David Reynolds Reviews The State of Jones or Why Blogging Matters

It could have been one of those “teachable moments” where the authors of two very different studies of Civil War Mississippi discuss the problem of competing historical interpretations.  Instead, the authors of The State of Jones have done all they can to avoid addressing what are clearly serious problems with their book.  You can find Sally Jenkins responding to negative reviews over at Amazon and various other sites.  More curious is the disappearing act performed by Harvard professor, John Stauffer, who as far as I know has said nothing since his personal attack against Victoria Bynum that was posted here a few weeks ago.  Stauffer’s silence has not worked to their advantage since it has placed Jenkins in the difficult position of having to respond to questions of interpretation and historiography – questions that she is completely incapable of handling.

In the pages of the New York Times we can see the continued fallout from the way Jenkins and Stauffer have chosen to respond to legitimate interpretive challenges.  While David Reynolds is not the first academic historian to review The State of Jones, his review reads more like a synopsis of the debate that played out at Bynum’s Renegade South and here rather than a thorough analysis of the argument.  In fact, while I have no reason to believe that Reynolds did not read the book, he doesn’t critique anything that hasn’t already been raised by a host of readers.  This does not bode well for future reviews of the book and suggests that the blogosphere is now shaping the way even academic historians are viewing this controversy.  Of course, it didn’t have to turn out this way.  As I’ve suggested before, this unfortunate result has as much to do with feelings of defensiveness and pride as it does with not understanding how to engage bloggers and Online readers.  Hopefully, it will serve as a lesson for future authors.

13 comments… add one

  • Victoria Bynum Aug 15, 2009

    I agree, Kevin. The way in which the discourse over the two books has emerged outside the blogosphere seems very much the product of blog discussions begun right here on Civil War Memory. I can’t tell you and your readers enough how much I appreciate their thoughtful participation in those discussions. And for me, blogging personally began after I heard Kevin speak at the Civil War Society luncheon of the Southern Historical Association, where he urged historians to consider blogging about their craft. It was shortly after that that I set up Renegade South. What a fateful decision that was!

    Vikki Bynum
    Professor of History
    Texas State University, San Marcos
    http://www.renegadesouth.wordpress.com

  • Kristen Aug 15, 2009

    I have yet to check this book out–so busy dissertating!–but what I find especially disturbing is the authors’ treatment of Knight’s marriage to a black woman as some sort of sign that he advocated racial equality. Some of the reviewers over at Amazon.com, who admittedly are not professionally trained historians, clearly had no concept of how complex racial relations were and how little agency slave women had over their own destinies. It has been a while since I’ve read Bynum’s book, but I plan on checking it out again; her treatment of this marriage was much more nuanced.

    P.S. Hi Prof. Bynum! I met you at a conference at the University of Missouri last year, where you gave the keynote address. I very much enjoyed your lecture. Also, you have done an excellent job responding to the attacks thrown your way by Stauffer and Jenkins.

  • J. L. Bell Aug 15, 2009

    I’m surprised at your surprise about Prof. Stauffer’s “disappearing act,” based on what the New York Times has told us about The State of Jones: “[Book editor Phyllis] Grann saw potential for a more popular book in all the work that had already been done for the script. So Mr. Stauffer, one of several scholars with whom Mr. Ross had been in touch, wrote the proposal and offered to add Mr. Ross’s name to the project as a co-author, Mr. Ross said.” How often do Harvard professors invite Hollywood producers to be coauthors of major scholarly works?

    After Ross declined, the editor recruited Jenkins as a writer. Again, how often do scholars need journalists they’ve never met to coauthor their major projects? Stauffer’s joint biography of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, Giants, was published late last year; it would be unrealistic to assume he could devote the same time to writing both projects. Finally, Jenkins’s name comes first on the cover of the book—ahead of a Harvard professor’s. How often does that happen?

    In sum, I think the evidence suggests that Stauffer’s involvement in writing The State of Jones was limited, that he never saw it as one of his major scholarly projects. He was initially one of several scholars pulled in to vet the screenplay, which the Times article shows he recognized as historical fiction. I don’t doubt he vetted the book as well, and clearly his name is first on the cover, trailing its prestige along. But I suspect he saw the book as a popular history, a form that usually eschews historiographical questions (alas), and saw Jenkins as the primary author in every way.

    I therefore think this posting assigns Stauffer more responsibility for The State of Jones and for speaking for it than the historical record suggests he expected. The posting also assigns him sole responsibility for the authors’ response to Victoria Bynum (“his personal attack”) even though that message was signed by both Stauffer and Jenkins. (I understand it came to you through his email, but she made all the other contacts.)

    I think a lot of the criticism of The State of Jones seems valid, but I think that criticism would seem better grounded if it accepted Jenkins as the book’s primary creator and apologist. Stauffer might be in the ironic position of novelists whose books are adapted for the screen, and then have to be good team players and support the results.

  • J. L. Bell Aug 15, 2009

    ERROR in third paragraph: “…clearly his name is on the cover…” rather than “first on the cover.” Whoops.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2009

    You may be correct, but surely one of the things Stauffer learned along the way in his education is that when you ought to take responsibility for publications which include your name. Sorry, but I think you have let him off the hook much too easily.

  • Sherree Tannen Aug 16, 2009

    Hi Kevin,

    Yes, blogging matters. It matters for authors, for publishers, and for readers.

    I just watched a Youtube clip on David Williams, author of Bitterly Divided–a book that I would not have linked to without mention of the author by one of your blog contributors, who is also an historian. Again, what I already knew about my ancestors has been validated. Now I can understand where they came from, and why there was no reverence for the Confederate flag and Lost Cause nostalgia, coupled with the truly unorthodox and enlightened views on race that they held and passed down to their descendants. My thanks again to Victoria Bynum for her groundbreaking research into this area of the history of the Civil War, and also to David Williams and other historians of whom I am obviously not aware. Thanks to you as well, Kevin, for not only providing an interactive forum for true discussion that involves both historians and readers; but also for offering a creative intellectual space in which new ideas are formed. Sherree

  • Victoria Bynum Aug 16, 2009

    Thanks, Kristen, for pointing out the problems with equating Newt Knight’s open relationship with former slave Rachel with his having treated her as his “equal.” In response to your personal message, I so enjoyed my 2008 visit to UM Columbia, and meeting you and the graduate students who hosted/attended that event!

    I think J.L. Bell makes important points about the likely level of Professor Stauffer’s participation in the writing of STATE OF JONES. Both authors have stated that Ms. Jenkins wrote most of the book. But of course I also agree with Kevin that authors must take responsibility for any work in which they lend their name. Besides, in every interview in which I have heard or read Prof. Stauffer’s words, he has emphasized his strong presence in the production of said work.

    Sherree, there is nothing a historian more wants to hear than that they have contributed to someone’s understanding of their own historical past. I’m glad that my work and the fine work of David Williams has done that for you.

    Vikki Bynum
    Professor of History
    Texas State University, San Marcos
    http://www.renegadesouth.wordpress.com

  • J. L. Bell Aug 16, 2009

    I’m not trying to let John Stauffer “off the hook” (except in regard to the harsh criticism of Victoria Bynum being called “his personal attack” when it was signed with both authors’ names, so they should share that hook). Rather, I think he or any authors deserve fair criticism based on an understanding of what they set out to do and how they presented the results.

    Stauffer contributed his name and prestige to what seems to be a work of popular history, which as such is likely to offer a narrative without much ambiguity that reflects the values of our time. He may deserve criticism for doing so. (I haven’t read State of Jones, but have no reason to doubt the criticisms I have read here and at Renegade South.)

    But the “more curious” remark above and some other comments don’t appear to be aimed at the book. Instead, they seem based the notion that Stauffer should be speaking up for it alongside or instead of Jenkins, that he should be doing more of what the book industry calls “publicity.” That seems to be reviewing the marketing campaign rather than The State of Jones.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 16, 2009

      J.L.

      Thanks for the clarification. You are right that both Jenkins and Stauffer deserve condemnation for the harsh tone of their response to Bynum. I’ve been drawing a distinction because Jenkins continues to speak out even if it only works to obscure the more problematic aspects of the book rather than clarify them. Stauffer has said next to nothing as far as I understand. I have no interest in seeing Stauffer engage in what you call publicity or a marketing campaign; rather, I and others would like to hear him address the unanswered questions that have been raised by a host of blog readers and book reviewers – some of them who happen to be reputable academic historians. If I remember correctly, that is what being a reputable scholar involves. Let me be clear that I am not offering comments as to his effectiveness as a promoter of his own books, but as a well-regarded historian. Stauffer and Jenkins approached me about engaging my readers as well as Prof. Bynum in constructive discourse. I am simply evaluating the form in which it took and its consequences.

  • J. L. Bell Aug 16, 2009

    Can we measure this discussion against the model of the H-Net interactive reviews? They usually come in four stages: 1) Book. 2) Review. 3) Authors’ response to review. 4) Reviewers’ response to authors’ comments. At that point, the discussion is thrown open to all list members. It’s rare, and possibly bad form, for the authors to keep snipping and sniping.

    We’ve gone through all four stages with State of Jones and Prof. Bynum’s review, and I suspect that readers and reviewers can develop their own answers to most questions about the book. Certainly my local U.S. Civil War reader, whom I encouraged a week ago to read the whole debate through your postings, developed strong impressions about the book and its authors.

  • Victoria Bynum Aug 17, 2009

    Point well taken, Prof. Bell. I would only add that this situation has been a tad different than the average author-reviewer relationship, LOL! My point in adding comments to this post is to agree with Kevin that the blogosphere has dramatically reshaped the potential of discourse over such a controversy.

    Vikki Bynum
    Professor of History
    Texas State University
    http://www.renegadesouth.wordpress.com

  • J. L. Bell Aug 17, 2009

    No professing on my end, Prof. Bynum, but I appreciate the sense of possibility. True, you’re not a disinterested reviewer of State of Jones, as the authors were quick to point out. On the other hand, review editors should seek out experts, which can include folks who’ve written about the topic before.

    I agree that this is a case of blogging changing the public discourse about a book. You didn’t need to wait for a review editor to contact you, and the response could be a lot quicker than the many months scholarly history reviews seem to take. Some old media rules still apply, though: the NY Times need simply mention what people are saying elsewhere, and immediately it becomes more weighty.

    In recent weeks I’ve seen blogs have something effect in young adult fiction, when online outcry about the photograph chosen for the US cover of Justine Larbalestier’s novel Liar prompted the publisher to change it soon after print media picked up on the discussion.

  • Naim Peress Aug 19, 2009

    People are going to respond to State of Jones in the same way they responded to A Million Little Pieces. They will overlook the lack of truth and enjoy the writing and the truthiness of it. Especially when the movie comes out.

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