They Wouldn’t Know Originality If It Came Up and Bit Them On the Ass

Brooks Simpson’s latest post over at Civil Warriors elaborates on a short comment he posted to my blog in response to some thoughts about Edward Bonekemper’s new book on McClellan.  He begins with the following:

Over the last decade or so I’ve pondered whether readers of historical works as a rule value originality and fresh thinking. Doubtless some readers do: they tend to be more discerning readers who have read more broadly and deeply, and so they are in a position to appreciate original though because they understand the context of the discussion and the topic. But do more occasional readers – the folks who claim to be avid readers (and in some cases claim to be actual historians) based on a rather meager menu of reading – really care? I’m not so sure.

I tend to agree with Brooks here, but I will go further and suggest that most consumers of Civil War histories care little for originality because they do not understand the concept as it is understood at the ground-level.  What I mean by that has actually been discussed by Brook in previous posts as well as this most recent entry, and it comes down to training in analytical thinking, critical review of primary sources, as well as a strong background in historiography.  This takes place in graduate programs, though it does not imply that the skills cannot be acquired elsewhere and it does not imply that those who go through these programs necessarily emerge as competent practitioners. 

Let’s face it, somewhere around 80-90% of the literature in our field is unoriginal and usually involves a simple rehashing of what has already been said.  The challenge is, of course, that producing something original involves understanding a process rather than a concept.  Back to Simpson:

This is not always easy to achieve, but it’s hard to justify engaging in historical scholarship otherwise. Moreover, it’s in the nature of professional training as a scholar. In crafting a dissertation topic, you set forth the literature that already exists and the ensuing historical conversation: then you define how your contribution is new, different, and (so you believe) better. You may come to that point in different ways.

The Civil War community is a strange lot.  It’s easy to imagine people like ourselves reading incessantly, but my guess is that most people don’t read at all.  Those who do read tend to read traditional military history as told by competent writers who tell their stories well.  Most people have little patience for trying to fit an interpretation into a broader historiographical context or are willing to take the time to seriously consider the kinds of evidence used in a study and the interpretation of that evidence.  I should point out that it is not clear that they should have to do so.

Original thought on this level takes predictable forms:  Sometimes we get the old uncovering of a long lost skirmish that somehow rises to the level of decisive moment in a campaign or perhaps even the war.  In other cases we read that x’s actions did or did not lead to victory or defeat.  While some of these studies may give us something to think about it does not necessarily rise to the level of originality.  Most of these books involve little or no creativity in the interpretation of sources.  It’s unfortunate because the field of military history has undergone a transformation in recent years that has yielded many imaginative studies.  [See the latest issues of the Journal of American History for an excellent round table discussion about military history.] 

Publishers don’t help the situation given their tendency to market their titles in ways that often times deceive their readers into thinking that what they are purchasing is original.  This was my complaint surrounding David Eicher’s latest book.  While it may be a decent place to start the idea that internal squabbling within the Confederate high command doomed the war effort is anything but original.  The interpretation has been around for decades.

Then there is the large contingent of those in the Civil War community who take offense to any interpretation that conflicts with their preconceived assumptions about the war.  Examples are all over the place and readers of this blog do not need a recap.  These are people who have little interest in history, rather they cling to a picture of the past on faith and respond to anything new as revisionist.  Those who write from this perspective offer us the same old paternalistic nonsense or stories that are designed to reinforce a personal religious outlook.  If this is not the most blatant example of ignorance of the historical process I don’t know what is.

I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I have little to say to most people out there who share my interests in American history and the Civil War in particular.  I don’t mean to sound snobbish it’s just that my goals in reading, writing/publishig, and now blogging about the past resonate with a fairly small group of people. 

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth

“Levin’s study is the first of its kind to blueprint and then debunk the mythology of enslaved African Americans who allegedly served voluntarily in behalf of the Confederacy.”–Journal of Southern History

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2 comments… add one
  • Clio Bluestocking Apr 2, 2007 @ 15:34

    I also wonder what role the publishers play in this as far as authors that they promote for stardom with publicity and book tours and so forth. There is a reason that the buyer is purchasing 200 copies of a book without knowing much about the scholarship on the subject. That might have to do with the publisher selling the buyer on that particular book.

  • Rob Wick Apr 2, 2007 @ 0:18

    Forgetting for a moment that originality in a topic so well plowed as the Civil War and Lincoln is naturally going to get sparser as the years pass, I think another factor in this debate is what is available to the reading public via those most visited sources–the bookstore. The books I carry on the Civil War aren’t “the best in the field” (although some may accidentally fall into that category) but rather what the buyers think will sell. If you don’t have an experienced bookseller who follows the subject who can steer a customer toward a better book, he or she is pretty well limited by their own perspective. A reader who picks up one book a year on the Civil War obviously won’t know original thought from a re-hash, but that isn’t his fault. If he or she really wants to get into it, I hope they will buy what I have to offer and then start their own hunt for better material. Although I cringe every time a customer asks me if “Manhunt” is a good book, I take that opportunity to tell them that Ed Steers or Mike Kauffman have written much better books that indeed contains original thinking. Some decide to buy them, but others look at the fact that the history buyer sent me 20 copies of “Manhunt” and that I only carry one copy of “Blood on the Moon” or “American Brutus” and think higher numbers equates into a better book. Then I go home, drink an adult beverage, and try to forget it.


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