As I sit here nursing a head cold, I find myself thinking back to a promise I made to a former professor of mine, Sonya Huber. Currently, she’s teaching at Fairfield University, but before that she was part of the Writing and Linguistics Department at Georgia Southern University (where I received my BA in Creative Writing). Just a few days ago, I noticed that she answered the call to a challenge for bloggers across the web, titled simply “Writing Process.” She tagged me, along with a few other bloggers, to continue the challenge. I’m glad to take it on, as I think history blogging offers its own set of challenges, albeit ones not too different from anyone else on the web. I’m also glad to answer the call, as Professor Huber and others in creative writing at Georgia Southern had a major influence on my writing style today (any faults are, of course, merely my own personal weaknesses).
The following is a guest post from Oliver Bateman, professor of American legal history at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Carl Becker, whose long-overdue revival is discussed in greater and more critical detail here, writes in his “Everyman His Own Historian” address that “the history that does work in the world…is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the specious present, the specious present of Mr. Everyman.” This is intended to serve as a valuable reminder that history ought to be remade to suit the needs of whatever generation writes it, in order that we members of that generation might “make use” of history so as “to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman’s mythological adaptation of what actually happened.”
When I first read (or, to be perfectly candid, skimmed) this address at the beginning of my graduate career, I considered it more small “d” democratic than it actually is. The address, far from being a plea for “Mr. Everyman” to actually sit down and write his own history, is instead an exhortation to professional historians to adapt their work to the “felt necessities” of the present, Von Rankean notions of perfect objectivity be damned.1 It is a call, in other words, for better and more relevant scholarly production—even if, as Becker himself acknowledges, Everyman rarely reads “our” books.
Everyman’s own memories, in Becker’s opinion, “fashion for him a more spacious world than that of the immediately practical,” with most of the scraps of factual knowledge that he acquires derived from his mostly unconscious work as a popular culture bricoleur: “information, picked up in the most casual way…from knowledge gained in business or profession, from newspapers glanced at, from books (yes, even history books) read or heard of, from remembered scraps of newsreels or educational films or ex cathedra utterances of presidents and kings, from fifteen-minute discourses on the history of civilization broadcast by the courtesy (it may be) of Pepsodent, the Bulova Watch Company, or the Shepherd Stores in Boston.”2 For those of us who regularly encounter students whose entire understanding of world events is derived from BuzzFeed lists and Daily Show clips, Becker’s somewhat condescending remark continues to resonate.
Becker’s proposed solution, then, is that we professional historians must work to ensure that Mr. Everyman’s weltanschauung is shaped by more than just the detritus left in the sieve after his daily skimming and browsing is complete. Thus, through our useful and frequent contributions to the public-intellectual sphere, a somewhat more enlightened Mr. Everyman might one day become acquainted with the meanings of borrowed words and phrases such as bricoleur, ex cathedra, and weltanschauung.
The following is a guest post from Oliver Lee Bateman, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is also the Reviews and Commentary editor of The Good Men Project.
Years ago, I had a journalism professor who was fond of remarking that there were only two problems with academic writing: the content and the style. I remember laughing at this—not so much because it was funny, but rather because this was what you did when an instructor made a witticism. However, after eight years of post-baccalaureate education, I was forced to conclude that he was utterly wrong.
When I sat in my first graduate seminar, I wanted to hate and trash the books that I was assigned. I eagerly anticipated casting my lot with one ideological camp or another. The resulting slugfests would transform the classroom into the nerdy equivalent of the mosh pit. Alas, for reasons that still remain obscure, I began to actually read these books, only to discover that most of them were quite good.
Even the various critical theorists who were sometimes criticized by my undergaduate mentors offered useful takes on one aspect of human behavior or another. Jameson, Deleuze, Bourdieu, et al. were “challenging,” I suppose, but their work was far from impenetrable. In fact, the biggest challenge posed by Outline of a Theory of Practice was its minuscule font size (an impediment, it must be noted, that is shared by most university press publications). Only “Can the Subaltern Speak?” would prove opaque, although I suppose that was partly Spivak’s purpose in writing it.
In this post (and, perhaps, in some follow-up posts) I want to examine some of the methodological choices of Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal (1990). This is not a review of the book, nor is it an assessment of the book’s argument. This isn’t even a book summary. Instead, this is a practical inquiry into how this Bancroft-winning monograph can shed some light on how historians grapple with the most prosaic aspects of that capacious term historiography; I want to use Cohen’s book as a way to discuss the craftsmanship of writing history.* Continue reading
Not all novelists are the same, and nor are all historians, obviously. But each group has its disciplinary, professional norms – and there’s room for exchange between them. The starting-place for historians has to be a consideration of just what we’re trying to do with our work. If our aim is to capture and distill a complete and accurate record of the past, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere, with or without new techniques. We’re butting our heads against the paradox of mimesis. If, on the other hand, we’re writing to do something to our own lives and our readers’ lives, to provoke ideological shifts, new and better ways of seeing the world, then we can fruitfully ask: aren’t many novelists doing the same thing, and what can we learn from them?
In the spirit of forever asking questions, I have another for you:
I’m contemplating the strength and implications of the proposed title of my book (and thus, supposedly, one of it’s main contributions)–”A Spirit of Cooperation and Protest: The Internationalism of African American Women, 1920-1939.”
Last winter, someone at a job talk challenged the ideas I was presenting as “basically just the old Washington/Du Bois, accommodation/protest paradigm.” I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I believe Juliette Derricotte‘s “Spirit of Compromise” (which is the language she uses) is genuinely different from Washington’s accommodationism. She did not shy away from directly confronting racism, but she did it in such a way that she converted large swaths of indeterminate white racists away from their racism and towards an understanding of the lives of African Americans, while encouraging black students to have pride in their race. No, she didn’t articulate a critique of institutionalized racism, but not many did in her era (1920s), when interracialism was prominent.
At the same time, I think Mabel Byrd was right when she argued that racists had to acknowledge their racism before compromise (or pacifism) would work. She said to a gathering of WILPF ladies in Prague in 1929, “it is difficult to understand how cooperation can be substituted for conflict until those whose rule is dominant are led to change their attitude toward the minority or dominated group.” Whites needed to realize
“that their conviction of superiority is false, that because they find themselves in a dominating position, is no true sign of their inherent superiority; secondly that there is no divine right for one race to rule another; and thirdly, that the disturbances made by the minority groups are the constant attempts toward a real cooperation in the body politic.” Interesting that last phrase–true cooperation arises out of protest.
This is such an important difference between these two sorority sisters, who shared so much of the same space and same networks. But what do you think? Will readers dismiss the distinction because it seems too similar to Du Bois/Washington? Or is the nuanced understanding of “compromise” something new and interesting?
Maybe the title is misleading, since a primary purpose of the book is to discuss four black women’s international excursions and the life changes they undergo through travel and engagement with other cultures. Maybe I need to find something something more relevant to their identity transformation and let the compromise/protest distinction fade into a sub-point. Particularly as I incorporate the other two women, who’s lives don’t revolve around compromise and protest so neatly.
Humph. Now that I’ve sent out a bazillion job applications with this title in them, maybe I need to re-title it to reflect my emphasis on black women’s internationalism.
I have three new primary sources I’m trying to analyze (yay! new sources!), which I received from a settlement house in England. The first is a snarky yet charming poem about solving all of life’s ills by forcing world leaders to attend a settlement house for a retreat. I’m not quite sure how to interpret it. I think the authors are being silly–poking fun at their own seriousness of purpose with which they are attending the settlement house. But at the same time, I think there is a bit of serious desire to see world tensions cease and peace come to reign. The author also (chides?) (pokes fun at?) (teases harshly?) (teases gently?) Mabel Byrd for her anger, saying that she will come to realize that what is important is what is beneath the skin–as if race problems were arising from Byrd’s point of view, rather than real historical realities.
Accompanying the poem is a song about how much all the students at the settlement house will be missed once they are gone. Byrd is included as a comrade in arms. The final new source is a extract from an essay Byrd wrote making fun of another U.S. tourist as a “Mrs. Babbitt” and her daughter. I also know that Byrd was on the student committee which wrote these three tributes to their summer at the settlement house.
So my question is–to what extent are questions ok in historical analysis. Can I say, this poem suggests that Byrd either had such camaraderie with the others at the settlement house that they could poke fun at her for her passion or so put off someone with her anger at race relations that the poet chided her. Or must I pick one and pretend that there is no other option? Or suggest both and suggest reasons why one makes more sense than the other (I think the first one makes more sense b/c Byrd was on the committee that drafted the three tributes, but I don’t think the second one is entirely eclipsed. Perhaps both are right at different levels).
One of the things I remember most strikingly about Annette Gordon Reed’s Hemingses of Monticello is that she provides much of her analysis in the form of questions and postulates. I loved that and so I adopted it. But many of the people who have read my work have encouraged me to get rid of the questions and just put forth my analysis. To what extent do I let the questions get in the way of actually analyzing my texts and to what extent do I truly believe that there cannot be a definitive analysis? (Hahahahaha I just realized I had to frame that in the form of a question as well.)
All of this and I tell my students to get rid of the rhetorical questions in their essays. Perhaps that is my answer? (hahahaha another question. Laughter and a sigh–cause I think I ask too many questions. That may be an odd statement to make, but I think I come across as less authoritative when I pose everything as a question. Look at my blog posts–almost all of them are questions. That is in part to encourage participation by you, dear readers, but it is also a problem because I come off as not very knowledgeable. But maybe I’m just sensitive because in my now defunct marriage I asked all the questions and he provided ALL the answers).
|March 17. 1947: The Second-to-Last Time an Historian
Appeared on the Cover of Time**
Among other issues, Potter and Cronon both address what makes good historical writing good. And both Cronon and Potter put a very heavy emphasis on the need to keep historical writing accessible to non-historians and even non-academics. Here’s Potter:
Sometimes scholars are not even accessible to each other, much less colleagues in related fields. Conceptual categories that we take for granted but are obscure to non-professionals; overly-specialized or theoretical language, and “failing to notice the absence of those who don’t feel welcome” in an intellectually exclusive coterie are all weaknesses of practice that can emerge from qualities that are otherwise praiseworthy.
The result can be that despite popular enthusiasm for history, and the genuine desire of other historians to connect with our work, we run the risk of turning people off instead of tuning them in.
Without in any way diminishing the importance of this sentiment, I want to note how commonplace it is. Although in practice we might often honor it in the breach, the idea that historical writing ought to be broadly accessible is, I think, a core professional value held by most academic historians in the U.S. today.
Academic historians believe in broadly accessible historical writing for many of the reasons that Cronon lays out in his essay, which is entitled “Professional Boredom.” Citing, among other things, the History Channel, he notes that “no other academic discipline has done a better job of retaining a large public audience.” Moreover, Cronon adds that there are “essential contributions history can make to public understanding of all manner of problems in the present.” If we become too specialized or too boring, or even if we define professional history too narrowly, “the risks,” writes Cronon, “could not be more clear.”
I’m as much as a believer in broadly accessible history as Cronon or Potter. And, lord knows, I’m not in favor of boring history (though I think we can all think of great works of history that are boring). But the story we tell ourselves about academic history appealing to a mass audience is to a very great extent a myth.
Public interest in academic history is limited to a very small number of historians, generally writing on a small number of topics. And most popular works of history are written by authors who are not academic historians. The current New York Times Combined Print and E-Book Nonfiction Best Seller List contains four works of history (broadly understood) among the top fifteen books, none of them written by an academic historian: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson at #7, Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dougard at #8, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand at #10, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot at #13. No works by academic historians appear further down the list, either.
And most of us know from experience that, even if our books get noticed outside academic circles, most sell relatively few copies and find relatively small audiences. If you’ve ever tried pitching an idea for a historical monograph to a non-academic press or a literary agent, you get an even stronger sense of how different the popular market for history is from the academic one.
Anyone who watches the History Channel with any regularity knows that the kind of content they specialize in is very different from the work that academic historians do.
In this regard, it’s interesting to compare the academic discipline of history to such disciplines as English and philosophy. There’s actually huge popular interest in cultural criticism and philosophy, as the existence of E! (the cable network and website) and the voluminous “philosophy” section in any bookstore attest. But academic English scholars and academic philosophers understand themselves as doing something fundamentally different from, respectively, E! and the Deepak Chopra-heavy “philosophy” section of most bookstores. Academic historians, on the other hand, tend to see a variation of our own craft when we look at the History Channel or the New York Times Best Seller List.
And yet, this myth of the accessibility of academic history is, in many ways, a very productive one. As I’ve already said, I value readability. And though few academic historians are writing books for audiences much beyond our subdisciplines, let alone beyond the academy, the notion that one should write as if one were addressing a literate, general audience helps historians counteract the tendency of academic discourses to get ever more abstruse and hermetic. At least when I was in graduate school, many other disciplines seemed on occasion to put a positive value on their own abstruseness, presenting it as a sign of technical sophistication (e.g. philosophy and economics) or even their explicit opposition to negative values that they associated with readable texts (e.g. the literary disciplines).
But while I certainly want academic history to continue valuing clear, non-technical prose, I also think we should try to have a more realistic sense of who we reach and how we reach them. The myth of accessible academic history has its costs as well as its benefits.
To begin with, the myth of accessibility can devalue some of what academic historians do uniquely well. We produce knowledge about the past regardless of whether there is a mass market for the knowledge we produce. And since I don’t believe that the mass market does a good job of determining what’s worth knowing, I think we ought to moderate our polemics against specialization. Many good ideas–even ideas that eventually have a profound impact on broad, public conversations–start in abstruse corners of academic work. Think, for example, of Kuhn and the idea of a “paradigm shift.”
Secondly, if we are going to take seriously our role as interlocutors in larger, public debates, we shouldn’t count on traditional academic publications to do so. Academic historians frequently bemoan the fact that our nation’s public conversations about history often leave much to be desired. Clearer writing in our academic monographs, however valuable it is in and of itself, is not going to change this situation.
* I almost called Potter’s post “very smart”; those who’ve read it will understand why I didn’t!
** This conclusion based on a cursory online search of Time magazine covers; do not reproduce this thought in an academic work.
When Peter Novick passed away recently, I immediately thought of the enormous impact that That Noble Dream had on my generation of graduate students. The book was published in September, 1988, the very month that I began graduate school. The book’s importance to many of my fellow graduate students and myself rested on at least three factors: first, it immediately became a centerpiece of the reading list for the historiography / methods course that we all took in our first semester of grad school (i.e. it was going to be “on the test”); second, it provided a historical narrative of the professional identity as historians that we had all recently decided to assume; finally, as Jim Harrison commented at the time (and, more recently, on this blog), the book was a “serious meditation about the state of things in the late 80s,” and thus very much spoke to the particular world of historical practice that we were all entering at the time.**
I was going to write something to this effect in response to Tim’s invitation to comment on Novick’s passing (I would have liked to say something, too, about The Holocaust in American Life, which was also a book of enormous importance to me), but I never got around to doing so. And the moment passed.
In part, I hesitated to write my memories of That Noble Dream in the late 1980s because I felt that the whole question of objectivity was less front-and-center in the profession today, that the book, while still a fine piece of scholarship, had (not surprisingly) lost its immediate currency. But I couldn’t manage to formulate exactly what had changed in this regard.***
Then, late last week, This American Life announced that, for the first time, they were retracting a story. “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” an episode-long exploration of conditions in a Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, that manufactures products for Apple, originally aired back in January and was an excerpt from a longer staged monologue by Mike Daisey who traveled to Shenzhen to investigate working conditions there. It turns out that many of the details of Daisey’s story were fabricated. Though it’s worth listening to the entire TAL story devoted to the retraction, the executive summary is that Daisey successfully, if temporarily, hid his fabrications from the show’s producers by lying to them about, among other things, the name of his translator, thus essentially making fact-checking the details of the story impossible. When the translator was later located, the fabrications became obvious and Daisey fell back on pseudo-defending himself by insisting that, since he is not a journalist, it’s wrong to hold him to the standards of journalism.
When this story broke, I commented on Facebook that “I’ve grown increasingly tired of people who try to pass fiction off as nonfiction. The issue of working conditions in China is a serious one, but fabricating stories about bad working conditions there does not help the cause. And simply saying ‘I’m not a journalist,’ as Mike Daisey does, won’t do. Nonfiction storytelling needs to be not fictional, whether or not one calls it journalism.”
In a variety of interesting ways, this is not quite Novick’s “objectivity question.” But it’s a cousin of it. And, like Novick’s book was in the 1980s, the Daisey scandal is very much of its time. From the controversy over James Frey’s pseudo-memoir A Million Little Pieces to the recent publication of John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s The Lifespan of a Fact, which anticipates the controversy and undoes the scandal by making the nature of truth the very topic of the book itself, we find ourselves in a moment that both has an unusually high regard for non-fiction storytelling, yet is very unclear on how to define the boundary between fiction and non-fiction.
Then, just today, Aaron Bady published a really smart and interesting post over at The New Inquiry**** entitled “The McNulty Gambit.”***** Starting with the subplot from Season 5 of The Wire in which Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) invents a (media friendly) serial killer in an effort to attract public concern to crimes that would otherwise be ignored, Bady mounts a semi-defense of fabricating evidence, with reference to the Daisey case, the recent Kony viral video, the Three Cups of Tea fiasco, and the Gay Girl in Damascus blog. It’s an interesting effort. Rather than summarize Bady’s post in detail, I’ll just suggest you go read it.
Now that you’re back, let me note a couple things about Bady’s piece that bothered me.
Here is what I think are the nut ‘graphs of Bady’s post:
what these fiction writers also have in common is a certain objective sense in which they are right, in which the story they are telling is true. While their subjective accounts tend to be the least true part of it (the most damning lies have to do with Daisey’s description of his personal experiences, for example), but behind those subjective untruths, we also find a broad field of objective accuracy: Foxconn is a terrible place to work, Joseph Kony really is a nightmare, building schools in Afghanistan is a good thing to do, and Syrian repression is no joke. Marlo really was a serial killer.
This is not a defense, of course, but it is worth saying: if we only emphasize the lies in these accounts, we thereby overlook the extent to which they were saying true things. And it is also worth remembering that truth is not an either/or. One can easily deceive by telling nothing but the truth – telling it selectively, misframed, etc – and one can also tell a kind of truth by using statements which are, on their own, untrue. This is why fiction matters, and why journalism never rests onquite the firm bedrock of objectivity that it needs to pretend it does. But again, this is not a defense, just an attempt to describe a problem that we often have vested interests in failing to acknowledge, the blurriness of the line that separates fact from fiction.
What bothers me here is the slippage in Bady’s post between right and true. Bady seems to want to argue that, though not true in one sense, the falsehoods in these stories are true in some other sense.
But this seems like a wholly unnecessary bit of water-muddying. Certainly Daisey, Frey, Tom MacMaster (“Gay Girl in Damascus”), and (the fictional) McNulty absolutely understood that they were telling falsehoods and did what they could to cover up that fact. What each was interested in wasn’t arriving at some higher truth, but rather compelling action, which each felt couldn’t be done by simply sticking to the facts.
Bady understands this. And most of the rest of his post concerns precisely what one needs to do to compel action (more about this later). But for some reason Bady starts the discussion by attempting to reframe the it in terms of the complexity of truth, almost suggesting that a lie that compels good action might be another form of truth.
Sorry. I’m not buying.
There is, of course, a tradition stretching at least back to Plato that argues in favor of “noble lies” or socially necessary falsehoods. It is a tradition that, at least today, is largely associated with the political right. I can’t say I find this tradition very attractive. But speaking of noble lies seems to me a good deal clearer and, in a certain sense, more honest, than attempts to rebrand putatively socially necessary falsehoods as some other form of truth. The story of the McNulty Gambit is, in fact, a story about noble lying. We will be clearer about the virtues and vices associated with this strategy if we are honest about what it entails.
My other dissent from Bady concerns his post’s concluding thoughts about the seemingly futile reformism of many of the efforts that he discusses. In situations that require fundamental structural changes–the political situation in central Africa, crime in Baltimore, working conditions in China–Bady’s protagonists spin yarns that seem to instead point to inadequate and local changes–killing Joseph Kony, capturing Marlo, boycotting Apple products. This flawed reformism, Bady argues, is intimately linked to the limitations of narrative:
[B]ecause such stories are derived from their audience – and its imaginative capabilities – they will for that reason demand and privilege reactions to the problem that are maddeningly simplistic in their very imaginable practicality. Kony is bad and so he must be killed by the military, because that’s something we can picture, can visualize; fundamentally restructuring the Central African system of political economy and governance is impossibly and unthinkably remote. Apple is bad and must be regulated (or shunned or something), because, again, that’s something simple we can imagine happening (as opposed to any alternative to the advanced industrial capitalism that makes Foxconn all but inevitable). And MacMasters later admitted that he had given his story an ending, an ending that is striking by its plausible realism: “I was going to end the story with having her be free, and get out of country — end of story.” But this ending is necessary precisely because individual escapes happen every day (while a real solution to the Syrian crisis is unthinkably complicated).
Each of these outcomes are imaginable, in part, as a direct consequence of the fact that they do not trouble the status quo. We can imagine those reforms, because they are essentially superficial adjustments of a system that not only remains intact, but which we – in our thinking about what is and isn’t possible – rely on and presume.
All of which is simply to say: it’s in the nature of grand structural transformations that we will always have great difficulty picturing what the end-state would look like. And because we feel we have to, we tend not to, falling back on the narrative patterns we know better.
I think, in principle, quite the opposite is the case. Our ability to imagine fundamental structural change is, if anything, more dependent upon, and more helped by, fictional narratives, than is the reformism of these particular efforts. Our culture–and most other cultures of which I’m aware–is full of stories that imagine vast, fundamental changes in the world: from the Book of Revelation to the entire genre of secular utopian (and dystopian) fiction. The world’s great revolutionary and reactionary movements have compelled transformative action–for good and ill–precisely by substituting fantastic tales for quotidian truth, often labeling the fiction a kind of higher truth (Stalinist Socialist Realism comes most immediately to mind, but just about any millenarian religious movement or radical political movement has similar structures). Bady is right that the reformism of these efforts is worth noting. But that reformism is accidental; it does not reflect any limits of the McNulty Gambit.
Let me conclude by pointing this discussion back in the direction of historical practice (without ever quite getting there). None of the figures that Bady discusses are historians. Despite historians occasionally playing with narrative and fiction, even the most postmodern of us tend to go no further than knowingly making stuff up that we simply cannot know and admitting as much (and even that is a bold, and IMO rarely entirely successful, maneuver). To the best of my knowledge, the canons of historical practice still explicitly forbid passing on knowing falsehoods as the truth.
And yet the “objectivity question,” to the extent that it still exists, revolves around similar issues. The quest for a “usable past” is not entirely dissimilar from the desire to tell stories that will compel action.
So I’m back where I was when I didn’t write about That Noble Dream the week before last, wondering how exactly this moment of our culture’s continuing struggle to reconcile narrative and truth is reflected in my own profession. And wishing, I suppose, that I had a guide as good as Novick around to help clarify these issues for me.
* What is blogging for if it is not, occasionally, for muddled thoughts?
** This was particularly the case in the Princeton History Department, which played a starring role of sorts in Novick’s final chapter on the David Abraham controversy, which had occurred just a few short years earlier. Several years later, I’d actually become friends with David. Though he was teaching at the University of Miami’s law school, he continued to live in Princeton, NJ. And, during summers, he played softball with me on the History Department’s B-league softball team, the Revolting Masses (fwiw, the more serious / skilled A-league History Department squad was called the Machiavellian Moment). But in the fall of 1988, David was very much an historical actor and, as of yet, unknown to me personally.
*** One way or another, I would have asked younger readers of this blog whether this book mattered to them at all. So I might as well do so here. Does it?
**** The New Inquiry’s format, like that of the sports-and-culture blog Grantland, incorporates marginal notes, a marvelous (and marvelously old-fashioned) way of presenting additional information that turns out to be particularly well-suited to the web. Certainly it beats the crap out of these jerry-rigged footnotes. Memo to myself: when this blog finally migrates to WordPress, let’s see if we can incorporate marginal notes in our new design!
***** The piece is apparently partly inspired by Slavoj Žižek’s recent talk on The Wire, which I have yet to listen to. Bady’s description of that talk as “usefully wrong about lots of things, and strikingly insightful about a few,” however, seems to me one of the best general descriptions of Žižek’s work that I’ve ever read.
We historians conventionally distinguish scholarly historical writing from popular historical writing. The former is what those of us who write for this blog do professionally; the latter is what tends to appear on bestseller lists. The very existence of popular historical writing distinguishes our field from many others in the humanities. These days, at least, there’s precious little popular literary criticism for example (though popular cultural criticism certainly exists). And though bookstores are brimming with popular philosophy books, they bear virtually no resemblance to the work of academic philosophers. In contrast, not only are there innumerable works of popular history, most academic historians (or, at least, the Americanists among us) like to think that our work is potentially of interest to a broader, non-academic audience. Occasionally a handful of scholarly works, usually in the areas of military or political history, find a large (or at least largish) audience outside the Ivory Tower. I’m thinking, for example, of Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom or Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm. Pulitzer Prizes in History often go to such works.
But more often, works of history that find their way to the best seller list are considerably less scholarly. Take, for example, Hardball host Chris Matthews’ Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, currently #33 on the New York Times Hardcover Non-Fiction Best Sellers List and the subject of a take-down by the historian David Greenberg in TNR [h/t Erik Loomis at LGM]. Vanity projects by pundits about presidents past seem to have emerged as a genre unto themselves. At least as described by Greenberg, Matthews book seems little more than a projection of his own two-dimensional political personality onto JFK.*
But what I found most interesting about Matthews’ book was the list of people who have blurbed it.
As Greenberg notes, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero is marketed with praise from Douglas Brinkley, Walter Isaacson, Brian Williams, Peggy Noonan, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. This is an interesting mix of people. Noonan and Williams are fellow media personalities, who don’t have any particular historical credentials. But the other three figures inhabit an intermediate zone between scholarly and popular approaches to history: semi-serious historians whose reputations have been built as mainstream public intellectuals. The only academic among the three is Brinkley, though I think his reputation as a scholar is even more slight than Isaacson’s or Goodwin’s (despite the accusations of plagiarism against the latter). Along with the once ubiquitous Michael Beschloss, Brinkley and Goodwin for years formed a kind of triumvirate of semi-official historical opinion on relatively serious network newscasts. Each is also more closely tied to the political and financial elite than your average historian (popular or scholarly): Goodwin was an assistant to LBJ and married Richard Goodwin, a more senior assistant to both JFK and LBJ. Brinkley is a member of the Century Club and the Council on Foreign Relations. Beschloss is married to a former treasurer and chief investment officer of the World Bank who runs a Washington, DC-based hedge fund. Isaacson emerged out of the media, starting his career as a journalist, rising to be CEO of CNN in 2001 and President and CEO of the Aspen Institute in 2003.
What I find fascinating about these figures is the very complicated role they play in today’s historical ecosphere. If you had to place their work on one side or the other of the popular / scholarly divide, they’d certainly be considered popular. Yet their books–especially Goodwin’s and Isaacson’s–are taken seriously by serious people. They are certainly not in the same category of “historians” as, say, Glenn Beck or Chris Matthews. But they are often called upon to validate the seriousness and even the expertise of people like Matthews (if not Beck). Indeed, Goodwin’s blurb for Matthew’s JFK book seems to leave David Greenberg somewhat flummoxed; he notes that she “surely cannot regard this as a meritorious book.”
What all of this suggests to me is that the old scholarly / popular divide is too crude to describe the ways in which history is produced and consumed in the U.S. today. I’m not going to attempt a more precise taxonomy in this blogpost. But I think establishing one would help us make better sense of things like the Tea Party’s use of history, which have been recurring themes on this blog.
* I needed to add somewhere the cover of Glenn Beck’s book on George Washington, since it so nicely captures the actual focus of many of these sorts of projects: