Wayne Hsieh shared a short review of his new book written by Richard Hatcher III. Hatcher offered the following refrain at the end of his review:
While an interesting book, “West Pointers” has been written in a format that will appeal specifically to an academic military readership. This is not for the casual reader, but for one who is interested in and has a working knowledge of the subject.
I find it funny that Hatcher said the same thing about a collection of essays on Civil War soldiers that I contributed to back in 2007. It’s no big deal, but it is worth asking who and what exactly is a “casual reader”? I would love to know if Hatcher considers his own excellent study of Wilson’s Creek to be appropriate for casual readers. What follows is a slightly reworked version of my earlier response to Hatcher.
First let me say that as a descriptive claim Hatcher may in fact be right that this book will only appeal to a select group of readers. That said, for the life of me I don’t understand why anyone would agree to review a book in a popular newspaper if all that is to be said is tantamount to: This book isn’t for you. I have no doubt that there are plenty of people whose interest in the Civil War is simple entertainment and storytelling; however, there are just as many people who are willing to think critically and take their knowledge to the next level.
Instead of simply acknowledging what may in fact be descriptively true why not suggest that those people who are looking to deepen their understanding of soldier life would do well to consult this book. Given the number of notable Civil War soldiers who graduated West Point and the myriad ways in which the institution figures in our popular memory of the war, wouldn’t a wide audience do well to deepen their understanding? I read the book and it was a fairly easy read and quite interesting to boot. While I didn’t agree with all of his conclusions, Hsieh offers a very interesting perspective on how the history and culture of West Point shaped the evolution and outcome of the Civil War. To suggest that only fellow academics will find this book to be of interest implies that there is no room or reason for the general reader to further his/her understanding. I do not write only for fellow academics. Assuming that my Crater manuscript sees the light of day I would be appalled to read a review implying that the study is suitable only for people who have advanced degrees, teach in a college or university or happen to live in the Northeast.
A newspaper review is going to reach a wide audience; why not encourage people to broaden and deepen their understanding of the Civil War whenever possible. God knows we desperately need it.