A Statement About the State of Jones Dispute

[Cross-Posted at Cliopatria]

The ongoing dispute between Victoria Bynum, the author of the well-regarded study, The Free State of Jones (UNC Press, 2001) and Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, the authors of the brand new book, The State of Jones (Doubleday, 2009), shows no sign of letting up.  Now that the story has been picked up by  the New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed, I’ve decided to explain how I came to be involved in this little squabble.  I’ve received a number of emails from interested readers inquiring as to how I got involved, including a few that have taken liberties in assuming some kind of loyalty to one side.  I want to clear the air and offer my own assessment of this unfortunate incident.

In late spring I was contacted by a representative from Doubleday who asked if I might be interested in an advanced copy for review.  I receive these types of emails on a daily basis and, while I reject most of these offers, I decided to accept this one given the topic as well as the involvement of John Stauffer, whose work I know and respect.  Shortly thereafter, I received an email from Sally Jenkins who also asked if I was interested in reviewing the book.  I promised to give the book a thorough read, though I could not be certain when I might get around to posting a review on the blog given the demands of my own research projects.

While reading through the book I came across a thorough critique by Victoria Bynum at her blog, Renegade South, and decided to link to it.  [Her review was eventually published in three parts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.] In the interest of full disclosure let me point out that I’ve never met personally with Prof. Bynum.  We are, however, linked on the social networking site, Facebook.  Admittedly, I am a big fan of her own study of Jones County and I am familiar with other shorter scholarly pieces in edited collections and scholarly journals.  I consider her to be a very talented historian.  As I read through the Jenkins-Stauffer book I accumulated a growing list of questions and problems with their interpretation having to do with, among other things, their characterization of Jones County as well as Newton Knight.  Many of my concerns were reinforced after reading Prof. Bynum’s critique.  The decision to link to Prof. Bynum’s review was done to make available to my readers the thoughts of an acknowledged expert in this particular subject area.  Her review is hard-nosed and thorough; however, at no time does Prof. Bynum engage in personal insult or call into question the authors’ motivation for taking on the topic of Jones County.  I had no desire to write off the Jenkins-Stauffer book, though I did suggest that there are legitimate questions about its interpretation.

A few days later I was contacted by Sally Jenkins about the link to Prof. Bynum’s blog.  Ms. Jenkins was clearly not pleased with my decision, but did ask if she and Prof. Stauffer could write a response and post it on my blog.  Without hesitation I agreed in the interest of scholarly discourse.  I contacted Prof. Bynum to let her know my plans for the forthcoming response and for her to feel free to respond on my blog if she so desired. Before proceeding let me point out that I felt no obligation to feature their response as a guest post.  I could have just as easily responded by asking them to place their rebuttal in the comments section of the previous post or have them contact Prof. Bynum directly.  Again, I was interested primarily in promoting scholarly debate.

A few days later I received a lengthy response by Prof. Stauffer, which was immediately posted.  I was a bit disappointed at the personal swipes taken against Prof. Bynum, which called into question her motivation for taking on such a thorough critique.  They included the following: “Bynum sees scholarship as a form of turf warfare, with only one valid interpretation of the past, which effectively renders history useless.”  The post received a great deal of attention from my readers, including Civil War historian, Brooks Simpson, as well as Prof. Bynum herself who took the time to respond to specific claims made in the response.  I was most pleased, however, with my regular readers who asked excellent questions about specific points made in the book.  Unfortunately, apart from a few half-hearted responses from Ms. Jenkins the discussion floundered.  It was clear that her training (or lack thereof) as a historian prevented her from dealing more directly with the various questions and comments.  I was told that Prof. Stauffer would weigh in at some point, but he declined to do so.  I place most of the blame for the quality of the response at my site on Prof. Stauffer who has been conspicuously absent from this debate and who, unfortunately, has allowed Ms. Jenkins to speak for him.  No doubt, Prof. Stauffer is better equipped to deal with some of the more complex interpretive questions.  As far as I know my blog is the only place where Jenkins and Stauffer attempted to deal directly with Prof. Bynum’s critique and I believe they missed an opportunity to head off a dispute that has now turned much too personal.  For my part I regret lending a hand out to Jenkins and Stauffer given both the personal attacks leveled in their response at Prof. Bynum and their failure to deal professionally with legitimate questions and concerns about their interpretation of the subject.

I will have to leave it to my readers to judge as to the quality of Prof. Bynum’s critique and the response by Jenkins and Stauffer.  As for me the response is wholly inadequate and does a disservice to their cause.  In fact, as far as I am concerned neither Jenkins nor Stauffer has yet to take seriously the questions that have been raised about their interpretation.   This is not the only place where you will find such an inadequate response.  Consider the review written by respected historian, Michael B. Ballard, for the Wall Street Journal as well as the response by Jenkins and Stauffer.  Finally, and on a different note, consider Prof. Stauffer’s handling of a recent review of his new dual biography of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass by Sean Wilentz in The New Republic.

Is there a lesson to be learned in all of this?

I now see this as a study in contrasting approaches to Online communication.  On the one hand, Bynum – a respected scholar – has fully embraced blogging as a way to share her scholarly interests and engage a wide range of fellow historians and Civil War enthusiasts.  Without a blog, Prof. Bynum would have had to resort to writing some kind of critical notice for an academic journal to be read by relatively few and that would have been the end of it.  Instead, her professional critique is available for all to see and I suspect that as I write this her blog is buzzing with a wide range of readers who have linked to it from numerous sites.  I was not the only blogger contacted by Jenkins.  Other Civil War bloggers were offered advanced copies as well as an opportunity to interview the authors.  This is all fine and good, but I suspect that Jenkins and Stauffer (along with their publisher) went to far in viewing the blogosphere as a one-way street – a chance to get their point across and on their own terms.  It pushed back in the form of a blog run by a respected historian who asked legitimate questions.  In the end, apart from their response on my site, readers will look in vain for a serious response to Prof. Bynum by Jenkins and Stauffer.  Instead, they are more likely to find brief personal jabs on various websites and blogs directed at Prof. Bynum that fail to take seriously the problems with their interpretation.  A poor strategy, indeed.

Finally, having finished The State of Jones I can now say that given the questions and problems raised by a host of reviewers, I cannot recommend the book to my readers.

CraterThanks for reading this post. Scroll down, leave a comment and join the conversation if you are so inclined. Follow me on Twitter and join the Civil War Memory Facebook group for continuous updates and additional links to newsworthy items from around the interwebs. Stay up to date by subscribing to this blog’s feed. You can also check out my recently published book, Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder.

11 comments… add one

  • Daniel Sauerwein Jul 30, 2009

    Kevin,

    I also received an advance copy of the book and will have to try very hard to disregard the squabble to give it a fair appraisal, but the concerns raised by Prof. Bynum do make me a little weary about what I will find when I have a chance to read the book more thoroughly. By the way, I received an advance copy of John Keegan’s forthcoming book on the Civil War and am looking forward to reading it.

  • Kevin Levin Jul 31, 2009

    Daniel,

    You should read it and decide for yourself. The problem is not simply the concerns raised by Bynum, but that Jenkins and Stauffer have resisted responding directly to them. Since they are legitimate concerns I have to assume that the authors are incapable of dealing with them.

  • Jimmy Price Jul 31, 2009

    Kevin,

    Great post. Personal swipes should have no place in legitimate scholarly debate — one would think that an author (or authors) sincerely interested in advancing the field would welcome criticism and not resort to debasing another’s work and then “skedaddling”, to use a period term. I can certainly understand why someone would feel passionate about their work — after all, when you spend vast chunks of your life researching and writing a book it sort of becomes your “baby”. But when you sign your name to a work, you should be fully confident that you have done the best job of researching your topic and offering sufficient analysis based on your research. Criticism sharpens historians and hopefully makes them better at what they do. To think that this dispute has led to newspaper articles is…depressing. My wife will be ecstatic to learn that there will be at least ONE new Civil War book that I won’t be buying…

  • Jonathan Odell Jul 31, 2009

    Kevin,

    Great post, insightful, fair, authoritative. If only you had been around in 1861, we could have avoided the whole damned mess.

  • Ken Noe Jul 31, 2009

    Kevin:

    Reading Stauffer and Jenkins’ response to Michael Ballard this morning, my first reaction frankly was annoyance. Like Professor Bynum, Ballard is both an excellent scholar and a gracious person. Then a rather amorphous thought I ‘d been wrestling with finally gelled. When Bynum and Ballard firmly but respectfully raise what they see as problems with the book, Stauffer and Jenkins’ counterattack. They paint Bynum and Ballard as bad scholars who “ignore evidence” that strikes me anyway as supposition, heritage, or disputed memory. They re-anchor their interpretations in sources others have questioned. They garble or ignore gray areas in the antebellum and Confederate South, notably but not exclusively in regard to race and slavery. They dismiss Bynum simply as a defender of “turf,” but in another response, Stauffer goes on to read Sean Wilentz’s mind, asserting that this “presentist” historian is attacking another work because of a nefarious, agenda-driven, Hillary Clintonian political philosophy.

    Aren’t these the same, sad, familiar tactics used in defense of “black Confederates” or the notion of Lincoln as a proto-Hitler?

    Ken

  • Kevin Levin Jul 31, 2009

    Ken,

    Excellent points. I do think we have to distinguish between Jenkins and Stauffer here. As I pointed out in the post, Jenkins is clearly not capable of dealing with these challenges. She is unfamiliar with the relevant historiography and seems not to understand what goes into an analytical discussion about the process of writing history. Notice how many times she says something along the lines of, “These facts are indisputable…”

    I am now beginning to see that even Stauffer is out of his league in terms of the relevant historiography. How else can we explain his resorting to personal jabs against Bynum. It comes down to both not knowing what to say in response to Bynum and others because they haven’t really thought through many of the issues that have been raised. Still, he was trained to do research and engage in serious dialog with other scholars. That is why I believe he is more culpable in this particular instance.

  • Craig Jul 31, 2009

    I don’t know if you saw Sally Jenkins on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but if you’d like to here’s a link, http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-july-23-2009/sally-jenkins . I thought it was interesting that she was introduced as a journalist rather than a historian, that Bynum’s name was never mentioned, nor was there any mention of an academic controversy. Stauffer is an historian who successfully collaborated with a journalist to sell a story to the public that would otherwise have been limited to academicians, a few history buffs and those people in the community with a genuine interest in local color. Writing for a mass audience is different than publishing scholarship. Your average reader can tolerate a scholarly tone for about five minutes. Bynum’s work is finally getting the attention it deserves and the controversy could give her a chance to demonstrate she’s as good at journalism as she is at history. The publisher would no doubt be delighted to hear that the book is banned in Richmond.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 1, 2009

      Craig,

      I started to watch it, but as soon as Jenkins started to babble on and on about how historians have ignored this story I checked out. I’m not surprised that Bynum’s name wasn’t mentioned since Stewart would have no interest in doing such a background check. I don’t even think he read the book, which would be no surprise. I agree that writing for the general public is different than for fellow academics, but in both cases the authors are making claims about the past. In both cases I believe it is the responsibility of those in positions of authority to speak up when such egregious errors are committed. I to am pleased that more people have now been exposed to Bynum’s book and I hope she sees an increase in sales.

      Finally, what do you mean by “the book is banned in Richmond”? Did I miss something?

  • Craig Aug 1, 2009

    I could argue that my use of “would” invokes a subjunctive, which probably isn’t as well defined in English as it is in a few other languages. Race, and the history of race relations in America, is a hot topic in this era, just as obscenity was in a previous era when the phrase “banned in Boston” was a means of turning works of sometimes dubious literary merit into surefire bestsellers. Banning Stauffer and Jenkins in Richmond would probably require at least some sort of minimal legal action. A civil suit might be enough to warrant some kind of injunction.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 1, 2009

      Craig,

      Thanks for clarifying.

  • TF Smith Aug 1, 2009

    Marcus Rediker gave a talk on campus a couple of years ago where he shared some of the insights he has gleaned from his research into the lives of maritime laborers in the 16th and 17th century Atlantic world; very interesting and – at least to my eyes; it is not my area of specialization – very well-researched and written.

    He also mentioned he has written a screenplay about pirates and pirating, and that he had tried to give it a more historical foundation than, say, Disney’s version – but he was also forthright in saying he did not see such an effort as scholarship.

    Ms. Jenkins is not a historian or a scholar, and is, pretty obviously, looking for the big score in Hollywood; she was hired, after all, to write what amounts to the novelization of a yet-to-be-produced screenplay.

    What seems really questionable to me in Dr. Stauffer’s involvement; whether he was brought aboard to give this effort a scholarly gloss or not, it appears he may be not have thought it through…his involvement seems more questionable than Jenkins’ in my eyes.

    Caveats: I have yet to read either book (but am very interested now in doing so before the fall semester begins), but have to say Dr. Bynum’s POV (and Kevin’s opinion of the situation) both seem legitimate; I also say this as someone with more than decade in daily journalism, some personal experience in academia, and with at least a passing aquaintance with the entertainment industry.

    I think Faulkner’s observation about Hollywood and serious writers (academic or otherwise) still holds true.

Leave a Comment