Historians Write, But Does Anyone Listen?

Thanks to Brian Dirck over at A Lincoln Blog for providing a link to Ed Ayers’s thought-provoking review of Nicholas Lemann’s book, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War.  Ayers raises a number of interesting questions about our popular perceptions of Reconstruction and the general publics failure to take into account the significant interpretive developments that have taken place since the end of World War II.  From the review:

Nicholas Lemann’s Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War tells a story we keep trying to forget: White Southerners used every kind of violence at their command to destroy Reconstruction after the Civil War. Beguiled and benumbed by Gone With the Wind, many white Americans still imagine Reconstruction as a crime against the white South, marked by the sins of the carpetbaggers and the corruption of the Reconstruction governments. It is good to have this stubborn fable of Reconstruction refuted by a gifted and respected writer. It is good that it received a front-page New York Times review with a striking graphic of a Confederate battle flag in which the stars have been replaced by bullet holes. May it be widely read.

I disagree with Ayers that this is a story that we "keep trying to forget" since most Americans – and even those who consider themselves to be "Civil War buffs" have never known anything else.  Just the other day I came across a post from a fellow blogger who referenced the same overly simplistic view of Reconstruction even as he sets his sights on researching a crucial aspect of that period.  No one has done more to package the best of recent historical scholarship into books that have wide appeal.  But let’s face it Reconstruction is much too difficult for most white Americans to grasp.  I see this every year when I teach this subject.  Feelings of guilt are strong and for those more focused on the war itself, Reconstruction fails to provide anything approaching the glory of the battlefield.  So, what are we left with but talk of "scalawags" and "carpetbaggers" and a set of simplistic assumptions that assumes a unified white South and obedient former slaves.  The overarching problem for most casual observers of the period is that Reconstruction seems to challenge an overly optimistic view of American history that assumes continual progress.  Forget that this was a period where African Americans voted, were elected to office, and were able to pass legislation that often benefited poor southern whites for the first time.

Ayers also briefly comments on the failure of academic historians to compete with popular writers such as Lemann:

That is too bad, for the writing of history has never been richer, deeper, or more inventive than it is today, and historians have never been bolder in tackling new topics in new ways than they have been in the last two generations. The writing in many academic books is as good as the best nonfiction. These books have made a place for the people who have been left out of the best-selling histories, and they are the driving force behind the most innovative historical documentaries on television; they help shape the next generation of history, driving innovation and creativity; they are debated in fervent discussions on campuses across the country and around the world. But they remain part of a secret conversation and do not make a public mark as books.

Anyone familiar with recent titles authored by professional historians can sympathize with Ayers.  It is safe to assume that Ayers hoped to crack this barrier with his most recent book, In The Presence of Mine Enemies, though it is unclear to what extent he achieved this goal.  Academics have to take some responsibility for this failure and for the general public perceptions of the Ivory Tower.  In the end, however, Ayers’s observations have little to do with popular v. academic history, but with a general lack of interest in reading serious history that challenges some of our basic assumptions from this period.  It comes down to education and the teachers who man the trenches day in and day out. 

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