Slate: “Uncle Books” Are Written Largely By Men For Men


David McCullough: Author of “uncle  books”

Andrew Kahn and Rebecca Onion at Slate define “uncle books” as “tomes that you give an older male relative, to take up residence by his wingback armchair.”  In a very interesting article, Kahn and Onion, after research into 614 books published in 2015, conclude that most popular history is written by men, for men.

Here is a taste of their piece:

We examined a set of 614 works of popular history from 80 houses, which either published books we defined as trade history or landed books we defined as trade history on the New York Times Combined Print & E-Book Nonfiction best-seller list in 2015. (For our full methodology, click here.) We found that 75.8 percent of the total titles had male authors. Interestingly, the effect was slightly less pronounced among titles that made the New York Times best-seller list—but only slightly (70.4 percent of those authors were male). University press and trade imprints had roughly the same proportion of male to female authors. The persistence of this imbalance, even among authors writing for presses that publish more academics, seems to reflect a continuing gender disparity among academic historians. In 2010, Robert Townsend of the American Historical Association wrote that among four-year college and university history faculty surveyed in 2007, only 35 percent were women.

Read the entire article for more about the methodology used by Kahn and Onion and the response of the publishing community to this trend.


Writing for General Readers is a Difficult Task for Academics

My thoughts below were prompted by this tweet:


I like to think that I am writing for a public audience.  I tried to do this in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, Why Study History?, and The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society, but I am still not convinced that I pulled it off.  Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and the Bible Cause were/will be published as trade books by Westminster/John Knox and Oxford University Press respectively, but they are/will be marketed to academics as well.

I wrote these books more with my fellow academics in mind than I did with the general reading public in mind.  As I constructed sentences I thought more about how scholars would interpret them, rather than whether or not they would be compelling to non-academic readers.

Writing for general audiences requires a complete reorientation of how I was trained to write in graduate school.  While I certainly want my writing to be based on good history, I am coming to grips with the fact that I can’t always worry about what my academic peers will think about my narratives. If I am writing for non-scholars it will mean that my arguments are going to be less nuanced than the stuff I write for scholars.  It also means that I will choose to write about subjects that may not make “original contributions” to the academic discipline of history, but still might be new or informative to readers who will have no clue whether or not the last book on subject X was written only ten years ago.

I will keep trying.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #97

My last post in this series was November 18, 2014.  I have actually done very little writing on the American Bible Society book since then.  I had some health issues that disrupted my work flow on the project, but my health is now improving and I am starting to get back into the swing things.

Those who have been following these posts have no need to fret. Work is still being accomplished on the project and I am still very optimistic that the manuscript will be delivered to Oxford University Press on May 1, 2015.

Here is what has been going on:

  • Katie is still helping me with research.  She is currently working on the ABS story in the years between World War I and World War II
  • Alyssa is working on the history of the United Bible Societies
  • Katy is back from Oxford and is now working on the history of ABS in the 1970s.
  • I am reading through Annual Reports and other records from the post World War II period, scheduling a slew of oral history interviews which I hope to conduct in February and early March, and writing the nineteenth-century chapters.
  • Mary and Kristin and the ABS have been providing me with the resources I need to keep things moving.  Thanks!
I am not sure if I will be posting everyday, but I will, at the very least, try to be consistent.  Stay tuned.

Jonathan Zimmerman on Historians and Their Publics

Jonathan Zimmerman

I just received my copy of the most recent The American Historian, a new American history magazine published by the Organization of American Historians.  There are a lot of great articles in this episode and I just might blog on a few of them in the immediate future.  But for now, I want to call your attention to Jonathan Zimmerman‘s article “Historians and Their Publics.”

Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and is best known for writing op-ed pieces that connect history to current events.  (His book Small Wonder: The Little Red School House in History and Memory is also really good).  I greatly admire Zimmerman’s attempts to bring history to public audiences.

In his The American Historian article Zimmerman makes some great points about why it is necessary and beneficial for historians to write for the public.  He argues that this kind of writing not only informs the public, but also has the potential of making us better historians.  Here are a few of Zimmerman’s ideas:

  • Graduate students need to learn to write for the public as a means of survival.  Academic jobs in history departments are drying up.
  • Everyone who writes an M.A. or Ph.D thesis should be required to produce “a piece of work about their projects for public audiences.”  Zimmerman suggests op-ed pieces, a blog posts, TED talks, and videos.
  • Writing for the public allows historians to “distill and clarify” the “central intellectual claims” of their scholarship.
  • Every graduate student of history should get training in how to teach.  Graduate students need to connect with a growing scholarship in the history of teaching and learning.
  • History teachers must be generalists.  As a result, they should feel comfortable writing op-eds and blog posts on topics that they have never researched.  As Zimmerman puts it: “I’m always amused (and, I’ll admit, a little appalled) when I hear a historian disparage colleagues for writing op-eds or blog posts on topics they have never researched on their own….In our classrooms, after all, we routinely teach about many matters far beyond our academic specialties.  Why should writing be any different.”
  • Founders of the historical profession such as Carl Becker and Charles and Mary Beard took it for granted that historians should be public intellectuals.
Great stuff. 

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #96

For some context for this post click here.

Those of you who have been following this series probably wonder why I have not been posting updates on the ABS projects.  Frankly, it is because I have taken a couple weeks away from the project in order to tend to other writing projects, carry out the functions of my day job as a professor and department chair, and tend to some family matters.

When I started this project I was optimistic about writing every day (both in terms of the book and the updates), but November has not been kind to me.  Too many volleyball videos to edit, public lectures to give, papers to grade, and leaves to rake.

But I have not given up hope.  I am already starting to feel my second wind and hope to start making more progress soon.  I even cleaned my home office last weekend.  Stay tuned.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #95

For some context for this post click here.
My work on the ABS project still remains in a funk.  I did very little writing this week as life and my day job intervened.  I need a serious jumpstart.  Chapter Five is taking way too long to complete.  Why can’t I get excited about writing about benevolent societies in the early republic?
Thank goodness my research assistants are forging ahead.  Katie has done a lot of research on 19th and 20th century ABS efforts in Mexico and the Levant.  It looks like she will be moving forward into the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.  Alyssa has set me up nicely for a chapter on the Good News Bible.  She is now working on the ABS role in the United Bible Societies.
At the moment I have written four chapters. Most, if not all, of the research is in place for Chapters 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 14.  At this point I have written about 40,000 words.  According to my contract with Oxford University Press I have 100,000 more to go.  My editors estimated that the finished product will be 384 pages long. 
Stay tuned

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update 94

Did the Second Great Awakening exist?

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We are pressing on.  I got in a good three hour writing session this morning in which I churned out about 1000 words on Chapter Five.  Today I was writing about the connection between the distribution of ABS Bibles and the triggering of the revivals of the so-called “Second Great Awakening.”

Recently I got an e-mail from a scholar who asked me if I could recommend the best synthesis of the Second Great Awakening.  I had to admit that I do not know of such a survey–probably because the revivals were scattered geographically and spread out over time.  I found it interesting that few books on religion or reform in the early republic or antebellum period even use the term “Second Great Awakening.”  For example, Mark Noll, in his magisterial America’s God, only mentions the phrase twice and those two mentions suggest that the phrase is largely unhelpful and should probably not be used.  Here are those two passages:

p.181: To the extent that the United States ever experienced a Second Great Awakening, Methodist expansion was it.  In charting the rise of a much more evangelical America, historians have probably given too much attention to highly visible revival meetings, yet they too played an important part.”  

p.565: “[The Second Great Awakening is] an imprecise term that is usually taken to refer to a series of revivals managed by Presbtyerians and Congregationalists (from the 1790s? from the early 1800s? into the 1830s?) that brought great numbers into the American churches.  If used at all, it should feature the less publicized efforts of Methodists and Baptists who did most of the work in churching and civilizing the American populace between the War for Independence and the Civil War.”

Hardly a ringing endorsement from the current dean of American religious historians.

Serendipity in the Archives

Last week the Messiah College History Department hosted Philip Deloria of the University of Michigan for our annual American Democracy Lecture.  Deloria was very gracious with his time. Not only did he deliver an evening lecture to about 350 students, faculty, and community members, but he also agreed to lead a few classes.

One of those classes was our Sophomore “Historical Methods” course.  In this course we teach students how to produce a first-rate historical research paper on a topic of their choice.  In the course of the conversation in the class he visited, Deloria discussed how historians work in the archives.  All historians hope to have a moment of serendipity when they enter the archives. (“Serendipity is defined by Webster as “luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for”).They want to find a document that no other historian before them has seen or considered. Or they want to have an “aha” moment in which they encounter a document or series of documents that can be interpreted in a way that reshapes or fundamentally changes the way we have long understood the historic subject matter at hand.

Sometimes these serendipitous moments happen by sheer luck (or providence, depending on your theology). We find something we never expected to find that totally transforms the way we think about our project.  But most of the time, as Deloria told our students, serendipitous moments in the archives or with primary sources happen because we are prepared.  In other words, these kinds of moments usually happen not because we simply got lucky, but because we have done the necessary secondary reading and we understanding the historiography of the particular subject.  When this happens–when we are prepared to do historical research– we are more prone to find things that are useful, if not groundbreaking, for our work.  We begin to look at primary sources or archival material in a new way.

Deloria’s remarks reinforced what we have been trying to teach our history majors about writing a research paper.  A good piece of historical scholarship–even an undergraduate piece of scholarship–must always be forged out of a regular and ongoing conversation between the secondary literature and the primary/archival material.  The more one reads and prepares before encountering the primary material, the more likely that such an serendipitous moment might occur.

I think this is an important reminder for both students and the seasoned historical researcher.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #91

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It has been a horrible writing week–absolutely horrible.  As I have written in previous posts I have been too busy with other personal and professional responsibilities to work on the ABS project, but I will also admit that I have been low on motivation this past week.  Chapter Five is requiring a lot of outside reading and it is really slowing me down. 

The week is over and it was a bust.  But I can’t have many more weeks like this if I want to finish the book.  Here’s hoping I can get it together next week.  Two new developments just might help.

First, I bought a new computer.  My current home computer is about four years old.  I hope the new hardware might give me a jump start.

Second, I have finally landed a publisher for this book.  On Monday I will be signing a contract agreement with Oxford University Press.  The folks at Oxford have met all of my demands for this book.  They have agreed to a low price-point (it will be a trade book) and will be able to have the book out in time for the May 2016 200th anniversary celebration. (Assuming I can deliver by May 1, 2015) Needless to say I am thrilled with this offer!  And now that I have a publisher in place I will try to do a few more posts about the entire process of securing one.  Stay tuned.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #91

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In yesterday’s post I mentioned that my work on the ABS project has been stalled due to the work I am doing on grant applications for my upcoming sabbatical.

Today I think it is fair to say that the ABS project has been temporarily derailed due to the work I am doing on grant applications.  Grant applications take a lot of time to write.  And since every grant-giving institution requires something a little bit different in its application, it makes it hard to write a boilerplate essay and use it for every grant.

I finished a big proposal today and have one more big proposal to write.  I had hoped that I would be able to complete these applications without having to intrude on the time I am devoting to the ABS project, but that is not going to happen.  Moreover, sometimes life intrudes on work.  My daughter’s volleyball team is preparing for what we all hope will be a nice playoff run and my wife and I are in the process finding a team for her 2015 club season. 

I WILL get the train back on the track.  Stay tuned.  In the meantime, “time” is punishing me.

I do, however, have some good news to report.  I just learned that one of our team–Katie Garland, a public history graduate student at the University of Massachusetts–was just appointed to the Religion, Historic Sites, and Museums” working group at the next annual meeting of the National Council for Public History.”  Nice work, Katie.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #87

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I was not satisfied with the amount of time I put into my work on the American Bible Society project this morning.  I am still in this process of working on grant proposals for my sabbaticals next year and it is eating up a lot of time.  

Nevertheless, I did manage to get some nice framing ideas for Chapter Five from my reading this morning.  I finished Abzug’s Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination and spent most of my time revisiting David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom and Mark Noll’s America’s God.  I found Sehat’s idea of a “moral establishment” to be very useful as I think about the ABS’s role in the religious culture of the early nineteenth century. Noll’s book reminded me that organizations like the ABS were part of mainstream American life in this period.

I left my reading this morning with two unrelated thoughts.

1.  There is a major difference (at least for me) between reading a book in the midst of a major research project and reading a book for pleasure or simply to keep up with the field. More on that later.

2.  I am coming to the conclusion that there has not been a good overview of early nineteenth century evangelical benevolent societies in the United States since Charles Foster’s Errand of Mercy: The Evangelical United Front, 1790-1837.  Does anyone want to offer a title that is newer or more comprehensive?

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #86

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Most of my morning today was spent reading for Chapter Five. This chapter will require me to place the history of the American Bible Society into the larger evangelical benevolent movement of the early nineteenth century so I need to bone up a bit on the history of the temperance, sabbatarian, and women’s rights movements. And I need to understand all of these movements in the context of the Second Great Awakening.

This morning I reread Robert Abzug’s Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and Religious Imagination.
It offers a nice overview of the history of antebellum reform.

Maybe I will actually write something tomorrow. Stay tuned.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #85

Southern Methodist University

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I am writing from my hotel room in Dallas across the street from the beautiful campus of Southern Methodist University.  As noted in a previous post, last night I gave a lecture to about 75 students and faculty entitled “The American Bible Society and the Creation of the Christian Nationalism.”   The lecture was drawn from Chapter One and Chapter Two of the project. Some of you who have been following along will remember that these were the two chapters that served as my “sample chapters” for potential publishers.  Last night was the first time I shared my ABS research in a public forum of this nature and I got some good questions from the audience that will force me to do a better job of refining my arguments.

As I spent time editing the lecture on the plane from Philadelphia to Dallas I realized that the prose in these chapters still need a lot of work.  What I thought was in pretty good shape in August now seemed overly wordy and full of extraneous information that was unrelated to my argument.  

On a related matter, the demands of my academic life at Messiah College combined with my visit to Dallas made for a very unproductive writing week.  While I continue to do background reading for my chapter on the ABS benevolent empire, I have still not started writing the chapter.  Here’s hoping for a return next week to a more regimented writing schedule.  

Most of the research is now in place for the story of the ABS through World War I.  It is now a matter of putting that research into accessible prose.  Stay tuned.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #84

Caruth Hall on the campus of Southern Methodist University

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This morning I returned to Chapter One and Chapter Two. Actually, I condensed the chapters into a 40-minute public lecture that I will giving tomorrow night at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.  In the process, I realized that there is a lot of information in Chapter One that is repeated in Chapter Two. This made it easier to condense the two chapters into one lecture, but such repetition does not bode well for a book manuscript.  Preparing this lecture has allowed me to streamline some of my prose and avoid unnecessary repetition.  

This morning reminded me how important it is to take on speaking engagements or conference presentations when working on a book manuscript.  Even if the audience does not offer helpful suggestions for improving the project, the opportunity to think about the best way to communicate your material to audiences of all kinds is an invaluable exercise.  I find that it often helps my writing more than it does my public speaking.

See you in Dallas.

*New York Times* Interview With James McPherson

He is currently reading Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington.  The last “great book” he read was James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States.  He believes that Bernard Bailyn, David Brion Davis, Gordon Wood, Eric Foner, David McCullough, and David Hackett Fischer are the best historians writing today.  He endorses John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom as the best book ever written on African-American history.  C. Vann Woodward’s Origins of the New South is the book that has had the most influence on his career as an American historian.  If he could assign Barack Obama one book it would be Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit.  If he was hosting a literary dinner party he would invite Mark Twain, John Dos Passos, and William Faulkner.  He is embarrassed that he has not yet read A. Scott Berg’s biography of Woodrow Wilson.

Read about these things and more in this interview with noted Civil War historian James McPherson
By the way, he has a new book out:  Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #78

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I got some good news about the ABS project today.  More on that in a future post.

The meeting of the Conference on Faith and History in Malibu is now in full swing.  It is good to see old friends and make new ones.  But as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, all of this conferencing is not conducive to writing.  I knew that I would not make progress on the project this weekend, but I am not giving up on my commitment to try to at least do something to advance the manuscript while I am soaking up the Malibu sun.

With that in mind, I spent an hour this morning revising and editing Chapter Four.  I was working on a section in which I explore the grass roots dimensions of the ABS effort to provide, between 1829-1831, a Bible to every American family.

And now off to the conference.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #77

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I am now settled into my hotel room in beautiful Agoura Hills, California.  I took advantage of the extra three hours I picked up with the time change to get in about ninety minutes of work on the ABS project this morning.  Chapter Four is really taking shape.  I am feeling better and better about it.  I am still not pleased with how long it is taking me to write this chapter, but I am starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Stay tuned.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #76

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Writing on the road is not easy.  I spent the day traveling to California (Pepperdine University) for the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  It is almost impossible for me to write new prose while traveling. I need my notes and research in front of me. I also need my two computer screens.  I like to have my manuscript on one screen and my notes on another screen.

But plane travel is conducive to rewriting and polishing prose. I only need one screen to do this and I find that I can concentrate in airports and on planes. 

It is important that I keep moving forward on this project, even if my writing time is limited on the road. Today I worked on the first several pages of Chapter Four–rewriting, refining, and polishing. It was a long flight from Harrisburg to Denver and then on to Los Angeles, but it was also a productive one.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #74

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Another slow day on Chapter Four.  For various reasons I have described in previous posts I am really having a hard time making progress on this chapter.  This morning I had to work hard at producing 763 words on the grass roots strategies used by ABS agents to carry out the General Supply.  

Panic mode has not set in yet, but I am falling behind the schedule I proposed.  I had hoped to be writing Chapter Six (on the Civil War) by this point in September.  Maybe tomorrow will be a better day.

On Writing the History of the American Bible Society–Update #73

Richard Varick: ABS President during the 1st General Supply

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This morning I had a strong three hour writing session and managed to churn out 1710 words on Chapter Four: “A Bible for Every American Family.”  I am now deep into the narrative part of the chapter in which I attempt to offer a blow-by-blow account of the progress of the General Supply.

As I noted in yesterday’s post, I am also trying to spend some time looking ahead to future research.  The good folks at the ABS libraries and archives are assembling a list of people that I might want to interview for the project.  Katie is back at UMASS and is finishing up the late 19th century sections of the research. Alyssa continues to work on Eugene Nida and the cultural/religious history of the Good News Bible.

Speaking of the Good News Bible, I am still eager to hear from anyone who remembers encountering this Bible for the first time.  How did this text change the way you read the Bible or thought about the scriptures?