”
Here is a taste:
Greatness sells, which is why hero-worshiping literature has a long and venerable tradition, rooted in both popular and elite culture. It stretches from Greek mythology, Gesta Romanorum, lives of saints, Arthurian legends, chivalric romances, troubadour songs, and chronicles of monarchs, through the political drama of Renaissance and the epic poetry of European romanticism, to didactic biographies of leaders (such as Parson Weems’s life of Washington) and historical novels. These writings—as opposed to modern, critical history aiming to explain why things happened—mostly describe prominent people and events in time, often embellishing them with invented episodes, folk legends, and even the personal views and experiences of the authors. The goals are usually fairly simple: exalt the qualities of the great and the saintly, lionize the powerful, and point to their role in changing the course of history. One of the distinctive features of this literature is that it was an instructional tool. Its aim was pragmatic and rooted in the present. Authors hoped that their works would supply the collective memory with worthy themes and symbols that bind societies and invite followers. The enduring attractiveness of such stories lies less in their adeptness in reconstructing facts than in their ability to conjure up ideal types, to celebrate the potential of the individual person, and to offer positive models of virtue—all qualities that defy the incoherence of the world.