I read with great interest Dimitri’s response to a fellow blogger’s query about his recent comments about James McPherson, Doris K. Goodwin and the supposed perils of writing narrative history. Anyone familiar with Dimitri’s entertaining and insightful blog knows that he is a voracious and careful reader of Civil War history. As I understand it Dimitri’s concern about narrative history is its tendency on the part of authors to mislead readers by including historical assumptions that most people do not know to question or are not equipped to challenge. That is clearly not his problem:
The narrator has wired a large board and set all the switches of controversy to
flow the storyline in a manageable direction. As a naive reader of Jean Smith [author of the biography Grant],
the switches were hidden from me and I went with the flow – with pleasure. But
as a deep reader in other areas, say the early war in the East, I can recognize
each choice the narrator makes to either highlight or suppress a controversy. I
become judgemental: is the subject being done justice by the author?
What Dimitri must mean by claiming to be a "deep reader" is his willingness to push through more demanding analytical studies where historical assumptions are explicit rather than the implicitness of assumptions in the traditional narrative. And once that happens it becomes difficult if not impossible to go back to the narrative approach within that particular area of interest. I can relate to this view of things, but my problem is that even in areas that I am unfamiliar with I tend to look for the assumptions that are driving the narrative; that, however does not take away from the pleasure of reading it as I find the art of writing to be my main focus rather than simply the analytical framework underneath.
But the Centennial era material that McPherson aggregated in the late 1980s had
already been made stale then by 10 to 15 years of research and new discoveries.
It is now almost 20 years since this outdated-at-birth, never-revised nonfiction
was released. The book, delivering its pleasure, sets up a pathology part of
which is a standing invitation to immaturity.
For the life of me I can’t imagine what would be problematic if the only book someone read about the Civil War was McPherson’s Battle Cry. There are two problems with this view. First, the book was supposed to bring together scholarship from the past few decades; that was the idea behind the Oxford series. The other problem is that Dimitri’s criticisms of the book never go beyond that narrow area of interest involving the war in the East and specifically George McClellan’s conduct of the war and his relationship with his other generals and Lincoln. My guess is that if we could somehow revise Battle Cry by integrating scholarship by Thomas J. Rowland, Ethan Rafuse, and Joseph L. Harsh he would be just fine.
What is even more disappointing is that Dimitri does not draw the relevant distinctions between McPherson and Smith, both of whom have engaged in very different kinds of scholarship. Smith falls into the camp of competent historian with a narrative flair. Don’t expect the kind of analytical flair that you would get from Grant studies by Brooks Simpson, but enjoy the read. The problem is that if you only read Dimitri’s posts you would have to arrive at the conclusion that both individuals have built their careers on broad/popular narratives. In the case of McPherson this would be a serious mistake. In fact, most of his publishing career has been spent writing the kind of analytical pieces that Dimitri seems to have a preference for and yet I’ve never read on his blog anything about this. My guess is that most of McPherson’s academic colleagues could care less about Battle Cry or even his smaller study of Antietam.
In the end McPherson did succeed in bringing a very readable and sophisticated study of mid-nineteenth century America to a large number of readers. Parts of it are outdated and a recent edition includes a new afterword where McPherson suggests places in the story that are in need of revising.