Let’s take a look at the book description for James McPherson’s famous publication Battle Cry of Freedom. This important and widely acclaimed book about the history of the Civil War has received its fair share of praise over the years, most of which is deserved. When we look at this description, we are given some scintillating lines that make our credit cards perform amazing tricks before our very eyes as they pop into our hands with smiles on our faces in a financially expensive instant:
“Battle Cry of Freedom will unquestionably become the standard one-volume history of the Civil War.”
“This authoritative volume makes sense of that vast and confusing “second American Revolution” we call the Civil War, a war that transformed a nation and expanded our heritage of liberty.”
“Likely to become the standard one-volume history of our Civil War.”
Similarly, we see a book by John Keegan described as such:
“His captivating work promises to be the definitive history of the American Civil War.”
We should certainly give credit where credit is due. When a historian writes an excellent book that sharpens our perception of the past, that person deserves our attention and praise. As I pointed out in my last post, academia loves a good book, and many historians have used their monographs to catapult to the very top of the history profession. For instance, David Blight’s publication Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory was probably the biggest reason why Yale University hired him as a full professor in 2003, I’m guessing. He had a stellar track record before that, but I’m not sure he gets that job if he doesn’t write that magisterial book.
All things considered, this language used by book publishers in describing their releases is absolute garbage, and too many of us have been hoodwinked by false claims and a warped understanding of what it means to read about history. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past year, it’s that words like “authoritative” and “definitive” are worthless when describing a book of history. There is no such thing as a “definitive history” of anything, plain and simple. Such words are overly presumptuous, arrogant, and condescending. If Keegan’s book is truly definitive, then there is no need for any other book to be published on the Civil War. If McPherson’s book is authoritative, how does his audience engage in a dialogue with the author in a way that fosters further discussion and reading? It seems that these publishers are saying, “we don’t want anyone else’s perspectives or opinions. Our authors will suffice.” It’s a return to the old history classroom where we read our textbooks and were taught that this was the way things were, because that’s the way we say it went. It’s definitive.
The sad thing is that many of us look at these descriptions and think that we’ll suddenly become experts in these fields just by reading a book or two. If I read Keegan’s definitive history, I’ll know all I need to know about the Civil War with no further reading or exploration. McPherson’s recollections on the causes of the Civil War are all I need to understand the causes of the Civil War, thank you very much.
Why is it that we frequently view publications in history as possible “Master Narratives” that somehow describe everything that happened in the past? Why are we always trying to find that “definitive” book that helps us get to a point where we no longer have to question the past or hear any new “revisionist” perspectives because we’ve “uncovered the definitive truth” of “what actually happened?” Is it right for us to seek an “endpoint” to the study of history?
For Historical Methods I have gone back about 400 years from the Civil War into the world of late medieval religion in England. We are reading Eamon Duffy’s work The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580. The book has gone through ten printings, which is extremely impressive for any book, regardless of genre. It was first published in 1992, but Duffy wrote a revised preface to the book in 2005 in which he reflected on the public and academia’s response to his publication. Long story short, Duffy had argued that many of the preconceived notions about our understandings of the impact of the Reformation in England were distorted by flawed interpretations by past historians. It turns out that Catholicism in England was perhaps stronger leading up to the Reformation than what we may have thought before. In responding to criticisms about his book, Duffy had this to say on page xix:
The Stripping of the Altars offered, first and foremost, an overview of the complex web of symbol, action and belief which constituted mainstream Christianity at the end of the Middle Ages. Much modern writing about the period, it seemed to me, had unwittingly distorted our perception of the place of Christianity in late medieval and early modern society by focusing disproportionately on the…dissident and the dysfunctional. Thus studies of magic, witchcraft or of Lollardy abounded, but studies of orthodox–that is, mainstream–fifteenth-century religious practice were rarely undertaken. The Stripping of the Altars, nevertheless, did not argue for the insignificance of magic, or witchcraft, or of Lollardy. Quite simply, they were not its subject matter, and in omitting them I assumed that my book would be read alongside, not instead of, the many works which did treat of those things.
Wow. These lines, I believe, demonstrate a large part of what we’re trying to do with history. Forget “definitve.” Forget “authoritative.” We want as many different perspectives as possible. We want a large sample of voices. We want readers to make their own conclusions, but make sure those conclusions are grounded in a wide reading of many differentiating and divergent arguments. Historians argue with each other all the time and have sharp disagreements about things that are sometimes considered trivial. Yet what I love about this passage is Duffy’s humbleness. He’s not dismissing the works of other historians or telling people to only read his “definitive” rendition of late medieval Christianity. He merely asserts that his voice is one of many, and that to truly understand his perspective, you should compare and contrast it with other voices who have attempted to explain what religion meant to the English at this time.
We don’t become experts by reading one or two books on a subject. We don’t get anywhere if our arguments are never challenged. Here’s to hoping for a future in which we stop looking for that “definitive history” of the Civil War or of late medieval Christianity and instead look for ways to incorporate more voices into the discussion. Just like I said about Public History a few weeks ago, history is never finished and never perfect. We should never stop looking for ways to perfect our understanding of the past, but let’s stop acting like we’ve already met perfection.