Publishing and Peer Review: Part 2

Eric Wittenberg was kind enough to post a thorough response to my last post on the place of peer review in smaller publishing houses which specialize in Civil War history.  In doing so he offered his own thoughts about the academic presses and their concentration on publishing studies that fall under the heading of the "New Military History" or social history.  According to Eric:

Second, the other issue with academic peer review is that it perpetuates a
tendency toward continuing to churn out books that are of little interest to
anyone other than those with a heavy academic bent. It’s groupthink. If the
manuscript doesn’t fit the template for the “new military history” (whatever
that is), then it will be rejected. Thus, the tendency in the university presses
is to perpetuate the unhappy tendency to downplay military history in favor of
social history.

While he does concede that studies by Gordon Rhea, Ken Noe, and Frank O’Reilly fall outside this tendency of academic publishers, Eric has little interest in their concentration on social and cultural histories.  Let me add to Eric’s list: Harry Pfanz, Joe Harsh, Earl Hess, William Marvel, and Brian K. Burton.  It is interesting to note that Eric characterizes this new trend as "groupthink" and as fitting a "template."  Seems to me that the traditional military history falls more closely along these lines.  This is not necessarily a criticism as we must know what happened on the battlefield; it was after all a war.  That said, taken as a whole, however, these studies are locked in a predictable mold or pattern.  It can be argued that the offerings from the university presses over the past few decades are in fact much more interesting in terms of their methodologies and the types of events analyzed.  While Eric may be correct that the academic presses and their cultural/social studies appeal to a select audience, it seems to me that they give us a much richer view of the war that addresses specific themes and events in a way that the more traditional military narratives cannot.  And from a broader historiographical perspective they may in fact be more important to the continued advance of the field.

Step outside of the Civil War and take a look at recent studies of the American Revolution in the southern colonies.  While many of us know the details surrounding the battles of Yorktown, Cowpens, Kings Mountain, etc. historians have given us a much richer account of how the fierce civil wars between Whigs and Loyalists shaped the way both Clinton, Cornwallis and especially Nathaniel Greene managed their affairs.  We could just stay on the battlefield and follow the movements of troops and then pick up and follow the men to their next stop, but this would not really give the student of history what they needed to know.  In effect our knowledge would be incomplete. 

11 comments… add one

  • Peter Carmichael Jul 5, 2006

    It is unfortunate that Eric has such a narrow view of what constitutes good Civil War history. The party line that academics just write for academics is very tired. How does one explain the popularity of Gallagher, McPherson, Ayers? Just because a book deals with social or cultural history does not mean that it is unreadable or not for the general public. In fact, the minutia tactical history has a very limited audience and is closed off to those who want a broader understanding of the war.

  • Anonymous Jul 5, 2006

    What irritates me about Wittenberg is how sanctimonious he gets about his little tactical studies. He has said on numerous occasions that he writes and researches for entertainment. He says as much in this post http://civilwarcavalry.com/?p=125 . The best part in it is the following statements “Issues such as slavery and its consequences…simply are of no interest to me.” To my mind that would mean the Civil War, but back to the point. Eric writes as entertainment for people who want to read these micostudies for entertainment. Wittenberg just dismisses everything he doesn’t like. What really galls me is that then, after saying he just dismisses everything he doesn’t like, Wittenberg turns around and goes on the attack. It is not that most academics do not not share Mr. Wittenberg’s interests for tactical minutiae, but that they are closeminded.

  • Eric Wittenberg Jul 5, 2006

    Pete,

    I actually do tend to agree with you. I tend to think that these things have their place, and that they even have their place in traditional battle/campaign studies. Where I disagree is when the social history aspects take over. Drew Wagenhoffer properly points out that approximately 80% of Rable’s Fredericksburg book is social history and only 20% deals with the battle. In my mind, that’s a badly skewed ratio.

    The key, it seems is to find the proper balance.

    Eric

  • Eric Wittenberg Jul 5, 2006

    To anonymous,

    I would be happy to engage in a dialogue with you about these issues, but you decided to insult me–including personal attacks–and then hide behind a veil of anonymity. Too bad you don’t have the guts to post your name, as it might have been an interesting discussion.

    Eric

  • Kevin Levin Jul 5, 2006

    Eric, — I was seriously considering deleting the comment, but since you responded I am going to leave it.

    Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Drew is correct in his breakdown of Rable’s book. A quick look at the Table of Contents reveals eight chapters numbering roughly 130 pages on the crossing of the Rappahannock through the Federal retreat from the battlefield. My question for you is, assume that Rable had increased the number of pages on the actual battle what would have been gained given the overall scope of the book? In other words, if Rable had focused even more attention on the minutaie of the battle would we have learned more about the overall importance of the battle or would we simply know more about the movement of men? Is the amount of time that Rable spends on the actual battlefield insufficient in explaining the way things turned out and why? If yes, I would like to know specifically how he fails compared with O’Reilly’s book.

  • Eric Wittenberg Jul 5, 2006

    Kevin,

    It’s your blog–if you want to delete the obnoxious comment, that’s up to you. I appreciate the fact that you were willing to consider deleting it, as I think it grossly inappropriate. Like I said, it’s really a shame that the poster didn’t have the guts to engage me in a dialogue directly, and instead chose to take the low road and then hide behind a veil of anonymity. It’s cowardly, but I can’t control what other people do.

    To answer your questions….

    I think that the ideal blend focuses equally on placing events in their proper context, both politically, economically, and socially, as well as telling the story of the soldiers themselves. I think that Rable certainly could have balanced things out more by telling the stories of the soldiers themselves–in other words, the men who fought, suffered and died–in the same level of detail in which he told the social, economic, and political aspects. I think that had he done so, he would truly have written a landmark study as opposed to a very good book.

    As for Frank’s book–it’s a very traditional military history/battle study. The primary focus is on tactical details, down to the company level in places, with only enough of the social, political, and economic aspects included to place the military in its proper context. The balance is probably reversed from what Drew says about Rable’s book.

    Some have said that if you combined both books, then you will have the ultimate study. I can’t argue with that.

    Eric

  • Peter Carmichael Jul 5, 2006

    Eric:

    What percentage of your books focus on social history? Would you consider going 50/50 (social/military) as you suggest?
    Best,
    Pete

  • Eric Wittenberg Jul 5, 2006

    Pete,

    Traditionally, not much, perhaps 25% at most.

    I certainly will do so in the book on Morgan’s Raid that’s up next. As to some of my more traditional battle studies, it will have to depend on what’s involved. The big study of cavalry actions probably won’t be able to reach 50% because we’re already looking at two volumes as it is just dealing with the tactical stuff.

    At the same time, the discussion of Jenkins’ invasion of Pennsylvania will focus almost exclusively on the social side until just before the Battle of Gettysburg since so much of it did not involve fighting.

    So, the answer yes, I would consider going 50-50 for the proper study, but it will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

    Eric

  • Michael Aubrecht Jul 6, 2006

    Gentlemen. I have enjoyed browsing this discussion BUT I find it bothersome that some people feel the need to put their own requirements on what a writer (any writer) should and shouldn’t write, what topics they should and shouldn’t focus on, and what interests they should or shouldn’t pursue. I am NOT in any way suggesting that the readers (and/or) peers of historians and authors opinions do not matter – BUT with the exception of your publisher, editor, agent, and mom – their personal demands are somewhat unmerited when selecting material (IMO).

    There are more than enough quality writers, historians and bloggers out there – to more than compensate for one another’s so called “shortcomings” (topic-wise). I believe that a writer’s style, and passion for the subject (or lack of) SHOULD be a component in their work. Academic historians (of which I do not fit) have placed so much emphasis on the writing of “unbiased” and “politically-correct” material that the whole genre is in serious risk of becoming “watered down.” And HOW many books can you possibly have on the same subjects over-and-over. What is left to write?

    I understand the need for educational and reference materials (I’ve written hundreds of them for Baseball-Almanac), BUT there should also be a bigger market for more “personal histories” that share the writers own admiration or dislike of historical subjects and individuals. I don’t want Shelby Foote to teach me about the battle of Gettysburg – I want to know what HIS interpretation of the engagement was. I am nowhere near the “level of notoriety” that Eric is, but I can comment on my own intentions as a budding-author. My books (sorry for the shameless plug) are clearly written w/ a Christian/Southern bias as my goal was sharing the stories of Jackson and Stuart as Christian soldiers. Of course I had to research and “fit in” the usual stuff (quotes, letters, service highlights), but it was merely in support of their story OFF the battlefield. If you wanted to learn the “academic side” of Stonewall or the Southern Knight, you would go to an academic source like a Robertson bio. The things that did not necessarily interest me (or where overdone in the past) may have been touched-on but I didn’t “force it” in there to fulfill some checklist of topics.

    My point is (and I may be off the mark here) that good writing (historical non-fiction) is rooted in fact, but revealed as an extension of that author’s own desired interpretation. I wouldn’t want to read a dry presentation on anything – and if I do change my mind – I’ll refer to a textbook.

    Eric’s work is exactly what it is… ERIC’s – and it is HIS passion and dedication to the subject – and his own obsessions with it – that makes his stuff worth reading. He did say that he wrote for entertainment and as a result it is tremendously ENTERTAINING to the rest of us. Strictly my own “uneducated” opinion here –academic publishing houses print the reference material for the REAL writers who take that information and breathe life into it.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2006

    Michael, — I’m not really clear as to the point of your comment. Of course everyone has the right to focus on their individual passions and/or interests. No one is debating that point. The question is more focused on the assumptions that are utilized to analyze the past. Any good historian or student of history understands that historical studies are the product of critical feedback.

    On a different note, I have no idea what you mean in distinguishing between the “Christian/Southern” Jackson as opposed to the “academic” Jackson. I’ve read Robertson’s biography, but what does he say about Jackson’s religious convictions that needs such a distinction as you draw?

  • Michael Aubrecht Jul 6, 2006

    Kevin – I actually posted another version of this response on Eric’s blog and mentioned that after reading ALL of the responses (on both blogs) that I was misunderstanding the nature of the debate. (I apologize for offering a comment without taking the time to read the nature of the subject.)

    I am in the middle of total chaos preparing to do the All-Star Game and FanFest for Baseball-Almanac and have 10 min. here and there to jump online to get my fix. I leave tomorrow for Pittsburgh and have literally dropped my packing duties to respond in hopes of re-establishing some form of credibility here.

    My point was in response to people being critical of the material that authors (such as Eric) choose to focus on and also their tendency to hold that author’s personal interests or beliefs against them. My statement about my approach at a subject (like Stonewall) vs. a Robertson was simply that there is the analytical and more “academic” look at Jackson (a very good one) BUT not written so much in a Christian/southern hero-sense) His work is more of an “impersonal” study of the good general. My books are a bit more intimate and were written for a religious audience as an example of faith and the power that it can have. Mr. Robertson’s work is one of my references.

    There are definitely two schools of thought and they are BOTH valuable. Academically we NEED the facts. We need the people who research and write the details – the facts – the accurate and consummate truths (probably now more than ever as this younger generation couldn’t care less about the Civil War) as they are a huge part of preserving history for the future. On the other hand – we also need passionate accounts, controversial and thought-provoking works. Tributes and Critical looks at the good – the bad and the ugly of war… the triumphs and the tragedies.

    I’ll read something by Henderson if I want to be educated and I’ll read something by Croker if I want to be excited and entertained. Both fill the need they intended to – and they both have their place. I review books regularly for the Fredericksburg newspaper and I wouldn’t expect Henderson to write like Croker and vice versa. I was coming to the defense of Eric and the poster that criticized him for admitting his interests and intents in regards to his work. And I may have slipped off the rails a bit.

    Hope that offers something useful. Now I’m back to packing. I have to find some clean underwear and my (Yankees) Roger Clemens’ jersey.

    BTW: Added your link to my site

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