John Stauffer Strikes Again

I have written over 75 book reviews in the last ten years that have appeared in both popular magazines and academic journals.  Anyone who has bridged both arenas knows that the focus, length, and style differ depending on the audience.  When I write for a popular magazine I lean more toward sharing the overall narrative and a bit of critical assessment if time permits.  Writing for a journal, however, demands much more of an analytical edge.  Readers are looking for analysis and assessment of the author’s thesis as well as an understanding of how the book fits into the broader historiography.  The former can be fun while the latter can at times be daunting.  Regardless of publication I’ve never felt a need to attack an author on a personal level since it has nothing to do with the content contained in the book.  Most of you out there will no doubt agree with this.

With that you can imagine my surprise and disappointment as I made my way through a section of the latest issue of Reviews in American History.  I do not subscribe to this journal and I thank one of my readers for passing it along.  The journal allows reviewers the opportunity to write extensive critiques of books that include responses by the authors themselves.  They can be very informative and incredibly entertaining as both reviewer and author do their best to defend their respective turf.  The most recent issue [March 2010] includes two reviews of John Stauffer’s book Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (2008), one by John Ernest and the other by W. Caleb McDaniel.  [I should point out that I have not read Giants, but I have read most of his previous study, The Black Hearts of Men.]

First, a bit of background.  Many of you will remember the inappropriate accusations leveled on this site at Prof. Vikki Bynum by Prof. Stauffer as a result of her critique of his new book on the State of Jones.  Prof. McDaniel teaches at Rice University and is the former blogger at Mode For Caleb, which is in my mind still one of the best written history blogs.

McDaniel’s review of Giants is thorough and at times highly critical.  He challenges specific claims made by Stauffer as well as his analysis that assumes a close relationship framed around friendship and an understanding of the two as “self made men.”  McDaniel also offers commentary on the structure of the book and points to sections that seem irrelevant to the broader argument:

Some chapters also veer into subjects whose relevance to the main narrative is unclear. In a lengthy excursus on Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Speed, who is introduced as “the love of his life,” Stauffer defends C. A. Tripp’s controversial thesis that Lincoln and Speed, who shared a bed as young men, were more than platonic friends (p. 108). Those unconvinced by Tripp will probably find little here to change their minds. More importantly, Stauffer leaves unclear this section’s connection to his main argument about the “parallel lives” of Lincoln and Douglass, except for the sotto voce implication that both men endured marriages strained by love for another—in Lincoln’s case, Speed, and in Douglass’s case, Ottilie Assling and Julia Griffiths. (p. 171)

While the review is highly critical there is nothing inappropriate about this review, which I encourage you to read for yourself.  Unfortunately, Stauffer’s response to McDaniel is anything but professional.  Consider his response to the above passage:

Of course, he also hates my “lengthy excursus on Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Speed.” My main points in the six pages I devote to the subject are that Speed helped “civilize” Lincoln, contributing to his self-making; and that in light of what we know about romantic friendship at the time, coupled with the facts surrounding Speed’s and Lincoln’s friendship, there is no reason to suppose they weren’t physically intimate at some point during their four years of sleeping together in the same small bed, long after Lincoln could afford a bed of his own. To ignore this, as Mcdaniel wants to do, is to pretend that same-sex carnal relationships were abnormal. It thus presumes a dislike or fear about such relationships, reflecting a presentist and homophobic perspective. (p. 180)

Now, as far as I am concerned there is nothing inappropriate about Stauffer’s response up until that last sentence.  It is unfortunate that the editors at Reviews didn’t point this out to Stauffer as problematic.  It undercuts his entire argument because it colors the response as defensive.  Where is the professionalism?  But wait, it gets even better.  Stauffer concludes his response by referencing a webpage that McDaniel created to help his students manage the immense amount of reading that they must complete.  I find it hard to believe that Stauffer didn’t understand how this was being used:

Perhaps one reason for Mcdaniel’s animosity toward GIANTS stems from our different approaches to reading history. Mcdaniel calls for “active skimming,” as he says in his essay, “How to read for History.” do not read in a linear fashion, he tells students. Instead, jump directly from the intro to the conclusion, then from the first to last page of each chapter. “Don’t read every paragraph line by line” and “do not get hung up on things you do not under- stand.” In the second go-round, “decide which sections of the book are most important to read” in the traditional mode. The goal is simply to understand the author’s argument, ignoring the niceties of form, style, figures of speech, ambiguities, and things suggested or evoked. I confess that I was taught to read linearly, from beginning to end. and I still do! I love surprises and ambiguities and consider form and content, manner and matter, virtually inseparable. To me, the idea of jumping from opening to ending seems almost sacrilegious, destroying the subtleties and nuances of the narrative. Had I written GIANTS with Mcdaniel’s “history reader” in mind, I would have modeled it on a prosecutor’s brief or how-to guide, with lots of bullet points and bold-faced type. fortunately, most people read in the old-fashioned way, if the book’s sales, reviews, and awards are any indication. They like to look for “the stories hinted at between the lines,” to use ernest’s felicitous phrase. (p. 180)

It is unfortunate that McDaniel had to devote time to dealing with personal attacks rather than a more refined and professional response:

In reply, however, Stauffer draws several generalizations about me. He attributes my analysis to animosity and intolerance of ambiguity, suggests I was not taught how to read properly, and groundlessly insinuates that homophobic assumptions clouded my judgment. I cannot respond to all these charges here, nor is this the place to do so. The most personal charges are only answerable by my life and by those who best know me and my work….

Stauffer concludes by speculating that an unrelated teaching tool he found on my website explains how I read books for a scholarly review. I wrote “How to read for History” to help undergraduates read effectively for a semester-long history course, and notwithstanding Stauffer’s highly selective excerpts, the essay encourages students to read books carefully, more than once, constantly adjusting their judgments as they reread. I, too, gave Giants a careful reading, and I encourage interested readers to judge the book for themselves. (pp. 181-82)

I sense a pattern here.

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26 comments… add one
  • Jacob Spencer Oct 18, 2010 @ 19:47

    Wow. I am astounded at the amount of venom here, all directed at a professor who happens to teach at an Ivy League institution. Talk about ad-hominem and class consciousness. Don’t you all have better ways of expending your time and energy? At any rate I agree with you on one point: my surprise that Stauffer took the time to respond to a negative review. I know he has better things to do.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 19, 2010 @ 1:06


      What a strange comment. So, you approve of the way Professor Stauffer chose to respond to a professional and critical review of his own work? There is nothing inappropriate about a negative review. There is something quite inappropriate about engaging in a personal attack of the reviewer.

    • Jonathan Dresner Oct 19, 2010 @ 19:12

      Ivy League envy? Seriously?

  • Beverly Tomek Mar 25, 2010 @ 16:12

    I don’t mean this as a personal attack against Stauffer, but I can’t help but notice a pattern. Someone above mentioned that he is rude to Texas historians, but I don’t think it’s the Texas connection. I think that Vikki’s work is clearly more respectable in a scholarly sense (and better written) and I think that intimidates Stauffer. Also, someone above referred to Caleb’s talent and promise in the field. I’ve heard that from several people, and I think it’s also something Stauffer realizes, so I think he might be concerned with being toppled from his roost by this “up and coming scholar” who is, undeniably, quite talented. In other words, I’m just pointing out that I think he has a tendency to get defensive and rude to people whose work can be seen as better than, or competitive against, his own work.

    I have read Giants but I’ve also read James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican, which I liked much better because, like Vikki’s Free State of Jones, it tells an important story without all the guesswork and conjecture.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 25, 2010 @ 16:43

      Well, you may be right. I’ve never met Stauffer so I can’t comment on his personality.

    • Leonard Lanier Mar 26, 2010 @ 5:59

      I wrote my earlier post about Stauffer and Texas historians mostly in jest. That said, I find his conduct toward Bynum and McDaniel highly disturbing.

  • Woodrowfan Mar 25, 2010 @ 13:48

    I wonder if RAH’s editors decided to let Stauffer hang himself. His response did much more damage to his reputation than McDaniel’s review (which I thought seemed quite fair and thoughtful)…..

    • Kevin Levin Mar 25, 2010 @ 13:53

      Really? But in doing so wouldn’t the editor worry about the integrity of the journal? Again, doesn’t this damage the primary objective of the journal, which is to promote scholarly discourse? Perhaps you are right about this. I am on the editorial staff for an academic journal, but I’ve never had to deal with anything remotely like this.

      You are right in pointing out that McDaniel’s review was “fair and thoughtful.” It was incredibly thoughtful and I also thought that Stauffer made some interesting points in response, but now the whole exchange is overshadowed by Stauffer’s stupidity. Again, he does need to take responsibility for his choice of words, but this whole thing could have so easily been avoided.

      • Historianess Mar 25, 2010 @ 14:48

        Kevin, I wonder about this too. I would think it makes reviewers and authors alike less likely to want to participate in such an exchange in the future. (I know I wouldn’t–I don’t trust myself to react well when insulted.)

        • Kevin Levin Mar 25, 2010 @ 15:19

          I would like to know if this exchange was submitted before the October 2009 Yale conference on abolitionism in which Stauffer and McDaniel participated on the same panel. If it was submitted after than it reflects even more poorly on Stauffer since the two met and probably exchanged pleasantries. If before than that must have been one tense panel discussion.

      • Woodrowfan Mar 26, 2010 @ 10:37

        Good point. I’ve seen a few flamewars in journals before, and they’re usually pretty polite by non-academic standards, but they are uncommon. One of my professor once joked that the most extreme measure usually taken in these matters was “the checking of footnotes.” It’d be helpful to know if Stauffer’s response was published “as is” or if it was toned down….

  • Kevin Levin Mar 25, 2010 @ 13:36

    I know I said this before, but I would like to know from my readers whether part of the blame here can be assigned to the editorial board at this journal. Shouldn’t a warning light have gone off after coming across Stauffer’s accusation of homophobia as well as the silliness involving Caleb’s reading website? I fail to see how this encourages scholarly discourse. In fact, it seems to me that the editors are shooting themselves in the foot. Why would anyone agree to take part in such a dialog if the conversation turns personal? Stauffer has demonstrated more than once that he does not understand the boundaries of reasonable scholarly discourse. The editorial staff should have functioned to remind him of this.

  • Mark R. Cheathem Mar 25, 2010 @ 10:02

    This attack is unfortunate. Caleb joined the H-SHEAR editorial staff shortly before I left; his contributions were professional and thoughtful. In fact, SHEAR recognized him as an up-and-coming scholar with one of its awards last summer. Nothing in his RAH piece deserved Stauffer’s comments.

  • The History Enthusiast Mar 25, 2010 @ 8:17

    How did Stauffer make it through grad school by reading every book “linearly?” Frankly, refusing to change how you read makes no sense; the way I read books in college is much different than how I approach them now. Of course, Kevin, we’ve spoken about my reservations of Stauffer, and having had some personal knowledge of his professional behavior at a recent academic event, my opinion has not changed. This attack on McDaniel only reinforces my conclusions.

  • Ken Noe Mar 25, 2010 @ 6:34

    I’ve never written a response to a review of my work, be it in a major journal or on We learned in grad school that it was unprofessional and petty. I guess times change.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 25, 2010 @ 7:02

      Hi Ken,

      Do you not think there is benefit to engaging in the kind of dialog that Reviews in American History offers? Just curious.

      • Jonathan Dresner Mar 25, 2010 @ 7:17

        Dialogue, yes. There’s a difference, though, between the kind of friendly critical symposium (the kind Crooked Timber does, or Cliopatria did) which is intended to showcase both the flaws and strengths of a work which really gets at an issue, and the kind of angry pleading that takes place in the back pages of the AHR (let’s face it, that’s the most fun to read, sometimes).

        I haven’t read RiAH, but if their results tend more towards the former, then more power to them. If the latter, then it could end up being the academic equivalent of grudge match wrestling.

        • Historianess Mar 25, 2010 @ 9:06

          Hey there Jon! RiAH is attempting a new format for big books: two reviews with an author response and reviewer rejoinders. The idea is to encourage debates on methodological and historiographical issues (rather than the one-sided nature of a traditional review structure). I think it’s a good idea in principle, and I think McDaniel probably wrote his review with that in mind. After all, reading both Ernest’s and McDaniel’s reviews together, you get a fairly substantial critique of how Stauffer uses evidence (McDaniel hit a little harder on those points, but many of the points in both reviews are the same). Stauffer could have written a response that advocated a different approach to evidence, one that would have opened up a fruitful discussion about how historians fill lacunae in their evidence when making arguments. Some embrace a more imaginative approach than others. That’s a matter of historical taste, and Stauffer could have made a case for his approach rather than bashing McDaniel.

          I’m disturbed that RiAH chose to run Stauffer’s comment. In addition to the attacks on McDaniel implying he’s homophobic and a poor reader, Stauffer also implied that junior scholars shouldn’t be allowed to review senior scholars’ work. Absurd, and unprofessional.

        • Kevin Levin Mar 25, 2010 @ 9:09

          I agree Jonathan. I still don’t understand how the editors at the journal could have allowed the homophobic reference through. Don’t they have a responsibility to maintain a professional decorum given the goal of their journal? I’ve had my own scholarship severely criticized and it can be incredibly disheartening, so I can sympathize with a sharp response like Stauffer’s. I am not excusing Stauffer’s behavior in any way. He needs to take responsibility for his words, but the journal’s format is such that they ought to be a bit more proactive to keep the discussion on track. My point is that this could have been easily avoided.

      • Ken Noe Mar 25, 2010 @ 9:21

        My mistake. I was thinking of the angry missives that turn up in the Letters to the Editors sections of journals, and assumed this was one. I’ve seen structured dialogues work, notably in JAH and on H-Net.

  • Leonard Lanier Mar 25, 2010 @ 5:45

    John Stauffer has it out for university professors in Texas. Having to stoop to personal attacks to defend your argument speaks for itself.

  • Jonathan Dresner Mar 25, 2010 @ 4:50

    This is absurd, unprofessional and offensive.

    Prof. Stauffer, if Caleb McDaniel says you didn’t make your point, then you didn’t make your point. That reading guide is a gem, actually; it parallels advice I’ve been giving my students for years (I link to it from my own class resource page) and epitomizes a truly professional approach to reading.

    McDaniel writes, “The most personal charges are only answerable by my life and by those who best know me and my work….” I know his work, and I know a bit about Caleb from our years blogging together and separately: Stauffer’s wrong about everything.

    • Jonathan Dresner Mar 25, 2010 @ 4:52

      By “This” of course, I mean Stauffer’s response, not your post, Kevin! Your post is a model of clarity and professionalism.

      • Jason Kuznicki Mar 26, 2010 @ 5:17

        I knew Caleb for several years in grad school, and we talked often. I never knew him to be homophobic in the least. During that time he interacted with gay people on a daily basis, including both myself and some mutual friends. I never heard anything negative about Caleb from them, either.

        Further, if “homophobia” means doubting that Lincoln had a homosexual relationship, then I’m homophobic too. This is far from a settled claim in history. It’s certainly more tenable than the claim that Hitler was gay, but far less tenable than the claim that James Buchanan was gay (for one thing, Buchanan’s contemporaries often discussed that possibility themselves, which we don’t find with Lincoln). There wasn’t a single word in Caleb’s review to suggest homophobia to me, even just taking it on its face, and imagining that its author was a stranger.

        And lastly… I think we all know that the amount of reading assigned to students in history would be utterly a joke if some skimming were not involved. Historians’ academic culture pretends otherwise, but on the whole this just makes it look silly. Caleb’s only misfortune here was in being unusually honest, and in doing so online.

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