Ken Burns and “Sour Grapes”


Yesterday I had the chance to be part of a small group discussion with Martin Luther King Jr. biographer Taylor Branch.  During the course of the conversation someone asked him if his work had been criticized by academic historians because he wrote in a narrative style and he did not have a Ph.D in history.  Branch said that many academics don’t like his books in the same way that they don’t like the work of David McCullough or Ron Chernow.  He took the criticism in stride and didn’t seem to be bothered by it.

At this point in the conversation I chimed-in and told him that I was one of those “academic historians” who happens to like (and read) narrative history.  I also told him that the criticism of narrative history writers could be best explained by jealousy.  He laughed out loud and said thank you.  My day was made and my reputation as a suck-up was firmly secured.  🙂

What about Ken Burns?

I have had more conversations about the Vietnam War in the past two weeks than I have had in my entire life.  People are talking about history.  Last time I checked, historians usually think this is a good thing.

As I have written here before, I thoroughly enjoyed Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s documentary “The Vietnam War.” I am thus in full agreement with Jonathan Zimmerman‘s recent piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education: What’s So Bad About Ken Burns.”

Here is a taste:

Historians aren’t very happy with Ken Burns. He’s a simplifier; we complicate. He makes myths; we bust them. And he celebrates the nation, while we critique it.

That’s the party line, anyway, among my fellow academics. And while I agree with some of their attacks on Burns’s recently concluded TV series about the Vietnam War, there’s something else at work here.

It’s called sour grapes. Put simply, Burns has managed to engage a huge public audience. And that makes him suspect among members of our guild, who write almost entirely for each other.

We pretend we don’t envy his fame and fortune, but of course we do. We’re like high-school kids who don’t get asked to the prom, then say they never wanted to go in the first place.

That’s the only way to understand the dismissive, vituperative tone of our profession’s reaction to Burns’s series. Several scholars praised Burns for including multiple voices — especially Vietnamese ones — in his interviews. But most historians in the blogosphere took him to task for distorting the conflict, especially with regard to his quest for a shared national narrative that can bind Americans together.

Read the entire piece here.

Andrew Bacevich on Carl Becker, Donald Trump, Bill O’Reilly, and the Writing of History


Carl Becker

Historian and foreign policy scholar Andrew Bacevich brings these three figures together in a provocative essay about how we write history.  Here is just a small taste:

Contrast the influence wielded by prominent historians in Becker’s day—during the first third of the 20th century, they included, along with Becker, such formidables as Henry Adams, Charles and Mary Beard, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Frederick Jackson Turner—with the role played by historians today. The issue here is not erudition, which today’s scholars possess in abundance, but impact. On that score, the disparity between then and now is immense.

In effect, professional historians have ceded the field to a new group of bards and minstrels. So the bestselling “historian” in the United States today is Bill O’Reilly, whose books routinely sell more than a million copies each. Were Donald Trump given to reading books, he would likely find O’Reilly’s both accessible and agreeable. But O’Reilly is in the entertainment business. He has neither any interest nor the genuine ability to create what Becker called “history that does work in the world.”

Still, history itself works in mysterious ways known only to God or to Providence. Only after the fact do its purposes become evident. It may yet surprise us.

Read the entire piece at The Nation.

David McCullough Talks About His New Book (and other things)

McCulloughOver at Time, Olivia Waxman interviews author and historian David McCullough about his new book The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For.  The book is an anthology of McCullough’s recent speeches.

In the course of the interview McCullough talks about the purpose of history, American exceptionalism, historical monuments, museums, and a bunch of other stuff.

Here is a small taste:

What name should historians give this period of history we’re living in?

It’s not my profession to judge things now. You’ve got to wait 50 years. But I’m sure they will wonder what in the world overcame us.

You were on the first board of scholars for the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, which opens this week. What are its most valuable artifacts in your opinion, the ones that people should make sure to see…

I don’t think the artifacts are the most important.

So what is important about the museum’s collection?

What’s so important about it is it’s the first museum on the subject of the American Revolution that we’ve ever had. And, underline this, we can never know enough about the American Revolution if we want to understand who we are, why we are the way we are, and why we’ve accomplished what we’ve been able to accomplish that no other country has.

What do you think future historians will think of the material that we’ll leave them from today?

We’re producing so much for future historians that they may be just overwhelmed, because so much of it is redundant and boring. There’s a record of everything, every day. Facebook, for God’s sake! It’s like a landslide, every day, of stuff.

So the fact that we’re not writing letters to each other won’t hurt them?

Oh, that’s a huge loss. Huge loss, because no one in public life would dare keep a diary anymore. It could be subpoenaed and used against you in court. And nobody writes letters. If you’re interested in immortality, start keeping a diary, and when you get to the point when you think maybe the curtain is going to come down on you, give it to the Library of Congress, and you’ll be quoted forever because it will be the only diary ever in existence.

Is there a particular biography you wish you had written or would like to see a historian write? Some figure who you think is ripe for exploration?

I think there’s a good biography to be written about Gerald Ford. He was a far more interesting figure of depth as a leader than he’s given credit for.

What’s your favorite historical monument or museum in the U.S. or abroad?

The Shaw Memorial in Boston. A powerful one, in the extreme, because it gives the black troops that served in the [Civil] War a chance to be seen as individuals and not just mechanical figures.

Read the entire piece here.

Some Autobiographical Reflections on Doing “Academic History” and Writing History for Public Audiences

ancientI usually do a few of these posts a year, as the spirit moves.  Having a blog means that I can occasionally write autobiographically. Sabbaticals provide opportunities to do more of it.  So here we go again.

Over at the Scholarly Kitchen, Karin Wulf defends the importance of academic history writing.  Here is a taste:

…The question is what constitutes purposely “writing for the public,” and how that differs significantly from the writing academics do for one another — and which might also be of interest to the public. For historians this often boils down to “narrative” versus “argument.” “People care about stories, not arguments,” was one tweeted paraphrase of Lepore’s talk. Storytelling is one of the oldest human forms of communication. It is not a simple thing to tell a story well and with meaning. One of the masters of the genre (and Lepore’s teacher), John Demos, teaches a course on narrative history that pushes students to think about form and expression as well as evidence and argument. These debates about narrative versus argument have been happening for eons; I imagine Thucydides saying “look, guys, narrative is the only way to write history of the Peloponnesian War.”

The question ought not be, however, one versus the other. Academic writing is expository. For academic writing, argument is essential, and narrative is optional. Academic research is the accumulation of new information by many different means. The significance of this information is articulated through evidence-based argument, the heart of historical disciplinary practice. Argument doesn’t preclude narrative — a very fine writer can craft a narrative that conveys a variety of important arguments, but pure narrative can never substitute for argument in professional exchange.

Why not? Don’t professional historians appreciate a good story? Every historian I know loves a good story. Academic writing, however, is the formulation of research into new knowledge. That might be in the form of genuinely new information, or it might be an importantly fresh perspective or interpretation. Using new methods and tools as well as the regular revelation of new materials means that historians are generating new knowledge at a rapid clip.

So how do we know what’s new? A fundamental responsibility of academic writing is to explain the relationship of new scholarship to its forebears. Knowledge doesn’t accrete in a linear or progressive fashion, of course, but explaining how research and interpretation is related to the literature that’s come before it is fundamental to our evaluation of the work. After all, historians have been writing about the American Revolution since shortly after the American Revolution. As a professional historian, how would I know whether the next book I see on either an oft-studied topic or an entirely fresh subject is important to read and digest, to inform or incorporate into my own research perspective or plans, and to integrate into my teaching? I just watched an exchange between an experienced former journal editor and a manuscript reviewer who asked “if I think I’ve seen something like this argument before but I can’t quite place it, what should I do?” And of course the former editor encouraged the reviewer to try to address that issue as fully as possible, noting that expert peer reviewers play a key role in signaling to editors how a submission relates to the existing scholarship. In other words, historians are particularly attuned to the history of history.

I largely agree with Wulf here.  We need academic history. Scholarly articles and books find their way into databases that can be consulted later and perhaps even provide a scholarly foundation for popular writing on a given historical subject.  Academic scholarship is needed, even if the public audience is small or non-existent.  New knowledge must be advanced.

If everything goes well, sometimes academic history finds its way to the public.  But often times it does not.  The old quip about academics writing scholarly articles that only a small number people read is mostly true.

I applaud people who write academic monographs and publish scholarly articles.  I am just not sure I want to do it any more.  Did I just commit a certain kind of professional suicide by saying this?  Maybe.  Or maybe I did that a long time ago.

Over the last half-decade or so, ever since Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction appeared and garnered attention as a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize, I realized that my vocation as a historian was less about writing for my peers and more about reaching the public with my work.

I still try to keep one foot in the professional world of academic history.  I attend conferences, write book reviews when asked, try to stay abreast of new work, and serve as an outside reviewer of book and article manuscripts.  I try to expose the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home to the latest scholarship in the field through The Author’s Corner feature at the blog.  I continue to network with my academic friends and colleagues because I want to remain in conversation with very smart people who love to talk about history.  As a college teacher I also think these connections are important for my students, especially when I write letters of recommendation to supplement their graduate school applications.  So by no means have I left academia or the world of professional history.

But I am losing my passion for writing academic history. Perhaps I have already lost it. The last scholarly article I published in a history journal was my piece on Philip Vickers Fithian and the rural Enlightenment.  It appeared in The Journal of American History in 2003.  Granted, I have written scholarly essays that have appeared in edited collections and other venues, but these were mostly pieces that I was invited to write. I still have a few ideas for scholarly essays percolating in my head.  Sometimes I wonder if they will ever see the light of print.

My first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early Americagave me my first glimpse of the power of non-academic story-telling.  As a scholarly monograph, the book covers some sophisticated ground.  I write about the “rural enlightenment,” the “public sphere,” “cosmopolitanism” and “local attachments.”  But when I spoke (and continue to occasionally speak) about the book before public audiences I found that people were most attracted to the tragic life of Philip Vickers Fithian.  They didn’t care about the “rural enlightenment.”  Instead they wanted to know Fithian’s story.  They wanted to hear about his love affair with Elizabeth Beatty.  They wanted to hear about his experiences on the Pennsylvania frontier and what it was like to attend college at 18th-century Princeton. The K-8 teachers who attend my Gilder-Lerhman seminar at Princeton on colonial America have told me on more than one occasion that the book’s last chapter moved them to tears.

I was shocked when people dropped $30.00 for a copy of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and asked me to sign it. I was also a bit embarrassed because I knew that in the book the dramatic story I had told them in the talk was wedged between a lot of theoretical discussion that could make it a disappointing read.  (Maybe this is why in the last couple of years I have found at least three signed copies of the book on the shelves of used bookstores).

My experience with The Way of Improvement Leads Home convinced me to write with those people who attended my book talks in mind.  And then I started this blog and realized that I could reach more people with one post than I could with any journal article or scholarly monograph.

At some point along the way I was forced to reckon with the careerism that defines academic life. I am sure that there are many historians who write academic history for their peers out of a sense of vocation.  They love to advance knowledge and feel called to do it, even if very few people will read what they write. But there are others who would balk at the approach to doing the kind of public history I described above because it might be considered a bad career move.  I understand this critique.  An article in the William and Mary Quarterly brings much more prestige among one’s fellow academic peers than a blog post or a book published with Westminster/John Knox or Baker Academic. Articles in prestigious journals can lead to “good” jobs at research universities and a whole lot of respect.  We are fooling ourselves if we think that the writing of academic history is not embedded in a narrative of social climbing and careerism.  Should academic historians write to advance new knowledge in the context of the noble pursuit of a scholarly life?  Of course.  Is it difficult to separate this noble pursuit from rank careerism and ambition?  Of course.

In 2002 I found a dream job–teaching American history at Messiah College.  From the perspective of the profession and the academy, Messiah College is, in more ways than one, an outpost.  But being at a place like Messiah has made it much easier for me to think about my calling as a historian in ways that are fundamentally different than the academic culture I imbibed as a graduate student.  And this is freeing.

Maybe some of you feel the same way I do about all of this.  If so, send me an e-mail. Let’s talk.

Liz Covart on Popular History


Covart: People like history books about ordinary lives

Why are popular history books popular?  It’s a great question.  Liz Covart, the host of Ben Franklin’s World, offers an answer.


Covart concludes that ordinary readers flock to popular history for three reasons.  First, because popular books feature people.  Covart suggests that people like books about the American founders, but they like stories about the lives of everyday men and women even more.  Second, popular books use “plain, evocative language.”  Third, popular books “make judgement calls.”

Here is a taste of her post:

Each week, I receive e-mails with requests that I present more episodes about how non-famous, non-elite men and women lived.

You know who tackles this topic best and writes about it the most?

Academic historians.

If readers want to read about everyday men and women, why are popular history books popular?

They are popular because they feature people readers can follow and live through vicariously. I suspect that many history lovers settle for books about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they can’t find books about people like Martha Ballard or George Robert Twelves Hewes.

The feedback my listeners provide strongly suggests that they would love to read books about men or women who lived average lives; books that allowed them to witness the past through the eyes of someone like them.

Read the entire post here.


Keith Harris: "Entertaining Stories and History Are Not Necessarily The Same Thing"

What makes good history?   Should journalists be writing history?  Keith Harris explores these questions at his blog. aptly named “Keith Harris History.”  Here is a taste:

I suggest that not all best-selling journalists – even Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists – are created equal, at least when it comes to writing history. While the American public thirsts for a good historical tale, many would-be historians fall short in their efforts to rise to the occasion. The well-read, and might I add informed public, certainly get the entertainment they desire. What they often do not get is engaging history – but rather, shallow reports of historical events. So let’s not be confused here. Entertaining stories and history are not necessarily the same thing. Though first-rate journalists may have a flair for the written word, I am not convinced that they stand up to the rigors of academic research. And I do not want to sound snotty – but much of their work fails to match the standards set in academia. Some just write bad history well – and that is a damn shame.
Case in point. I recently read journalist Dick Lehr’s book on the controversial film, The Birth of a Nation. The book was not without virtues.  The writing was vivid, punchy, and yes, entertaining. But the history didn’t cut it for me. Lehr’s book was full of pretty obvious historical errors. His analysis was one dimensional and the book lacked depth and insight (spoiler alert: the film is racist…and black people didn’t like that).  I can only surmise that this is because the man is not a trained historian – so I forgive his shortcomings. And let’s be honest – if I tried to be a journalist, I would most likely blow it. So I will stick to doing what I know how to do – and keep writing history.
On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed journalist Rick Atkinson’s WWII Liberation Trilogy. This series was exhaustively researched and beautifully written. And yes, it too was entertaining. So I guess you never know. Like in any profession (even academia…) some are just better than others.
Harris also has some good things to say about historians and social media in this post.  Check out his very informative blog.

On Writing a History of the American Bible Society–Update #13

Richard Varick: President of ABS during 1st General Supply

Want to get some context for this post? Click here.

It was a pretty quiet Friday at the American Bible Society (ABS).  I finished my last day of my first summer 2014 stint in the archives here and it was a productive one. Thanks again to Mary Cordato and Kristin Hellman for making the ABS a great place to conduct research.

On Friday I worked my way through ABS Extracts published in the late 1820s and early 1830s.  This was about the time of the ABS’s “General Supply.” Between 1829 and 1831 the Society attempted to give a Bible to every family and adult individual in the United States. It was an ambitious undertaking.  I have been looking at the way the local auxiliaries and ABS field agents have been responding to this call. I have been uncovering a lot of good anecdotes and stories.

I have also been wrestling with the nature of the book I am writing . My original goal was to write a semi-scholarly/semi-popular history of the American Bible Society that was deeply grounded in the primary sources and informed by the best secondary literature in American religious history and other fields.  I am enjoying my work on this project and wish I could spend more time on it. But, alas, I have agreed to deliver a book in time for the 200th anniversary of the ABS.  With this in mind, I am just not sure I can deliver a book with the kind of depth and scholarly analysis I had originally planned.

This is a rather new kind of history writing.  I am going to have to try to figure out how to write an institutional history in one year without sacrificing my own standards as a critical historian.  I am not sure if this is possible.  We will see what happens. This is going to take a lot of work over the course of the next year, but it is also a challenge I need right now.

Are You Watching "Turn"?

I am not.  

But everywhere I go people are asking me about this new television series about the American Revolution based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies.   I am sure I will get around to watching it one of these days.  As much as I preach the idea that historians must engage the public, I seldom watch historical movies until well after they have the left the theaters.  I guess I need to improve in this area, but as someone who thinks about history all day for a living I have always seen television and movie watching–sports, comedy, dramas–as a chance to think about something else for a change.

I am, however, glad that J.L. Bell is watching Turn and is reviewing it at Boston 1775.  Here is a taste of his Season One wrap-up:

Early on in the show’s run I had to reconcile myself to the many historical liberties the show’s creators had taken, from launching the Culper Ring in 1776 to giving two principal characters anachronistic bushy beards as a way to signal they stood outside ordinary norms and differentiate them from the other men. There are so many deviations from the historical record or historiographical questions to point out that those essays could fill a season unto themselves.

But I realized that simply noting those changes was not unlike pointing out that Bucky Barnes died while trying to stop Baron Zemo’s rocket, and not by falling off a train as in the new Captain Americamovies. That may be true—hey, it is true—but not in the “Marvel movie continuity.”

Similarly, it seemed wiser to consider the Turn continuity to reflect a different universe from the real one. The same characters were playing the same basic roles in the same basic storylines, but they looked different, the timeline was changed, and knowledge about one world didn’t necessarily apply in the other. Given the cast-limiting budget, the show’s production values, use of period music, and generally strong performances kept it generally entertaining.

My biggest disappointment with Turn, therefore, wasn’t with the historical accuracy but with the way some characters’ motivations seemed to shift as the plot demanded. The character at the center,Abe Woodhull, is obviously torn in several directions—politically, romantically, familially. But his choices remained so opaque that, for instance, his getting involved in a duel seemed to be driven more by the producers’ thought that a duel would be dramatic than by anything we’d seen Abe do up to that point. Secondary characters worked better since they could be “flat,” in E. M. Forster’s formulation, and maintain their motivation. 

For Bell’s other posts and reviews on Turn click here.

Some Thoughts on Publishing With a University Press

I was browsing Facebook today and saw a post from Thomas Kidd of Baylor University announcing the forthcoming release of a festschrift for retired Notre Dame historian George Marsden. I am a huge fan of Marsden and his work.  Though I have never officially been his student, he has profoundly shaped my work as a historian and my vocation as Christian scholar.  So needless to say I was thrilled to see that Kidd, Kurt Peterson, and Darren Dochuck have brought together essays by Marsden’s friends and students in a book entitled American Evangelicalism: George Marsden and the State of American Religious History.  The book will be out in October, and I am sure we will cover it more extensively at that time.

But this post is not really about George Marsden or about the content of this forthcoming festschrift. It is actually about the fact that the retail price of American Evangelicalism: George Marsden and the State of American Religious History is $59.40.  Now I have been around the world of academic publishing long enough to know that once the book appears it will discounted by Amazon.  I know that if the book does well, it will be published in a cheaper paperback edition.  I know that places like University of Notre Dame Press and other university presses usually target academic libraries with hardcover editions.  I know that festschrifts are often expensive because they are not steady-sellers.

Yet when I see prices like this, it makes me think more broadly about university press publishing.  I am at a stage in my career in which I want to write for readers.  Most of us publish our first book (usually some version of our dissertation) to get tenure and promotion.  Yes, we hope that people will read it and some of us even want to write in such a way that is accessible to non-academics.  We may even hope that our book might change the field.  But for many of us the retail price of that first monograph is not as important as the long term economic benefits and job security it will bring us in terms of tenure.

So I wonder:  Are university presses the best option for those of us who want to write for readers, especially when such presses charge such high prices for our books?  I am not blaming university presses here.  I fully understand the difficulty that university press publishing is facing today.  In some cases they have to jack up the price of a book just to break even on it.  But at this stage of my career I don’t have much interest in writing a book that is too expensive for the people who want to, or ought to, read it. Lately I have tried to write books with speaking engagements in mind.  It is very hard to show up at a venue, give what I hope is a compelling talk about the book that might actually prompt a layperson to consider reading it, and then ask that person to head to the back of the room and buy a copy of the book for $50.00.

I realize that not everyone in academia thinks about their books this way.  Many are content to spend their careers writing monographs that have a very limited readership.  This is fine.  There are many ways to understand the academic vocation.  But if you are a scholar who writes for audiences larger than the traditional academic ones, I would love to hear from you.

I have been thinking for a long time about breaking ranks with the culture of academic publishing. While writing a monograph or two is still absolutely essential to establish a platform and even obtain some job security, I am wondering if it is time to seek out other kinds of publishers for my work–publishers that can deliver a quality book at a reasonable price. (In some respects I have already done this with Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Why Study History?). And I am not simply talking here about the big New York trade publishers.  I am also thinking about small presses with strong marketing departments who can make my books accessible–both economically and aesthetically– to the people who may want to read them.

In the end, I am not opposed to publishing with a university press. After I finish my current project on the history of the American Bible Society I will be a publishing another book with a university press. (More on that in another post–not ready to announce it yet).  But I wonder if anyone has brought the subject of price points into a contract negotiation with a university press.  Does this ever happen?

How Lewis and Clark Became History

When did Americans become interested in Lewis and Clark’s journey’s through the Louisiana Territory?  The actual trip was made between 1804 and 1806, but the story of the journey did not become part of the popular American historical imagination until the1960s.  Natasha Geiling makes this argument at  Here is a taste of her post:

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the public and scholarly spheres connected to make Lewis and Clark the American icons they are today. In the academic world, the work of Donald Jackson changed the way the Lewis and Clark narrative was told. In the 1962 edition of the Lewis and Clark letters, Jackson wrote in his introduction that the Lewis and Clark expedition was more than the story of two men—it was the story of many people and cultures. 

Geiling also connects the popularity of Lewis and Clark to the founding of the Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail in 1969 and the publication of Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West

The "Glitzy Glorification of Jefferson" and "Learned Hagiography"

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. 

Popular Histories of the American Revolution and Recent Scholarship

Eric Herschthal is absolutely correct.  Most of the new popular histories of the American Revolution ignore existing scholarship.  I am not sure if this is a good or a bad thing, but for Herschthal, a graduate student at Columbia University, it is definitely a bad thing.  Here is a taste of his piece at Slate:

Every Independence Day the book industry offers new titles about the American Revolution, promising original thoughts and fresh relevance. This year is no different, with some of the nation’s most lauded historians releasing major new titles making bold claims of insight. Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis just came out with Revolutionary Summer, which focuses on the few months in 1776 when the 13 colonies declared independence. It comes on the heels of Penn professor Richard Beeman’s Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor, which also follows the road to 1776. And the National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill, already a best-seller, zooms in on the 1775 battle that transformed the conflict from a series of skirmishes into a full-blown war.

These are carefully written books that are sensitive to contemporary attitudes. (Perhaps occasionally too sensitive.) But you’d be mistaken in thinking that they provide a new perspective on the Revolution, because none of them seriously consider much of the latest research being done by historians across the country—which has a lot of new and relevant things to say. If you bought a popular book on science, one that came with a similar sheen of intellectual prestige, and learned that it essentially ignored years’ worth of scholarship, you’d demand your money back. Why should history be any different? 

Herschthal wonders why these popular books glorify political and military leadership and do not address questions of race, slavery, and globalization.  These are all very good questions, but as long as people want to read about politics, war, and leadership the kind of books written by Beeman, Ellis, and Philbrick will be popular.  Lay readers of American history will always gravitate to a past that is useable. 

Is it possible to write a best-selling popular history of the American Revolution that incorporates recent scholarship?  Would the ordinary history buff want to read such a book? 

I think the answer to both of these question is “yes,” but we have much work to do.

The Junto Takes on Popular History

Kenneth Owen, Michael Hattem, and Roy Rogers discuss popular history as part of the Junto’s monthly podcast.  During the course of their conversation they discuss the Junto March Madness tournament, attempt to distinguish between popular and academic history, recommend some good popular histories, and reflect on how historians can reach larger audiences. 

I am glad to see these younger historians emphasize teaching, public lectures, and blogging as a way of reaching larger audiences.  Soon we will all be public historians.

I also want to thank Kenneth Owen for the shout-out at the beginning of the podcast.

"This is So Incredibly Bitter"

I have to agree with Kevin Levin’s critique of Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg’s smackdown of Fareed Zakaria’s recent admission to plagiarism. 

What Zakaria did was wrong.  Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin were also guilty of historical malpractice.  But Burstein and Isenberg’s argument that journalists should not write history sounds a bit like sour grapes to me.

Here is a taste of Levin’s piece:

...they go after David McCullough, not because he plagiarized anything, but because he is popular:

Second best, actually. The beloved David McCullough, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is routinely enshrined as “a national treasure” and “America’s greatest living historian.” But nothing he writes is given real credibility by any careful historian because history is grounded in evidence, and McCullough isn’t familiar with more than a smattering of the secondary literature on most subjects he tackles. He hires a younger researcher (the Goodwin method) to read for him and tell him what’s important. If he doesn’t read in depth the books and articles he lists in his very thorough bibliography, which someone else presumably compiled, how honest is he being with the reader?

What makes him a historian? It’s his avuncular personality, not any mastery of the sources.

Though more than a million copies of his book “John Adams” sold, even more Americans were influenced by the HBO series of the same name, which was marketed as if based on the book. In reality, not only was the history grossly distorted, many of the scenes were stolen from “The Adams Chronicles,” which appeared on PBS in the 1970s. There are far better books on Adams than McCullough’s, but they haven’t been hyped. There’s no money in it. History is hard to sell if it’s complicated.

This is so incredibly bitter.  I guess in the worlds of Burstein and Isenberg, Gordon Wood doesn’t count as a “careful historian.”  Here is what Wood said about McCullough and the book:

Unlike Tuchman, who feuded with university professors of history, McCullough has the respect of academic historians, maybe because he respects them. McCullough actually attends historical conferences and sits patiently listening to long specialized papers. Anyone who does that, and doesn’t have to, deserves respect.

So well known is McCullough that any book he now writes becomes an expectant event. Learning that McCullough was working on a biography of John Adams, readers of popular history and professional historians alike have eagerly awaited its publication. They will not be disappointed. This big but extremely readable book is by far the best biography of Adams ever written.

I think Burstein and Isenberg owe McCullough and apology.  And what exactly is wrong with hiring an assistant, who can help to sort through the immense amount of documents that come with any major project?  The last time I checked university professors use graduate students as assistants in pretty much the same way.

I think Levin has hit the nail on the head here, but I would say that any journalist who wants to practice history must still abide by historical rules of evidence and interpretation.

Do You Want To Reach a Popular Audience with Your Historical Writing? Then Quit Graduate School

Bruce Cole, the former chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, reviews the Library of America volume devoted to the writings of the late popular historian Barbara Tuchman. When asked about her training as a writer, Tuchman said that pursuing a Ph.D in history would have stifled here writing capacity.

Here is a taste of Cole’s review:

Now, to return to Tuchman’s point about the virtues of not pursuing a doctorate in history: Is a Ph.D.—the union card for the professorate—a hindrance to approaching history as Tuchman did?

Alas, the answer is likely “yes.” The years-long slog of course work, exams and the laborious, footnote-laden dissertation—written strictly to be read by other scholars—have a way of hard-wiring habits of the mind that are difficult to overcome. A few academically trained scholars do survive the tyranny of their doctorates and reach a wide reading audience. But inside the Ivory Tower, where most historians dwell, professors write books, articles, and conference papers for other professors, and mainly for those colleagues toiling in the same small subset of the past.

Moreover, professors of the increasingly fragmented humanities disciplines remain, even now, in thrall to race, class and gender studies that have been run through the wringer of postmodern theory. These historians often view writing for an audience beyond the campus, as Tuchman did, not only as debasing but also as potentially damaging to their careers. The fear is not irrational: A professor’s tenure and progress through the ranks is dependent on the judgment of scholarly peers.

The gulf seems to be widening between those who write history for general readers—David McCullough, Paul Johnson and Thomas Fleming, for example, who come, like Tuchman, from the world of journalism—and the scholars who write for a shrinking audience of specialists. It has not always been so; in the not-too-distant past, professional historians like Samuel Morrison and Allan Nevins wrote books with a wide popular appeal.

Not all professors should be writing for a general readership, but more should try. Much important and fascinating research is unavailable to the public simply because the discoverers lack the will or the talent to reach beyond their familiar circle. Of course, what has occurred in the history profession is symptomatic of the waning importance of the humanities disciplines themselves, a plight much lamented by those who have hastened the decline. Barbara Tuchman saw it coming.