Tag Archives: Academic History

New Book Review at Civil War Monitor

My latest book review for The Civil War Monitor has gone live. I analyze a new work on Private Edwin Jemison, a young seventeen-year-old Confederate solider who was killed at the Battle of Malvern Hill. Jemison had a picture of himself taken while in New Orleans just as his 2nd Louisiana Regiment was preparing to be sent off to war, and this picture is now very famous among readers of Civil War history. Authors Alexandra Filipowski and Hugh T. Harrington undertook years of research to learn more about Jemison’s life, and the result is The Boy Solider.

I will reinforce here that I think the book is a worthwhile read particularly for high school students. Jemison is a relatable figure whose story is accessible to students. I would have liked to have seen more research into the social and political context of his Louisiana upbringing, but overall I think the book is a good read.


Tearing Down the Barriers Between “Experts” and “Buffs” in the Historical Enterprise

Over the past few days I have been going back and forth with a commenter on a recent post I wrote about mediocre, good, and great biographies of Ulysses S. Grant. One of the issues raised in the conversation was my citing of a book written by a professional lawyer instead of an academically trained historian with a PhD. Without having read the book in question the commenter wondered aloud if the author’s choice to publish with a non-academic press reflected a desire to “bypass the normal refereeing process at a scholarly press” and, in a defense of scholarly publishing, warned that not all history writers are in a position to make sound judgements about the past. The commenter also equated the history profession with the medical profession: you wouldn’t trust someone not trained in medical practices to examine you for a disease, so why would you trust a non-historian with interpreting the past?

I believe these comments are unfair to the author in question, but looking at the bigger picture this conversation also reflects an unfortunate and all too common desire to create false barriers between “experts” and “buffs” within the historical enterprise. Few would disagree that training in historical thinking and interpreting primary/secondary source documents is very important to good historical scholarship, but the question of whether someone needs to hold a history PhD to be considered a competent historian is very much debatable.

My argument is simple: Some people focus on the players; I focus on the game. Some people focus on credentials; I focus on arguments.

I am far less concerned about a person’s academic background than I am with the substance of their arguments. I am far less concerned with what a person does for a living than what scholars in any particular field have to say about how that person’s work shapes their field. Take Gordon Rhea as an example. The fact that he holds a law degree from Stanford (and no history PhD) and has worked as a trial lawyer for 35 years means far less to me than the fact that his scholarship on the Overland Campaign of 1864 is highly respected by both Civil War military historians and general readers.

This is not to say that everyone’s opinion is equally valid when interpreting history. The point is that the historical enterprise should strive to cast a wide scholarly net that allows people from many different types of backgrounds to contribute their voice to the conversations we have about the past. Setting the bar for good historical scholarship to only include history PhDs who work in academic institutions impoverishes our field and shuts out many people who care about history but may not have pursued an advanced degree for any number of reasons, not least the fact that it’s damn expensive and time-consuming to get a PhD.

Equating the history profession’s standards with the medical profession is also a poor apples-to-oranges comparison. It might be better to compare the history profession to the music profession. There are musicians with PhDs in music, others who have more limited training through k-12 schooling and private lessons, and still others with no formal training whatsoever. Chances are that when you first discovered your favorite artist you probably didn’t go online to check that person’s formal training before determining whether or not their artistry was valid. The musician’s credentials matter far less than the fact that their music makes you feel good. Different types of music have different goals and required standards of training. You don’t need a PhD to play punk rock, but you might need it to teach classical music in a college setting.

Obviously the end goals of historical scholarship don’t necessarily compare to those of music, but the point stands that history is something that exists far beyond the walls of academia. Different works of historical scholarship–whether they’re written in a book or designed for a public history setting–call for different sets of training and expertise. Not every person who engages in these scholarly endeavors comes with a history PhD in their academic background, and that’s okay with me. Hit me with your best argument and I promise to look at it with an open mind.


…Those Liberal Historians

Barack Obama

Generalizations are a normal function of human thought. We preach the importance of not judging people without first getting to know them, but it’s an undeniable fact that we make generalizations about others before meeting them because we believe they give us a sense of order and help us explain the actions of a group of people or things. We make generalizations based on a wide range of factors that include appearance (gender, skin color, ethnicity, clothing, etc.), mannerisms, employment, and education levels. But generalizations can also distort our understanding of the world and lead us to false assumptions about others with little evidence to back up our views. There are times when generalizations are appropriate (like that moment when a sports broadcaster announces that “the fans are going wild!” even though not all spectators may be cheering at that particular moment) and times when they are not appropriate (like making a claim about an entire racial minority group based on an interaction with one person from that group).

As a practicing historian, it’s always humorous to me when generalizations are made about historians and their political preferences, which are usually labeled under the vague phrase “liberal historians.” You hear claims like this all the time, but I think Matthew Hennessey takes the cake in writing for City Journal. In his mind, “liberal historians” are actively scheming to defend President Barack Obama at all costs in an effort to cement his legacy as a great U.S. president. Hennessey claims that he’s not exaggerating or cherry-picking in constructing his argument, but he does just that in a vain effort to connect historical appraisals of past left-leaning presidents with a speculative prediction about historians’ future interpretations of Obama.

I want to address a few of Hennessey’s claims about these historians. Then I’ll address the concept of “liberal historians.”

Cherry-picking historians’ attitudes

Hennessey immediately screws up by stating that most historians “make their living in academia.” That is patently false, as there are literally tens of thousands more historians teaching in k-12 classrooms and working in public history settings that include national parks, museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, government agencies, and businesses. He then proceeds to suggest that historians will give Obama a pass on things like health-care, foreign policy, and immigration. Quite humorously, he also believes that “they will hail him for trying to close the military prison at Guantanamo [sic] Bay.” Regarding the latter claim, Hennessey clearly has no awareness of the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, a national collaboration between academic history and museum studies programs that has vocally criticized Obama’s inaction and whose project leaders are far from conservative. But hey! Liberal historians love Obama and will do anything to defend him, right?

Hennessey then jumps into historical analysis and argues that historians are too light on FDR and LBJ. Regarding FDR, he complains that “historians love the New Deal and the welfare state” and seems to believe that no one ever talks about Roosevelt’s controversial actions, such as his effort to pack the Supreme Court in 1935 or his executive order relocating Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. I guess he’s never read the liberal Ira Katznelson’s critical analysis of the New Deal in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, nor has he bothered to study any number of recent studies on FDR’s controversies, which include this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one. I’m sure there’s at least one “liberal historian” in that group of authors.

Hennessey also argues that LBJ gets a free pass for escalating the Vietnam war while Richard Nixon gets blamed for Vietnam “when he isn’t taking heat for everything from the Clinton Impeachment to the obesity epidemic.” Of course LBJ gets plenty of blame from historians for Vietnam, so that claim doesn’t even merit a response. In arguing that historians blame Nixon for Clinton’s impeachment, he links to a 2005 article quoting a Republican congressmen who stated that “I…thought that the Republican party should stand for something, and if we walked away from this, no matter how difficult, we could be accused of shirking our duty, our responsibility.” Regarding the claim that Nixon is blamed for the obesity epidemic, the article Hennessey links to lists several different reasons for this supposed epidemic, one of which includes poor policy planning under the Nixon administration. That’s cherry-picking and exaggeration in my book.

What does it mean to be a “liberal historian”?

There are several noteworthy ironies in claiming that liberal historians will do anything to protect President Obama’s reputation and legacy.

For one, historians argue about any and everything, from the most serious and fundamental to the most trivial and pedantic. These disagreements cover writing styles, historical methods and interpretations, and present-day politics. Historians who lean to the left of the political spectrum include communists, socialists, democratic socialists, and liberals who rarely agree with each other. Tony Judt, for example, infamously critiqued Eric Hobsbawm in 2003 for never renouncing his membership in the communist party. More recently the socialist publication Jacobin has published a series of critical posts against Obama that include “Obama to America: Work Harder,” “Obama Channels Reagan on Welfare,” “Imperialists for ‘Human Rights‘,” and “What Does Obama Think They Were Doing at Stonewall?” None of these articles are very complementary to Obama.

If Congress were run by historians right now, it probably wouldn’t be much more productive than it already is thanks to the arguing and bickering that would take place.

Secondly, academic historians allegedly face a crisis in which they struggle to connect their scholarship with the public, so much so that Nicholas Kristof wrote a plea in the New York Times calling for professors to write for public audiences and involve themselves in policy debates. Yet academics in the minds of people like Hennessey have so much power and influence over public dialogue that they fear a vast left-wing bloc of historians successfully shoving propaganda about the greatness of President Obama down the throats of the American public.

Finally, there have been and continue to be plenty of notable right-leaning historians in the field. Niall Ferguson, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Russell Kirk, Daniel Boorstin, Jacques Barzun, and Jay Winik immediately come to mind for me, although there are no doubt many more. And one of my favorite books from graduate school, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, was written by the conservative historian John Lewis Gaddis, who just so happens to be good friends with former U.S. President George W. Bush.

I don’t doubt that many historians, if not most, lean to the left. That generalization is actually backed with evidence. But this idea of a homogenized group of “liberal historians” conspiring to protect President Obama is utter poppycock. When you make generalizations without evidence to back up your claims, those claims ultimately say more about you than the they do about the group you are attempting to generalize about.

End rant. Cheers and happy new year!

Can a Distinction Be Made Between “Academic” and “Popular” History?

A colleague and I recently engaged in a fascinating discussion comparing and contrasting works of “popular history” and “academic history.” Through this conversation I realized that I’m not sure how to define the proper criteria for what constitutes a work of “popular history.” Does a work of historical scholarship become popular once it hits a certain number of book sales? If so, what is that number? Does one need to have a certain educational background in order to be considered a popular historian? Can a work geared towards academic scholars become popular with a non-academic audience? Can a clear distinction be made between works of popular history and academic history?

Some professional historians with PhDs believe that they alone are qualified to shape and participate in the historical enterprise. A couple years ago historians Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein attempted to act as gatekeepers in a condescending article for Salon that dismissed popular history written by non-academics and argued that only PhD historians were qualified to write credible historical scholarship:

Frankly, we in the history business wish we could take out a restraining order on the big-budget popularizers of history (many of them trained in journalism) who pontificate with great flair and happily take credit over the airwaves for possessing great insight into the past. Journalists are good at journalism – we wouldn’t suggest sending off historians to be foreign correspondents. But journalists aren’t equipped to make sense of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

I find this perspective badly flawed and unrealistic. Yes, a history PhD provides a blanket of scholarly authority and a thorough training in research, writing, and interpretation. But to suggest that only history PhDs alone can “do history” negates the fact that people of all education levels use historical thinking on a daily basis without the help of history PhDs. There are many different ways people learn about and understand history, including film, television, blogs, twitter, and cultural institutions like history museums and historical societies. All of these mediums attract larger audiences than books written by academics. The wish that historians, journalists, etc. would simply stay in their academic “silos” of expertise and dictate their knowledge to the rest of society–without the input of non-academics–smacks of what Tara McPherson defines as “lenticular logic.” In a complex and wide-ranging critique of academic “silos” and the racialization of the digital humanities, McPherson argues that “the lenticular image partitions and divides, privileging fragmentation. A lenticular logic is a logic of the fragment or the chunk, a way of seeing the world as discrete modules or nodes, a mode that suppresses relation and context.” History is all around us and anyone can participate in the making of new scholarship, not just the academic gatekeepers. To suggest that one’s credentials are more important than the substance of their arguments is profoundly un-academic to me.

Notwithstanding Isenberg and Burstein’s arguments, can we still make generalizations about what makes a work of history “popular history”? In the course of our conversation I attempted to outline a few distinctions to my colleague.

Interpretation vs. Reporting: Some of the more popular works of history I’ve come across tend to do more reporting of “what actually happened” rather than closely examining primary and secondary source documents for new ways of interpreting the past or questioning common understandings of historical events. For example, Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month That Saved America is a widely popular retelling of the events leading up to Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to United States General Ulysses S. Grant, but the narrative Winik embraced didn’t change our understanding of these events and simply repeated past interpretations about the supposed beginning of a national reconciliation following Appomattox. Meanwhile, a more recent book published by an academic press and written by an academic scholar about the same events in April 1865 will most likely not gain the same audience as Winik’s book. Elizabeth Varon’s Appomattox: Victory, Defeat, and Freedom at the End of the Civil War interrogates our popular understanding of Lee’s surrender to Grant and convincingly shows that the Appomattox surrender was not necessarily the starting point of a happy national reconciliation that past scholars have argued. Her book is more interpretive than Winik’s and leaves us asking new questions rather than accepting a grand narrative about Appomattox.

Methods vs. Content: Academic scholars are trained to place their scholarship within a larger framework that analyzes how historians have interpreted and understood a historical event over time – what is commonly referred to as “historiography.” In a previous essay I criticized David McCullough for never placing his book 1776 within the historiography of George Washington studies. We never get a sense in 1776 of where McCullough’s understanding of Washington’s generalship fits within the scholarly discussions about this topic, and we struggle to figure out how and where McCullough is obtaining the information he is using to inform his scholarship (and the footnotes are awful, although the organization of footnotes is often controlled by publishers, unfortunately). The work of other scholars gets flattened in works of popular history, and historical methods are replaced by a focus on content and narrative. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad to focus on content at the sacrifice of methods, but had I written the way McCullough writes while in graduate school I would have failed all my classes. As a historian I want to see the author’s methodology, sources, and historiography regardless of topic, but I suppose it remains an open question as to the necessity of these things and where they would fit within a work intended for a non-academic audience.

Type of History: Certain types of history are more popular than others, and national histories and grand narratives remain popular despite changing interests from academic historians. In the 1960s and 1970s academic historians sought new ways of understanding the past through the experiences of ordinary people rather than grand narratives about politicians, monarchies, and cultural elites. They started asking questions about marriage, divorce, alcohol consumption, group rituals and sexual habits, and they started using social science techniques (from economics, anthropology, and political science) and devising quantitative methods for answering these questions in an effort to capture a more holistic understanding of past societies. Also crucial to this “new social history” was a focus on local context, whether it be families, tribes, cities, counties, and states. According to Gordon Wood, “by the 1970s this new social history of hitherto forgotten people had come to dominate academic history writing,” and almost every facet of human behavior was placed under scrutiny by historians (2). Gone was the focus on grand narrative and national history. Despite these radical changes (and subsequent ones) within the academy, non-academic interest in the work of social historians remains lukewarm to this day. Wood points out that history degrees awarded to students from 1970 to 1986 declined by two-thirds (3), and the numbers still look questionable today. Go to a Barnes & Noble history bookshelf and you’ll find a plethora of books on war, politics, and national histories, but few studies on gender, social history, cultural history, or local history. The Bill O’Reillys, David McCulloughs, and Walter Issacsons are still the big sellers at popular bookstores.

Despite these generalizations, I came to realize in my conversation that there are exceptions to all these rules. McCullough’s 1776 presented a bold interpretation suggesting that Washington’s subordinate generals deserve more credit for their role in keeping the Continental Army together in 1776, and by all accounts McCullough is a meticulous researcher and well-respected by most academic historians. Columbia University historian Eric Foner’s magisterial 1988 “academic” publication Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 delved deeply into historiographical arguments and interpretive history, yet it gained widespread popularity and remains a standard in Reconstruction studies. Bruce Catton, Douglas Southall Freeman, and Allen Nevins–all journalists–inspired generations of Americans (and future history PhDs) throughout the mid twentieth century to study the American Civil War through their meticulously researched narratives on the war. And academic historians throughout the 1950s and 1960s were seen as highly respected public intellectuals.

The more I think about it, the more unsure I become of this academic-popular divide. In the end I think all historians can learn a lot from each other about method, content, style, tone, and organization without putting each other into boxes based solely on book sales.