What Kinds Of Civil War Studies Should University Presses Publish?

I just received the latest issue of the Journal of American History (September 2006) and was perusing through the Book Reviews when I came across an interesting review of Scott Walker’s Hell’s Broke Loose in Georgia: Survival in a Civil War Regiment.  The book was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2005.  The review was mixed.  [By the way UGA now has a blog site.]  Before continuing I should point out that the JAH is published by the Organization of  American Historians so it stands to reason that most of the people who read this particular journal are professional historians.

On the one hand the reviewer complimented Walker for his ability to tell a good story and his focus on the experiences of the soldiers themselves.  The criticisms, however, centered as much on the publisher as the lack of analysis contained in the book.  Here are a few excerpts from the review:

Hell’s Broke Loose in Georgia deserved to be published, but not by an academic press because the author failed to engage in a single scholarly debate about the common Civil War solder.  Soldier motivation, desertion, the psychological trauma of combat, and Confederate nationalism are issues discussed, but they are not interpreted in a broader historiographical framework….

Popular history deserves to be published by academic presses as part of a broader scholarly offensive to reach a wider audience.  We should not, however, dilute our standards when it comes to what constitutes “good” popular history.  We must insist on deep analysis and thorough research, as well as a readable narrative.  In many cases, this book fails to meet such standards.  Most of the chapters are sparsely footnoted, manuscript research is minimal, and the author did not consult the voluminous regimental resources at the National Archives.

I read the book and had some of the same concerns that were expressed above; however, I did not question whether it was an appropriate study for an academic press.  The book clearly did not rise to the level of Earl Hess’s Lee’s Tar Heels (UNC Press) or Mark Dunkelman’s Brothers One and All (LSU Press).  Notice that the reviewer is not suggesting that academic presses should not publish non-professional historians; the concern is the content of the study itself.  It should be noted that the books jacket reviews are written by professional historians who are or were connected with universities and other research institutions.

“The letters, diaries, and other information Scott Walker located and utilized on the soldiers and families of the 57th Georgia infantry are among the finest I’ve ever encountered. He has done complete justice to these superb primary sources by writing a narrative that is richly descriptive yet focused and restrained. Walker allows the soldiers and their families to speak for themselves while placing their words and deeds in a clear and meaningful context.”
T. Michael Parrish,
Bowers Professor of History, Baylor University

“Civil War regimental histories are thick on the ground now, but Hell’s Broke Loose in Georgia is a different sort of creature, a penetrating look at the inner world and lives of men who marched, ate, slept, fought, and died together. Not so much a unit history as a ‘family’ portrait of
men bound by the war, Scott Walker’s book offers a glimpse of the personality and inner world of almost all Civil War units, North and South alike. This is the part of regimental history that too many regimental historians overlook.”

William C. Davis, Director of Programs,
Virginia Center for Civil War Studies, Virginia Tech

“Scott Walker has produced history that is at the same time very old and quite new. He relies upon a rich trove of letters and diaries to focus his narrative upon the coming-of-age experiences and vivid observations of men and boys who served in the Fifty-seventh Georgia Infantry Regiment. Walker also offers a species of the ‘new’ military history—a drama set in blood and mud instead of command posts in which common soldiers instead of generals are the principal characters. This is an excellent book.”
Emory M. Thomas, author of Robert E. Lee: A Biography

This is an interesting question and hits at the divide that separates the general reading public along with the historians who write their books and the academic world which is interested in a more analytical-type study.  I honestly don’t know where I stand on this one.

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4 comments… add one

  • Kristen Sep 16, 2006

    Great post! I often wonder about where I want my own work to fall within this scholarly history/popular history debate. It would seem that, as a educator, I should look for ways to make history more accessible to the general reader. But, at the same time, there is a stigma against so-called “pop” history within academic communities. I am hoping to find a balance between the two. I saw in your CV that you were part of the Advanced Placement Institute at W&M is 2004…I was getting my MA from W&M in 2004…small world, huh?

  • Kevin Levin Sep 16, 2006

    Hi Kristen, — Thanks for the comment. It is an interesting question for professional historians. As you can see I don’t think that analytical rigor and readability are mutually exclusive options. I mentioned it some time ago, but my experience at the AP Institute at W&M was anything but satisfactory. I’ve been meaning to add your link for awhile. Good luck.

  • Peter Carmichael Sep 20, 2006

    I was very conflicted about the review I authored (and that you quote from) on Hell’s Broke Loose. I feel for the author, who writes with such passion for his subject, but I was obviously concerned about how a manuscript could make it through a scholarly review process without being held to standards that we demand of books in other fields. Great stories demand deeper analysis.

    Blurbs are so misleading and many of us find ourself endorsing books out of a sense of obligation to a press or a friend. I know that is wrong but it is reality of the situation much of the time. I don’t really think we are divied over what constitutes good popular history in academia. In the end, I agree with you Kevin that we can write good popular history with an analytical edge.
    Pete

  • Kevin Levin Sep 21, 2006

    Good points Peter. I’ve pretty much stopped reading the blurbs on the back of the books, and I often cringe when I see McPherson’s endorsement. You are absolutely spot-on in your comparative comment re: other academic disciplines. I assume that the academic publishers are trying to expand their market given recent suggestions that interest in the Civil War is declining somewhat. In addition to the two titles I mentioned in my post I want to add G. Ward Hubbs’s book _Guarding Greensboro_ which is wonderfully written, creative, and analytically rigorous.

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