Are Popular Histories Vapid?

That Barnes & Noble Dream

Are Popular Histories Vapid?
How we interpret the past.
May 18 2005 10:27 AM

That Barnes & Noble Dream


Click here to read the first part of David Greenberg's argument.

In the first part of this piece, I suggested that if academic historians like me cringe at the bottomless public appetite for lives of the founders and jolly but bland historical narratives, we should try to write serious scholarship for a general audience. The question is how to do it.


Here's my best shot at an answer: The key to attracting more readers without sacrificing rigor lies in the ways that historians define their topics. If a book is conceived with only historiography in mind—with academic disciplinary debates and research agendas dictating the focus and the form—it's unlikely to succeed in the public realm. If it's conceived without historiography in mind, it's unlikely to succeed as scholarship. I'd propose what might be called a Goldilocks approach to historiography.

How do historians choose what to write about? What Bernard Bailyn wrote in 1963 largely holds true today:

Historians decide to study and write about something because they observe that in the present state of the historical literature there is a need for such work, a need in the sense that proper utilization of the resources has not been made. ... A second group of topics seems to be defined ... by observations concerning the state of historical knowledge itself. These are topics that are suggested by what appear to be gaps in out knowledge. ... A third group of topics is defined by the observation of (1) anomalies in the existing data, or (2) discrepancies in between the data and existing explanations.

In short, professional historians select their areas of research not by looking at history but by surveying the historiography—the ongoing debates among scholars about what are often highly refined or technical points of a subject—and then staking out a new sliver of the established academic terrain.

This quasi-scientific approach grew out of the rise of social science, professionalism, and the research university in the late 19th century. As academic historians became a self-conscious guild, they endorsed the premise that as trained experts, operating dispassionately, they could build a base of knowledge to which subsequent generations would incrementally add. While few of us today consider history a "science," most share the belief—or hope—that the steady accretion of knowledge will over time broaden our understanding of the past. Assumptions like these lead scholars to fashion small bricks to be stacked upon the historical edifice.

Attending to historiography sometimes makes good sense: If the literature on the civil rights movement focuses on political leaders such as the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, look at the grassroots activists in North Carolina or Mississippi. If political history dwells on moments of great liberal achievement, examine the conservative revolution no one saw coming.

But too often this approach to conceiving a topic alienates readers unversed in historiographical debates—which is to say most readers, even within the academy. It discourages creativity, eccentricity, or straying outside the bounds delimited by the dominant figures in a given field. It places professional practices and disciplinary goals above intellectual ones.

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Book Cover

Younger historians especially are encouraged to follow the terms other historians have set out—to borrow a favorite scholar's template (how one ethnic group or another "became white") or to dispute a reigning interpretation (a particular movement began a decade before commonly supposed). Either formula can lead to color-by-numbers history. Meanwhile, topics that don't fall squarely into any current historiographic niche may get overlooked unless a skilled amateur historian takes them on, as Nicholas Lemann did with his history of the meritocracy, The Big Test, or Steven Weisman did with his genesis of the income tax, The Great Tax Wars.

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But if immersion in historiography (rather than history itself) has distanced scholars from the public, operating in ignorance of historiography has even more dire pitfalls. David McCullough, Edmund Morris, and other popular chroniclers display an indifference to historiography that makes their books seem naive, even empty. In a scathing review of Morris'Theodore Rex (2001) in the New Republic, Princeton historian Christine Stansell noted that while scholars have recently put forward "rich and critical interpretations" of Theodore Roosevelt—focusing on his belief in eugenics, his preening masculinity, his nativism, his unfulfilled conservationism—Morris showed no interest in, or awareness of, any of them. Though the book he produced sold phenomenally, it generated no lasting ideas, no new perspectives.

The major failing of much popular history is that it betrays no interest in making intellectual contributions to our understanding of an issue. The Barnes & Noble historian seems to treat history as a pageant of larger-than-life events and people to be marveled at, rather than a set of social, political, and cultural problems to engage. Unless you wrestle with the ways in which the problems of the past have been defined, interpreted, ignored, or mischaracterized by other historians—the historiography—your writing will seem unsophisticated. You won't know which of your ideas are novel or trite, simple or complex, suspiciously trendy or embarrassingly out of date, or what avenues of research have already been pursued. Historians have to try to build upon what's been written, while keeping in mind that the goal is broader than just revising or applying other scholars' findings.

Good history, then, is written in awareness of the historiography but addressed to it only indirectly.

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Consider an example. When Gordon Wood published his Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), one academic reviewer marveled that "Not a single historian's name appears in the main text." Shouldn't all (or most) history read this way? Wood didn't neglect historiographic concerns by any means. His book was a richer, more confident, and more expansive culmination of work that he, Bailyn, J.G.A. Pocock, and others had done years before on the ways that radical ideas of republicanism —and not only classical liberalism —had informed the thinking of the Revolutionaries. Hardly a popularization like many recent accounts of the revolution, the book earned good reviews and the Pulitzer Prize. But nowhere did Wood flaunt his erudition or or address his argument directly to colleagues. He relegated the historiography to his copious footnotes, leaving the narrative uncluttered and welcoming to readers of all kinds. Certainly many scholars argued with his characterization of the revolution as "radical." But stirring up debate is one mark of having pursued a significant idea, and the robustness of argument proved the relevance of Wood's perspective to future scholarship.

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Wood is hardly alone. Crossover works of history are not hard to find, as I've tried to suggest, even if they remain the exception rather than the rule. In recent years, such pre-eminent historians as David Hackett Fischer and Edmund Morgan have made it onto the best-seller lists—the 89-year-old Morgan with an elegant biography of Benjamin Franklin; the prolific Fischer with Washington's Crossing, an account of the Continental Army's New Jersey campaign that integrates research on specialized but important topics like Colonial notions of virtue and honor (and even devotes 33 pages to historiography in an appendix that doesn't intrude on his story).

In other ways, too, there are indications of a rapprochement between the academic and the popular. Journalists such as David Maraniss and Richard Reeves show up at conferences to speak about Vietnam or the Nixon presidency. University presses tout lists with titles that trade presses might typically offer, and they bid on manuscripts with sales potential. Even the American Historical Association has shown signs of reaching out: It recently created a prize for the promotion of history. The recipients so far include Sen. Robert Byrd and C-SPAN's Brian Lamb.

None of this will mean that the McCulloughs and Morrises will cede the spotlight to the Morgans and Fischers. But Barbara Tuchman's page-turners didn't keep readers from appreciating C. Vann Woodward's analyses, and today's blockbusters shouldn't keep academic historians from striving for readers. Because the two groups, in the end, are really doing very different things.

The British-based historian David Lowenthal (technically a "geographer") has written about the differences between history and what the British call "heritage": the commemorations of the past found in museums, folklore, pop culture, and the like. When we celebrate the Fourth of July, tour a battlefield, or enjoy presidential trivia, we're not trying to probe the problems of the past—to think hard about whether the Constitution betrayed or affirmed the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, or about the origins of the Civil War. We're looking to reaffirm our national or ethnic identity, to venerate our ancestors, to inspire wonder, or to instill patriotism or a sense of group solidarity. This is what people are looking to do when they read books by David McCullough.

Thus in some sense it is unfair, or at least beside the point, to attack heritage for not being history—like attacking Star Wars for not being 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although we need critics who will expose the perils of the historical blockbuster trend and show us more substantial ways to think about the past, we should also recognize the two modes have different functions, different aims. There ought to be a place in society for both heritage and history, provided that we retain a keen sense of the difference.

NOTE: I drew on many books in writing this piece and would have footnoted them in a book or scholarly article. That's not the convention at Slate. But I want to note that especially valuable to me were Peter Novick's That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession and David Lowenthal's The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History.

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