Bridging the Divide: Academic v. Popular History

Over at A Lincoln Log, Brian Dirck comments on the awarding of the Lincoln Prize to Doris Kearns Goodwin. Dirck seems ambivalent about the committee’s choice by noting that while he has trouble with Goodwin’s interpretation, the book has sold well and presents an entertaining and highly readable narrative for the general public. The rub between interpretation and narrative led Dirck to a question at the end of the post: So how exactly does one bridge the gap between professional, technical history and readable, entertaining history? Or should we even try?

One way to answer this question is to simply say that the two goals are mutually exclusive. Professional historians utilize the latest analytical distinctions and categories in the on-going process of scholarly revision. Popular writers focus on writing an entertaining story for the general public and tend to concentrate on character development in an attempt to convey some kind of meaning. I tend not to see these choices as mutually exclusive, especially in the area of Civil War history. There is much more interaction between professional historians and lay readers compared with other areas of history. It is not unusual to see the likes of James McPherson or Gary Gallagher leading a tour of a battlefield or presenting a paper to a roundtable. On the other side there is nothing unusual to see essays and books published by non-academics in professional journals and university presses. We are lucky that this field of study is defined by a great deal of interaction between academic and non-academic historians. A number of historians in addition to the two just mentioned come to mind, including William Freehling, Gordon Rhea, William Marvel, Ed Ayers, Robert Krick, and the list goes on.

This fluid relationship, however, does create tension. Professional historians tend not to be interested in what I’ve dubbed the “entertainment factor” of the Civil War. You won’t see too many academics at an SCV rally or reenactment. I find that most Civil War “buffs” are not interested in the more academically-oriented debates (and there is not anything necessarily wrong with this). They tend to be interested in the military side of the equation. That, however, is a problem for academics like Mark Grimsley and other professional military historians (check out the guest post on Grimsley’s site titled, “Why Military History Still Sucks“) who interpret the Civil War through the lens of the “New Military History” which views the battlefield within a much broader social/economic and political perspective. The general rule for those who focus solely on the battlefield tends to be the more detail the better rather than applying and testing the latest analytical models.

And then there are those from the various “Heritage” groups who claim to be defending “their history” from “Northern Liberal” aggressors who have invaded the academy. The debates surrounding Lincoln, secession and black Confederates are predictable down to the suggestions that you read Thomas DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln or Charles Adams’s When in the Course of Human Events.

Most people who call themselves Civil War “buffs” or “enthusiasts” have little patience with academic debate because they either have a narrow interest in military affairs or have already decided for themselves the answers to fundamental questions. The other problem is that any serious consideration of the more complex questions and debates through a survey of the relevant literature demands a great deal of time, which most people simply do not have. My guess is that most people want a good story that allows them to empathize or sympathize with the past. It is disappointing that more professional historians have not taken on the challenge of writing serious history for popular audiences. There is nothing contradictory about writing scholarly books in a way that attracts a wide readership. My fellow Civil War bloggers and our readers have demonstrated that there is quite a demand out there for serious history.

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