Comments on: You historians get off of David McCullough’s lawn! History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present Sun, 21 Sep 2014 12:24:08 +0000 hourly 1 By: boring Mon, 12 Nov 2012 04:07:26 +0000 “I tried to read one of that motherfucker’s books, and it was so painfully boring, I barely made it a third of the way through. If I remember correctly, it was about some military campaigns of the revolutionary war. It was just page after page after page of “this platoon went over this hill, and then snuck over behind this wooded area, and blah, blah, blah”.

Wow–end of argument? Their are too many lousey white writers. I think the whole publishing
industry is to blame? Or, maybe it’s just stupid Americans? Yes–just look at what you read?
If in doubt, look at the New York Times best seller list–now, or for the last twenty years.

By: Dan Sat, 24 Dec 2011 23:35:28 +0000 Historians such as Douglas Brinkley and Richard Norton Smith have both made the same claim that historians today write for academia and not for the general public. And while these sources are essential for other historians, to the general public they’re worthless. Copies sold amount in the hundreds, and if it wasn’t for libraries they would most likely be in the dozens. And McCullough is right, most of them are simply dreadful. This doesn’t mean that they’re not valuable, it simply means that they’re poor reads for the average person.

By: Canuck Down South Tue, 21 Jun 2011 22:31:22 +0000 @Historiann above: Fear not, the grad students of today don’t have it too soft, dry-reading-wise: Foucault/Derrida/Bourdieu etc. are certainly still on the list, although now that they’re not so much dominating the academic zeitgeist they’re treated more like just another tool we’re supposed to recognize and keep handy.

Feminist Avatar’s comment about books becoming movies reminded me that a couple of “crossover” books went the other way, in that they were inspired by their author’s experience a consultants on movies: Stephen Greenblatt’s bestselling _Will in the World_ is one, as well as Natalie Zemon Davis’s _The Return of Martin Guerre_, both books which I’d think are probably still on the shelves of your general-interest bookstore. Does anyone know of more recent examples, or is it rare enough that professors are consulted for movies that it just doesn’t happen all that often?

My cheap paperback edition of another recent example of a bestselling popular-academic book, James Shapiro’s _1599_, makes its popular target audience clear in its packaging: it’s complete with awards won printed in circles on the front and an author interview at the back, including the leading question, “Five Shakespeare Plays I’d Take to a Desert Island” (Hamlet is of course on that list). With the exception, though, of biography/cultural history-like books like this one, it occurs to me that literary scholars must have a much more difficult time breaking into the popular market than historians have. It seems likely that non-academics with an interest in history would pursue their interest by reading history books (along with maybe visiting historical sites or museums), whereas non-academics interested in Shakespeare would be more likely to go to plays and read Shakespeare himself instead of picking up the latest scholarly exposition of _King Lear_.

By: John S. Tue, 21 Jun 2011 21:34:15 +0000 My dad sent a link to the David McCullough interview, since he firmly believes that p.c. has taken over our universities. I must say that I am somewhat dubious about the veracity of the story about the student not knowing about the 13 original colonies. (How many of us remember exact quotes from 20 years ago? Is it just me who can’t really d that?)

But even if it did happen, I still wondered a few things that made me question McCullough’s idea of what’s “normal” in history teaching and learning. Do we know the student was educated in America? I ask because I teach a reasonably significant number of immigrant students at my university who never actually had a chance to take a class that covered early American history when they were K-12 students. I think it’s utterly wrong headed to assume that all college students are American born and educated and that they all had a common curriculum about early America.

In a broader sense…I wonder how McCullough would talk about other entrenched ignorance in American life. 40%–yes, that’s FORTY PERCENT–of Americans think that God created human beings in their current form 10,000 years ago, rejecting evolution as it applies to people. In other words, they reject one of the key tenets–if not THE key tenet–of modern biology. Good lord, somewhere around one in four or one in three Americans tell pollsters THAT THE SUN REVOLVES AROUND THE EARTH.

I apologize for the all-caps “shouting” here. But as important as I think that Brown v. Board of education was, I think a misunderstanding of the earth’s relationship to the sun is more distressing. And does McCullough think that entrenched opposition to evolution stems from the fact that scientists “write badly”? I get tired of historians being singled out for student ignorance when there are as serious (if not more serious) problems elsewhere.

By: Feminist Avatar Tue, 21 Jun 2011 14:11:58 +0000 @Tripartite – Writing popular history in the UK is every historian’s new hobby; I am even having a go myself! So, Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter and her new Behind Closed Doors both straddle the academic/ public divide very succesfully in the UK (she does better than ‘just’ popular history by doing both at once).

There are also numerous fab bios out at the moment, which sell very well. Perhaps the most famous of the moment is Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which became a blockbuster film. That was a PhD that became a best-seller, and it didn’t lose its scholarly rigour in the crossover to the book (let’s not discuss the film!). Another very good biographer (with a PhD though now making a living from her writing alone) is Paula Byrne, who wrote the bestseller Perdita: the life of Mary Robinson as well as other very successful bios. Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair have a new one on the Victorian ‘alleged’ murderess Madeline Smith, which is both academic and highly entertaining.

Then there is historical fiction in which case I recommend CJ Samson’s murder novels in the Tudor period, which are breathtakingly good; I also enjoy Philippa Gregory’s fictional bios of numerous women.

All these people have PhDs in history (or English Lit in Byrne’s case).

Another popular read is Wendy Moore’s Wedlock, which is a bestseller and fab story, but is written by a journalist and so irritated me quite a lot in its historical misteps- and made me appreciate why historians do popular history so much better!

By: Rachel Tue, 21 Jun 2011 14:00:25 +0000 And I have to add, that a lot (not all, but a not inconsiderable portion), of academic history writing is very, very dry, which is sometimes what non-academics mean when they say academics/historians “write badly.” It’s written to be consumed as argument or information, not entertainment, which seems to lead to many historians adopting a very monotonous tone. I’ve found that those historians who do have a livelier writing style just about leap off the page…

I think Canuck Down South gets it right here — it’s not so much objectively poor writing, but dry writing cast as bad. And it is bad — for a general audience who isn’t concerned about the nuance of scholar X’s argument versus scholar Y’s argument. The books that one can easily “gut” while reading for prelims/comps/generals are unlikely to be crossover successes.

But there is plenty of rigorous history that I think the public would consume if it were marketed to them. When I think about my own prelims reading, the civil rights literature was, on the whole, livelier than anything else: Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Dittmer’s Local People, Tyson’s Radio-Free Dixie are all still entrenched in my head (I can’t say the same for a lot of labor history that could be written with narratives as rich as civil rights history but is frequently far more dry). When I read Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally when it came out a couple years ago, I remember thinking how compelling the writing was (in addition to a splendid argument about race and marriage politics).

Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering seems like it was a crossover success — I saw it on plenty of bookstore tables and it was a lucid, engaging read. It was about the Civil War which has a popular following, but I don’t think simply writing about the Civil War is what got her a popular audience. And it wasn’t an uplifting read by any means.

By: Historiann Tue, 21 Jun 2011 13:53:36 +0000 Thanks for the encouragement. I think I have the writing chops–I’m just not sure yet if my intellectual interests are likely to attract the attentions of a trade publisher.

By: Perpetua Tue, 21 Jun 2011 13:01:43 +0000 @TriPartite – I’m not sure I would rate this as a “popular” history, although it does get written up in intellectual general book reviews (NY review of books, etc) – John H. Elliott’s Empires of the Atlantic World. He is an extremely lucid, even beautiful, writer. The general (US) public might not be interested in the topics he writes about, but it would be difficult to argue that it has anything to do with his writing skills.

In addition to Historiann’s point about US history as historians teaching it being a Debbie Downer for the middle class white (male) reading public, it’s also true that there is just not much public, non-academic intellectual culture in the US, which narrows down the topics that people will read even more.

H’ann – I definitely think you should write a “popular” or cross over book. My personal belief is that it takes more skill – both scholarly and technically – to write a popular/cross-over book than an academic one. Not because academic books are poorly written garbage, but to synthesize complex material clearly and rigorously – now, that is an art. One has to have a substantial mastery of a given historiography to accomplish that.

By: RogerLustig Tue, 21 Jun 2011 11:52:47 +0000 @Bardiac: better check the book out before judging with such certainty. Emma Willard, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Cassatt–three of the people the book is “all about.” And it’s not like McCullough wrote Abigail out of his Adams biography either.

He may be a prat re: historians and teachers, but there’s a reason he gets interviews and other publicity like that.

By: RogerLustig Tue, 21 Jun 2011 11:51:17 +0000 @Bardiac: better check the book out before judging with such certainty. Emma Willard, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Cassatt–three of the people the book is “all about.” And it’s not like McCullough wrote Abigail out of his Adams biography either.