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.