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.


The Importance of Historiography

Photo Credit: William B. McCullough
Photo Credit: William B. McCullough

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was reading David McCullough’s 2005 work 1776, and I remarked that I struggled to find my sense of place as I worked through the book. There was not a single map in it, which is puzzling because 1776 is a work of military history. The need for good maps in military history is acute, perhaps even more so than other types of historic scholarship.

I recently completed my reading of 1776, and for the most part I thought it was pretty pedestrian. The book is well-written, and the central argument of the book–that George Washington made many mistakes as a General throughout the 1776 campaign and that his staff deserves more credit for helping to push the Continental Army to victory over the British–was not the argument I was expecting to read before getting into the book, so in that regard, it was a pleasant surprise. However, I struggled to connect with the book and many of its characters, and I rarely found myself asking any questions as I went through. I also noticed that there is no historiography to speak of. McCullough never acknowledges the work of other historians at any point in the book, nor does he engage in any sort of discussion about the varying perspectives historians have held about Washington’s 1776 campaign.

Historiography, for those unfamiliar with the term, essentially means “the history of history.” What have past historians said and written about a given topic? How have historians’ interpretation of a topic changed over time? Where and what are the disagreements between historians, and why are they disagreeing in the first place?

As good history graduate students, we engage in meticulous research, spending hours on end trying to find relevant primary and secondary sources that tie in with our research projects. We then write long papers demonstrating our knowledge of the literature behind our topics, and we face dire consequences if we write term papers/our thesis projects without engaging with the secondary sources. So why doesn’t David McCullough have to engage with the historiography of the particular topics he chooses for his books?

This question is tough to answer, and all I can offer is my opinion. Part of it, I think, is that McCullough is gearing his books towards a general audience, one that does not particularly care about historiography. Many historians have been criticized (and rightly so, oftentimes) for writing boring, monotonous prose that does a better job of confusing and/or putting their audience to sleep than it does giving us a sharper perception of the past. I would surmise that some of these criticisms stem from the fact that historians include historiographical discussions throughout their own narratives, oftentimes in an attempt to show that they understand the development of historical thinking on their particular subject. McCullough has made clear his disdain for writing to an academic audience:

I don’t like to write history as viewed from the mountaintop. If I can’t try to make what happened as real and compelling as a made-up what happened, then I don’t want to write it. And if critics are bothered by it, that’s fine, don’t bother me. What pleases me most is when, on the one hand, somebody educated or well-read praises what I’ve written, and then a guy jumps out of a Brink’s truck on Michigan Avenue in Chicago on a sunny morning and tells me he loves my books. I don’t think history ought to be reserved for the high priests of academia.

I agree with the general thrust of this argument. I don’t think history should be reserved for those in academia, and I believe that digital technology has the potential to bridge the gap between academic and general audiences. But after reading 1776, I find myself questioning whether or not leaving out the historiographical argument is appropriate, even if the book is written for a general audience.

Historiography is important for all historians–regardless of the audience they are addressing—because it offers a level of transparency that allows others to see where you are getting your information from. McCullough’s scholarship clearly demonstrates a strong grasp of his primary and secondary sources, but the way his notes are organized makes it very tough for anyone else wanting to do research on the same topic to use his work for their own benefit. It seems to me that even if you are writing for a general audience, acknowledging the works of other historians in your field allows for others to better conduct their own historical work.

In his 1935 work Everyman His Own Historian, Carl Becker eloquently summarized the meaning of history, and many of us still appreciate this summary eighty years later. History, according to Becker, is “an unstable pattern of remembered things redesigned and newly colored to suit the convenience of those who make use of it.” (p.253-254) Indeed, history is an act of creation, an ongoing discussion about the past that is contested by different people with a wide range of perspectives. Gone are the days of historians who write sweeping narratives about the past that attempt to act as quasi-scientific, “definitive” voices of a particular topic. No work of history is ever complete or beyond argument, and for that reason, we need historiography to fill in the gaps and help give us a clearer understanding of how a topic has been studied over time. I greatly respect and admire David McCullough as a historian and as a person, but his work is not above criticism. My fellow classmates and I would fail our history courses if we wrote our scholarship the way McCullough does, and I think more attention to historiography would have made 1776 a better read overall, one with a stronger argument that I could trace to past discussions on the 1776 campaign in historical scholarship over time. Even if McCullough didn’t want to engage in this sort of discussion in the body of his text, he could utilize footnotes to address these arguments, something that fellow Revolutionary Era historian Gordon Wood regularly does with great success.


By the way, if you want to read a great speech by McCullough on the importance of studying history, look here.

Dear Historians, We Need Maps

Photo Credit: Emerson Kent (
Photo Credit: Emerson Kent (

I am currently reading David McCullough’s 2005 publication 1776 in preparation for a class I’ll be taking during the fall semester (which starts on the 19th of this month, during summer, ironically enough). MCullough is one of the most popular historians in America thanks to his lucid, engaging narratives that have captured the imaginations of people who want to learn more about the past. Indeed, in an age in which bookstores large and small are closing their doors and stories continue to come out about no one reading books anymore, McCullough’s books continue to fill the bookshelves and sell well. For example, McCullough’s 2001 publication John Adams has sold more than one million copies since its release (much to the dismay of some academic historians who are jealous of a non-academic’s popularity).

1776 is no exception. I went into this book assuming it would mostly focus on the exploits of George Washington, but I have been pleasantly surprised by McCullough’s ability to weave the perspectives of King George III, the English Parliament, and Loyalists in America into the narrative, complicating the notion that George III was a complete fool or that every colonist supported the Patriot cause at outbreak of hostilities in 1775. Furthermore, McCullough’s central argument is that Washignton’s subordinates are actually the ones who deserve more credit for their efforts during the Revolutionary War, including Generals Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, and Charles Lee, among others. As Tony Horowitz explained in a review of the book, “Washington didn’t have a clue about strategy or tactics, and had to be rescued from his reckless plans by subordinates. McCullough bluntly terms him ‘indecisive and inept’ as a battle commander, but praises his perseverance and clear eyed recognition of his own and his army’s faults. Washington also showed a talent for night actions (often in retreat) and a capacity to learn from his mistakes.”

Although there is much to praise about 1776, there is one serious problem with this book, and it’s a problem that has plagued other books about military history.

There are no maps!

Yes, there are three maps in the picture gallery between pages 116-117, but they are awkwardly placed, they date back to 1776, and they don’t really explain anything about Washington’s movements or any of the battles that took place in 1775-1776. When McCullough describes a troop movement or battle, we are forced to rely solely on textual narrative to help describe how these events played out, and I have found myself frustrated by my inability to follow these movements without the help of a map. Consider this brief narrative from pages 133-134. It is the summer of 1776 and Washington’s men are in New York City, waiting for the British to come from Canada to engage in battle:

Washington shifted his headquarters to City Hall. [Henry] Knox and his wife moved into No. 1 Broadway, while Martha Washington remained at the Mortier house beyond the city… That same night [June 28] Washington learned for the first time that the British had sailed from Halifax bound for New York on June 9, General [William] Howe having departed somewhat earlier on the frigate Greyhound. The information came by express rider from the captain of an American schooner that had been captured by the Greyhound off Cape Ann, then retaken by an armed American sloop. The next morning, Saturday, June 29, officers with telescopes on the roof Washington’s headquarters and other vantage points in the city and on Long Island, saw signals flying from the hills of Staten Island. The first of the British Fleet had appeared.

There are several questions that immediately popped up as I read this:

  • Where is City Hall, and what would Washington’s officers have seen of the Atlantic Ocean from the roof of this building? Is it close to the ocean or far away?
  • Where is No. 1 Broadway?
  • Where is the Mortier House, and what does the term “beyond the city” mean? 20 miles? 10 miles? 200 feet?
  • Where is Staten Island in relation to City Hall?
  • I know that Halifax is in Canada, but I don’t know where it is in relation to New York City off the top of my head. Since I’m not from this area, I’m having a hard time imagining where everything is in my head. How did the British navigate this voyage from one place to the other?
  • Relating to the first question, what could the officers see with these telescopes? Without knowing where City Hall is located, we are left to use our imaginations.

It is clear to me that no matter how good a textual narrative may be, it can be woefully incomplete if you don’t employ other methods of knowledge dissemination to help advance that narrative.

Ideally, I’d like to have maps within the print book that can help me follow the textual narrative and place events into their proper context. Thankfully, however, a decent alternative exists in Geographic Information Systems, commonly referred to as GIS. First created in the 1950s, the internet has allowed for GIS programs to be used by anyone who wants to use computer technology to map out statistical data and cartographic information. In fact, you can go to ESRI’s website and download ArcGIS Explorer for free right now. Google Earth is also a great alternative (So is GeoServer). I’m still learning about GIS, mapping, and what is now being referred to as the “spatial humanities,” but I am quite excited by the possibilities this technology presents.  For instance, GIS allows for readers to not only read about Washington’s occupation of New York City in 1776, but to also visualize what they would have experienced (I would love to see what this would look like). The ability to layer maps on top of each other also allows us the chance to visualize changes in New York City’s landscape over time so that we can compare what the city looked like in 1776 to what it looks like today. While none of the software programs I linked to existed in 2005, it is my hope that historians (especially military historians) will be cognizant of their readers’ needs and work to incorporate more spatial data into their scholarship in the future.


News and Notes: July 8, 2013

  • I found this power point presentation on the “artificial extension of childhood” to be pretty compelling.  Those who advocate for longer school days and school  years would do well to consider the points made here.
  • Technology can’t solve all of our problems, especially when we don’t fully understand the limits and capabilities of the tools we use. Check out this really interesting interview with Evgeny Morozov.
  • “Looking For a Job in Public History: An Outsider’s Perspective” Not a particularly encouraging essay for people in my position, but an important discussion we should be having about the “walled fortress” of experience requirements in public history jobs (and, by extension, many other jobs). There are many thoughtful comments as well that add much value to the essay.

Back to thesis writing…

Until next time