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.