Dimitri Rotov Historiography

I just wanted to take a moment to thank Dimitri Rotov for setting us straight on Civil War historiography:

Agitating against “Lost Cause” historiography invites one into a fantasy struggle against a pretend school of thought invented out of scraps of writing and speech and then built into a menace. Centennialism dresses up as Don Quixote to tilt against this windmill while its real foes line up for hard jousting.

Without his thorough analysis many of us might have continued to read historians such as David Blight, Ed Ayers, Gary Gallagher, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Gaines Foster, etc.  Since Dimitri has clearly demonstrated that the “Lost Cause” is an illusion I can now move on to more important things such as the “Centennialist School” – whatever the hell that is.

22 thoughts on “Dimitri Rotov Historiography

  1. James F. Epperson

    “Centennialist School” = the history written out of the Centennial, exemplified by Bruce Catton, who is one of the modern architects of George McClellan’s reputation for being less than prompt and aggressive in his military movements. McPherson is also of this school, in Rotov’s view. Since Dimitri thinks McClellan was more sinned against than sinful, well, you can figure it out from here…

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      James,

      I am quite familiar with Dimitri’s postings on this, but I just don’t see how you get a school of thought out of such a narrow focus. To label McPherson as a “centennialist” is to ignore pretty much everything else he has written over the past few decades. I agree that perhaps our standard version of McClellan has run its course in certain respects, but to try to carve out a piece of the historiographical pie around it is silly. Thomas Rowland, Ethan Rafuse, and Joe Harsh have all offered very sophisticated interpretations of McClellan’s generalship and they are definitely worth reading.

      If Dimitri wants us to take him seriously on this than he needs to do something more than take cheap swipes that fail to tell us much of anything that is relevant about history, historiography, and the careers of the individuals he references.

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  2. Robert Moore

    While I wasn’t a hardline Lost Causer, I think I’m living proof that some Lost Causers can become more open-minded in their view of ACW history. It just seems that greater forces had a funny way of making me realize the complexities of the war and the people in it. If there was evidence to the contrary (contrary to the Lost Cause ideology), it seemed to fall in my lap over a period of about five years. It can be a Quixotic effort in explaining the complexities to some, but that doesn’t apply across the board.

    Robert @ Cenantua’s Blog

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  3. Mike

    I am quite pro South but I have found Dr Blight’s lectures to be well balanced and even handed. So I not sure what red herring this guy is hollering about.

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  4. James F. Epperson

    I think Dimitri wants to be taken seriously, but I agree he needs to take a more (for lack of a better word) mature approach. I’ve argued with him on newsgroups in the past, and his outlook is very simplistic, IMO. Everyone is out to get McClellan, then as well as now.

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  5. Scott Smart

    I don’t think Dmitri has really written much about McClellan for quite a bit. If anything, ISTM his emphasis of late has been on heritage tourism, which I think would be of interest to this blog. There is also his interest in contingency vs inevitability in history writing which is what the referenced blog entry seems to be about as much as anything. Of course, Dmitri’s opinion of McPherson as history writer is well known, and extends far beyond any particular assessment McPherson might make about McClellan.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Scott,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Let me start by saying that there is a quite a bit that is worth reading on D’s blog including his commentary on heritage tourism. I’ve maintained for quite some time that his characterization of McPherson as a historian is grossly misleading. There is no evidence whatsoever that Dimitri has read much beyond McPherson’s _Battle Cry_ and a few other popular titles. What he has missed is an incredibly rich contribution to Civil War scholarship that can mainly be found in academic journals. On occasion he offers commentary that goes beyond vague references and generalizations, but this most recent post is pretty much the run of the mill and not very helpful

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  6. Kevin Levin Post author

    Brooks,

    You are going to have to help me out here. Are you asking “so what” in reference to D’s post?

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  7. toby

    I like Mr. Rotov’s site but some of his posts (like the one referred to) just leave me scratching my head. Frankly, I just do not know what he is talking about.

    Brief smart-ass comments and labels only understood (apparently) by a select few are no substitute for critique.

    If Mr Rotov has a critique of “Centennialist history”, or a cogent defence of George McCelllan, he should write a paper and get it published, or put it on his blog (in digestible segments). Quite often he seems to be speaking a language understood only by himself.

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  8. Kevin Levin Post author

    Toby,

    I actually agree with you that Dimitri should write up a historiographical piece on McClellan that begins with the so-called “centennialists” and works up to the present. He clearly has read much of the relevant literature and I would be very interested in his analysis. Taking his analysis beyond the blogging format would force him to minimize the “smart-ass comments.”

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  9. Brooks Simpson

    I think Dimitri’s posts lately speak for themselves. I’m not sure what purpose is served by pointing out that there’s an elusive incoherence to them. I do think he has a point, and that would be a broader commentary on the entire memory enterprise: that at essence it’s a deconstruction of past historiography (and popular understandings thereof, so it’s historiography, broadly defined) followed by a notion that we today are shredding the misunderstandings of the past, all of which are grounded in certain time-bound perspectives and particular perspectives, and that now we have something approaching dispassionate objectivity (remember, folks, I said “approaching”).

    One of the ways to avoid structuring one’s own narrative is to spend one’s time deconstructing previous narratives.

    After all, many memory practitioners use “Lost Cause” loosely as a way to dismiss a good deal of work with a sweep of the hand, the very way Dimitri uses “centennialist.” I wonder what folks twenty or thirty years down the road will say about an approach that is becoming increasingly formulaic. Sure, Dimitri should develop exactly what he means by “centennialist,” but, once he does, tell me how that differs from “lost cause,” not in substance, but in approach.

    I’ll now prepare for the incoming fire that’s sure to follow. :)

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Hi Brooks,

      Thanks for the comment. I guess my difficulty here is with the way you lay out the memory project. No doubt, there are scholars who believe that the deconstruction of previous schools of thought is a step in the process of historical understanding. Personally, I hate the metaphor of “approaching dispassionate objectivity” as I don’t believe we are approaching anything. For that matter I also have little patience for the idea that we “mirror the objective world” – an idea that is foundational in much of modern analytical philosophy. I also agree that there are those who use labels such as “Lost Cause” to dismiss w/o any attempt at serious analysis.

      You seem to have more of an idea of what Dimitri is up to here. The problem with D’s analysis of historians like Gallagher, Blight and others who focus on this topic is that he rarely shows that he has read the relevant studies. Take for instance, his commentary about Blight. Yes, he read his short piece on the conference, but has he ever read anything by Blight? I have no idea. The only thing that I am sure of is that Dimitri has read and reread a great deal of James McPherson’s writings on the Lincoln-McClellan relationship. Some of that is really sharp analysis on D’s part.

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  10. Brooks Simpson

    I think that it’s all fine and good to highlight Dimitri’s moments of flippant analysis, delivered with more than a little smugness, and which look like a bizarre form of shadow boxing. That said … and I point out that David Blight and I have known each other for thirty years, and we’ve worked together on a book … with all due respect to the accomplishment that is Race and Reunion, can you define what major interpretations offered in it took you by surprise? Or did it express something that many of us had suspected all along?

    I see the “memory project,” as you call it, going the same way of the “New England colonial town” project of the late 1960s-early 1970s. That is, we are rapidly approaching the point of diminishing returns in terms of scholarly findings. What will keep it alive is its interface with continuing public understandings of the war, as well as some of the scarecely-concealed agendas behind certain popular understandings.

    Rather than focus on Dimitri’s shortcomings or caustic remarks (too easy a target, Id say) or his failure to construct a definition of the “centennialist” interpretation (or to realize that his own comments about the “lost cause” could be turned with equal justice on his personal hobbyhorse), let’s uncover what the “memory project” is really about: an engagement with the public’s understandings of history. Let’s understand that in the process one of the problematic issues in the “memory project” is that it implicitly fails to apply its own tools to its own interpretations of history … that the “memory project” suits certain people’s present agendas even as it exposes the agendas of past participants. How different is it from other schools of historiography in its efforts to correct previous misunderstandings with a new and improved version of the past that will stand for the foreseeable future? If the practice of history teaches me anything, it is the impermanence of historical interpretation.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Brooks,

      Thanks for the comment. First, I think we agree that one can find historians of memory who fail to apply the same critical standards applied to earlier schools of thought to their own interpretation. As I see it, however, this is no different than any other area within the discipline. It may be more pronounced in memory studies given the implicit moral assumptions that come attached to certain critiques, especially when centered on race. I like your idea of the “impermanence of historical interpretation.”

      I’ve heard more than once that memory studies are fast approaching the point of diminishing returns, but have yet to see it. Let’s hope we can maintain it until I finish this damn Crater manuscript. I also agree that the most interesting aspect of this branch of study is its connection to ongoing public debates and it will no doubt continue to fuel scholarly interest. I suspect that my interest in blogging has much to do with the fact that it allows me to bridge the divide between more scholarly reading concerning memory and an interest in the shape of related public debates.

      Your question re: Blight’s work is difficult to answer. His Race and Reunion was one of the first books I picked up on the subject, so from that perspective it seemed very fresh. Of course, now that I’ve read quite a bit more I can see how certain narrative threads and themes have evolved over time. Perhaps a word on why I am interested in historical memory. As a graduate student in philosophy I was and am still very interested in how individuals construct self-narratives. Much of that self-narrative has a historical component, which we interpret and inevitably reinterpret. At one point I started to look into how groups formed and maintained memory, which led me to the work of David Thelen, Michale Kammen, Maurice Holbwachs and others. The conceptual analysis was quite interesting, but I soon found that I was even more interested in actual examples of how groups/nations form and maintain memory. What I mean to share is that my interest in this stuff has much more to do with an interest in what I would call applied philosophy than anything having to do with whether a particular study fits into the historiography. In that sense these books continue to bear a great deal of fruit for me. I hope that helps.

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  11. Brooks Simpson

    Ah, but you see, your Crater project is different in significant ways. We’ve had discussions about how people remember Civil War battles. We’ve had discussions about questions related to black military service, although, oddly enough, we’ve had far more on the historical memory of nearly non-existent service than on actual service. Your work will explore how a battle in which blacks played an important role from beginning to end was remembered, and that creates a nice interplay of themes.

    The Blight piece seemed a little too sharp for my tastes, because it really did sound like their was a reeducation project in the offing, in which incorrect thinking would be replaced with correct thinking. I think we’ll find the 150th anniversary of the war about as disappointing as we are finding the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth to be.

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  12. David Woodbury

    Cutting back to the chase, your periodic rants on Rotov’s ““Centennialist” commentary stand out from most of your well-considered posts — they come across as more personal than scholarly. Long-time readers of your blog accept the fact that he drives you nuts. Brooks makes a good point that, ultimately, the school of historiography that Dimitri seems (negatively) focused upon is no less substantive, or fleeting, than the memory project to which you are (positively) devoted, however fresh the latter arena seems.

    I appreciate the fact that Dimitri never takes the bait, and never returns fire. He does his thing, and you do yours.

    dw

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      David,

      I guess if Dimitri allowed comments I would be able to share my thoughts directly on his blog. By not allowing comments he is able to remain concealed. I disagree that the memory project to which I am focused on is somehow fleeting or carries as much legitimacy as Dimitri’s negative stance. I’ve managed to do some scholarly research on one aspect of the Lost Cause while he has done nothing. Thanks for the comment.

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  13. David Woodbury

    I was not comparing your specific work on memory to Dimitri’s sniping at modern historians, but rather at the larger idea that “Centennialist” and “Memory” are ways to deconstruct or critique Civil War historiography.

    Certainly Dimitri’s approach has been to merely “suggest” a larger position without fleshing it out, which allows him to dispense with established historians in a flurry of sarcastic potshots — whereas you approach your area of interest with actual research and writing, and through open engagement with other historians. I don’t think anyone fails to make that distinction.

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  14. Kevin Levin Post author

    David,

    Thanks for clarifying. I’ve been dealing with so many comments of late that I probably ran roughshod over yours. Sorry about that.

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  15. Brooks Simpson

    I’d actually press this even more than David might. To my mind, Dimitri has a point about the “Lincoln Finds a General/Lincoln and His Generals” school of interpretation, which in fact precedes Catton, although one can then draw a line from that through Catton and Stephen Sears (on McClellan, that is) to McPherson. Much of the criticism directed at McPherson’s newest book says that it is a rehash of previous themes. What constitutes the “Centennialist” perspective has not been developed in any depth by Dimitri beyond this scholarship on the Union high command and the waging of the war. I happen to think that the label “Centennialist” is misleading for exactly that reason, since there was a version of CW history that came out during that time that concentrated on matters military, overlooked emancipation, and was filled with “both sides fought for what they believed in” just as the civil rights movement exploded in violence.

    Nor do I think that Dimitri has developed a perspective on what public history should do, and at times it appears he’s abandoned narrative altogether in favor of some sort of hypercard exercise where he holds the answer key to the correct path.

    The problem, as I see it, is that Dimitri’s own approach leaves him to appear like a smug crank, and that detracts from his message. Sometimes I think we take him more seriously than he does himself. Maybe we should take a pass on deconstructing Dimitri.

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