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.