That Barnes & Noble Dream

Academics Historians vs. Popularizers
How we interpret the past.
May 17 2005 4:53 PM

That Barnes & Noble Dream

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This month marks the publication of 1776, David McCullough's rousing, feel-good tale of how George Washington led a ragtag crew of continental soldiers into their fateful battle for independence. It's safe to predict that 1776—the latest in a series of heavily hyped history blockbusters—will vault to the top of the best-seller lists, beguiling readers with its reverent portrait of Washington's heroism and the dulcet cadences of McCullough's finely wrought prose.

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It will also drive many academic historians up the wall.

Our exasperation will stem partly, to be sure, from envy of McCullough's undeniable gift for storytelling and of his smashing popularity. But my academic colleagues will (or should) raise legitimate objections to the approach of a book like this—the surfeit of scene-setting and personality, the meager analysis and argument, the lack of a compelling rationale for writing about a topic already amply covered. McCullough's fans won't care. They typically have little use for what they regard—not always wrongly—as the narrowly focused, politically correct, jargon-clotted academic monographs that dwell on arcane issues instead of big, meaty topics like politics, diplomacy, and war.

Instead of grumbling over the public's middlebrow book buying tastes, the best thing academic historians can do is to try to offer them something better. A number of our own practices lead us away from engaging the public as we should. I've seen students entering graduate school aspiring to write like Arthur Schlesinger, only to be shunted into producing pinched, monographic studies. I've seen conferences full of brilliant minds unable to find an interesting presentation to attend that isn't literally read off the page in a soporific drone. We write too much for each other—and, as we do, a public hungry for good history walks into Barnes & Noble and gets handed vapid mythmaking that uninformed critics ratify as "magisterial" or "definitive."

Thankfully, historians now seem to be recognizing all this as a problem. At one point, many academics seemed to consider popularity a first step into the Hades of commercialization and dumbing down. But today, most of my peers, myself included, seem eager to publish with trade presses, to write op-ed pieces about our research, or to appear on NPR and Charlie Rose—not just because we want the ego boost (though who wouldn't?), but because we enjoy discovering new audiences who respond intelligently to our ideas. Indeed, although the chasm between popular and scholarly history is real, a number of historians, inside and outside the academy, have been able to develop a wide following with quality work.

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Though the age of the historical blockbuster has made the rift between the scholarly and the popular more acute, the divide itself is quite old. In the 1930s, the former journalist and Ph.D.-less Columbia University historian Allan Nevins was so fed up with his colleagues' disregard for the public that he went on to found American Heritage magazine and the Society for American History to promote accessible history. In That Noble Dream, his chronicle of the historical profession, Peter Novick noted that in the 1950s "a work of serious scholarship, like Garrett Mattingly's The Armada, might achieve popular success, but for the most part best-sellerdom was reserved for amateurs like Walter Lord, Cornelius Ryan, William L. Shirer, John Toland and Barbara Tuchman, whom most professional historians … regarded as the equivalent of chiropractors and neuropaths."

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The 1950s were also a heyday for public intellectuals—a time when Daniel Boorstin, Oscar Handlin, Richard Hofstadter, and C. Vann Woodward published widely read histories of lasting value. But the moment passed quickly. In the 1960s, a new generation of scholars sought to write history "from the bottom up," examining the stories of laborers, women, blacks, immigrants, and other neglected groups. This new generation expanded our historical knowledge as none had before. But their work displaced the accounts of military derring-do or inside political dope that the public craved. And the awareness of the diversity of the American experience undermined the very possibility of generalizing about the American past—a necessary and overdue realization, but one that meant, sadly, that grand, self-confident books like David Potter's People of Plenty or Hofstadter's American Political Tradition were unlikely to come along soon.

In their discussions about how to reach a wider audience without sacrificing rigor, historians and lay critics have offered several diagnoses of the problem. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, many are simple, neat, and, if not wrong, then incomplete. Let me review a few, before moving on to my own assessment of the problem.

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Academic vs. popular history. Many people see the dilemma as simply a matter of professors versus journalists, or professionals versus amateurs. But that dichotomy isn't very useful. There are academic historians with Ph.D.s, such as the late Stephen Ambrose, who write best sellers and blanket the media but command little scholarly respect. Historian Howard Zinn delivered the new social history to millions of readers, but most professors probably consider his People's History of the United States to be, in Michael Kazin's words, "bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions." Meanwhile, many journalists who write about the past—Taylor Branch, Neal Gabler, Anthony Lukas—wind up in scholarly footnotes and classroom syllabi. Clearly, the lines have been scrambled. How, after all, should we classify a respected historian like Garry Wills, who earned a Ph.D. in classics, became a reporter, and is now an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern? (Wills' unashamed use of the "adjunct" title gives succor to nontenure-track professors everywhere.) In short, institutional status hardly correlates with quality.

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Monographs vs. synthesis. Two decades ago, Thomas Bender of New York University called on historians to write more "syntheses": those broadly conceived stories that integrate monographic work into their wider contexts. Although sympathetic to the social historians who had debunked the old master narratives, Bender noted that they hadn't yet taken the next step of refashioning new ones. (Although since Bender wrote, books like Eric Foner's Story of American Freedom and Nell Painter's Standing at Armageddon have tried to do just that.)

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Bender had a point. We've all seen lists of the obscure or narrow subjects that make for paper titles at conferences or published monographs. (Full disclosure: I once lost out on a job to a scholar whose dissertation was titled, "Metal of Honor: Montana's World War II Homefront, Movies, and the Social Politics of White Male Anxiety." It may be quite good for all I know.) Yet other historians have shown that monographic work need not alienate readers. The academic genre of "microhistory"—using a close study of a single moment or culture to open up wider vistas on the past—has lately found popular expression, and not always in the debased "vegetable-that-changed-history" form that has become ubiquitous (e.g. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World; Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World, etc.). Books such as Paris 1919, Margaret MacMillan's blow-by-blow account of the Versailles conference, or Triangle, David von Drehle's narrative of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, take a snapshot of a crucial moment in time and tease out its wider import. A narrow focus need not sacrifice relevance.

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"Conservative" political history vs. " radical" social history. Sometimes the problem with academic history is seen as a political one—a left-wing obsession with the plight of dispossessed groups. (Conversely, the problem with blockbusters is seen to be their essentially conservative celebration of American heroes.) But while the parade of lives of the founders does encourage mindless veneration, and the parade of dissertations proving some group's hitherto uncredited "agency" does get tiresome, politics isn't the real problem. Acclaimed crossover books like Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence and Geoffrey R. Stone's Perilous Times show that political, diplomatic, legal, and military history aren't inherently conservative, and prize-winning academic works such as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Midwife's Tale and Kevin Boyle's Arc of Justice show that race and gender history can have wide appeal. Besides, there's a lot of social history that, while radical in its politics, is retrograde in another sense—tinged with a sentimental celebration of "average Americans" that no more prods us to critical reflection than does a Richard Brookhiser biography of Alexander Hamilton.

Narrative vs. analysis. Another common diagnosis of history's ills, notably advanced in a 1979 essay by the late Lawrence Stone, is that it has forsaken the telling of stories. Concerned that the influence of social science had desiccated academic history in the 1960s and '70s, Stone urged his colleagues to revive the time-honored mode of narrative "to make their findings accessible once more to an intelligent but not expert reading public, which is eager to learn … but cannot stomach indigestible statistical tables [and] dry analytical argument." Every few years since, someone renews the call. Often he or she touts a fine example of the genre, such as John Demos' Unredeemed Captive—which proved, incidentally, that a gripping plot need not entail exalting the deeds of presidents and generals over average folk.

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Again, the diagnosis is incomplete. Good narratives succeed not only because they contain colorful characters and gripping plot lines, but also because the authors integrate analysis into their selection of material, chapter structure, and word choices. Two narrative histories I recently reviewed, Dominic Sandbrook's Eugene McCarthy and Geoffrey Kabaservice's The Guardians, are page-turners that will nonetheless attract academic readers with their sophisticated analyses. Besides, historians from Hofstadter in the 1950s to my Rutgers colleague Jackson Lears today find wide audiences with works propelled more by argument than by drama. Most readers can appreciate ideas intermingled with people and events.

Jargon vs. Clear Writing. Perhaps the most common complaint about academics is that they simply don't write well. If only we could string a few coherent sentences together, the public would show interest. And in history, which readers rightly expect to be accessible, bad writing is especially egregious, as Peter Novick, among others, has noted. Writing about the Bancroft Prize-winning 1973 study Time on the Cross, Novick marveled that "historians who wanted to know the basis for Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's conclusion that slaves were only moderately exploited were told that the answer was:

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Nor were the social-science types alone in their guilt. Increasingly, humanists were guilty of obfuscation, too. Consider a 1986 work of intellectual history described by Novick in which the author "helpfully provided a glossary of such terms as 'distransitivity,' 'actantial/actant,' and 'psychologeme,' [but] … no entries for terms which presumably all but the hopelessly illiterate commanded, like 'chrononym,' 'dromomatics,' and 'intradiegetic.' "

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Obviously, the academy should reward lucid writing more than it does. But simply banishing jargon or tarting up our prose won't bridge the academic-popular divide. There are many ways to write well, and even jargon can have its place, if properly explained. (Most historians would agree that "presentism" is a genuinely useful concept, to which readers can be introduced rather painlessly.) And sometimes a good enough book can persuade readers to slog through its dense prose, as for example Eugene Genovese's history of slave life, Roll, Jordan, Roll, demonstrates.

If good history can't be reduced to a synthetic approach, a concern with politics, a rousing narrative, or even clear writing, then what might academics do differently? I'll take up the question in the second part of this piece, to be published tomorrow.

Click here to keep reading David Greenberg's argument.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

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