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.]
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)