Where Have You Gone, Bruce Catton?

Tomorrow my wife and I are going to head over to Cambridge to the Harvard Bookstore to hear a talk by David Blight.  I tend not to take my wife to hear Blight as she has what I would say is an unhealthy attraction to his voice.  Hopefully, she will be able to exercise sufficient self control.  Blight is going to talk about his new book, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era, which explores the writings of Robert Penn Warren, Bruce Catton, Edmund Wilson, and James Baldwin.  Each of these writers struggled to come to terms with America’s collective memory of the Civil War during the civil rights era.  Like much of everything else Blight has written the book is well worth your time.

One of the things I find interesting is the lack of a prominent Civil War historian or literary figure, who occupies the same space as did Penn Warren, Catton, Wilson, and Baldwin.  In terms of historians of that era I would also include Allan Nevins and Douglass Southall Freeman, though he died in 1953.  Perhaps you disagree, but if so, I would be curious to know who you think fills those roles and speaks for our generation’s memory of the war.  If you agree with me, I would also like to hear why.

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33 comments… add one
  • geoff miller Oct 17, 2020 @ 13:51

    Catton Stands alone as to the Civil war with Foote second…..Carl Sandberg’s 6 volumes on Abraham Lincoln is the most complete walk back into the time of the man and the country ……..Cornelius Ryan’ WWll books are the only books on that war that can compare to Catton’s for his period….and Forrest Pogue’s works on perhaps the Greatest (and most unpublished) American of all, George Marshall, stand on a par with Catton…..

  • Arleigh Birchler Jan 20, 2012 @ 15:04

    Sounds like a very good book. I of course have read little of the literature, but I seldom hear of people making any systematic connections between the War and the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. All I hear is some slogans and cliches, but no real analysis. I am sure it is out there in the academic literature, however.

    Something of personal interest to me is the Civil Rights Movement in Missouri from 1850 to 1880. Some cousins of my ancestors played a significant role in it, and I would like to be able to put them into the context of the bigger picture.

  • Ed Strauss Jan 20, 2012 @ 13:23

    What about James McPherson? Full disclosure: I’ve been in a number of group visits to Civil War battlefields with Prof. McPherson.

  • Ken McFadyen Sep 26, 2011 @ 11:26

    For those who seek out academic history to read for personal enrichment and enjoyment, some historians who quickly come to mind are James McPherson, James Robertson, David Blight, and William Freehling. Just picked up Peter Carmichael’s book on Virginia’s Confederates.

    As for historians/writers who transcend academic circles to draw in a popular audience, Shelby Foote quickly comes to mind. Gore Vidal. I would agree with David McCullough and Gordon Wood but not for any Civil War interpretations necessarily. David Blight certainly has the presence to speak to everyday Americans too I think.

    Your question may have offered up a realization of a public awareness that maybe even professional historians haven’t fully comprehended or appreciate. In the 1960s, it may have been the Civil War as an event in and of itself that the American public pondered, hence Nevins and Catton to center stage. Perhaps since then, it’s been Civil Rights, slavery and racism that have been on people’s minds. Take for instance John Hope Franklin’s impact on American society, particularly with President Clinton’s confidence in him to participate in race discussions during the 1990s. Let’s not forget Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. And, I think the American public is missing out (big time!) if we don’t embrace David Brion Davis and his scholarship.

    Sure, some of these historians write deeply upon their subjects and a popular audience may not want to be bothered to read such their work. I would respond that the popular audience needs to step up and get with it!

    • Kevin Levin Sep 26, 2011 @ 11:35

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Ken. All of the people that you’ve mentioned have had some success bridging the academic – general public divide, but do you think anyone embodies the perspective of a new generation in the way that Penn Warren or Baldwin did?

      • Ken McFadyen Sep 27, 2011 @ 6:27

        Generally, no. It may be that the public has more choices of whose books to read (or listen to) and historians have more niches to accommodate as the market for history has expanded.

        More historians come to mind who make substantial contributions (Ayers and Goodwin), but it is how the general public now receives their work that has changed significantly. I listened to Gary Gallagher’s lecture at the Virginia Historical Society when he suggested (and I am paraphrasing) that professional history may only matter in academic circles and not much to a broader audience. Within the context of his lecture that is available on-line, and we need to be specifically looking for it, he is absolutely right.

        Non-professional groups have assumed more of a share in the consumer history market that perpetuates more myth and notions of heritage than history. These groups have capitalized on the Internet obviously. The general public can now take history in bites and morsels if you will. And, take for another instance, books on CD. Penn Warren and Catton probably were not thinking about how their scholarship would be received in an audio medium.

  • Jim Williams Sep 26, 2011 @ 11:22

    I think Edward Ayers has been highly influential in how many of today’s professionals think about and define the Civil War. While he may not be as well known by the general public directly I think his influence on academics, researchers, curators and institutions has spread his ideas to a much wider audience than would recognize his name.

  • Scott Ackerman Sep 26, 2011 @ 9:04

    Hi Kevin, it’s been a few years since I have commented, but I wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your blog and I eagerly anticipate the publication of your book!

    As for the debate surrounding another Bruce Catton, Robert Pen Warren, et. all I agree with several of the comments below that McPherson is probably the closest from the Civil War Era, but I actually think the best comparison from today would be Gordon Wood. As one of my professors recently commented, Wood has reached something of a “public intellectual status” based on his (well deserved) scholarly acclaim and the broad popular appeal of his books.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 26, 2011 @ 9:08

      Hi Scott. Nice to hear from you. I think you make a good point re: Wood’s status beyond the walls of academe. He has managed to maintain a high level of scholarly integrity and at the same time has reached out a very wide audience.

  • John Maass Sep 26, 2011 @ 6:30

    Funny i was just thinking @ this last week. I would say from a general public perspective David McCullough is America’s public/national/most well known historian, although he hasn’t written on CW themes. Even though Battle Cry is 25 yrs old, McPherson has written much else since then, so this point others have raised is IMHO not a factor. In the UK, they still have “public historians,” in the sense that they are historians who publish, are interviewed, write op/ed columns, and otherwise engage with the public. I’m thinking Max hastings and Simon Schama, but there are other too. I don’t think we really have that here, although Eric Foner and Sean Wilentz seem quite willing to get behind political causes publicly. I doubt the public notices though.

  • London John Sep 23, 2011 @ 10:59

    I guess ACW history is somewhat filtered over here, so it’s easy: Catton alone owned the ACW til Battle Cry of Freedom came out. I don’t see how it’s over-academic in any respect.
    I enjoyed the Burns TV series but somehow I never felt any urge to read books by the historians who appeared on it.

  • Historyprof Sep 23, 2011 @ 8:34

    Hey, people, there ARE some great Civil War historians who are women!!!!

    • Kevin Levin Sep 23, 2011 @ 8:37

      I was hoping to spot Drew Faust while on campus today. 🙂

  • Keith Harris Sep 23, 2011 @ 7:47

    Bruce Catton occupies the number one slot on my list of Civil War historians to whom I would turn whenever I want immerse myself in first-rate prose. His work (The Army of the Potomac Trilogy) got me started (as it undoubtedly did many others) with the world of history, and I have not yet found his equal. In terms of excellent story telling, I think that Blight comes close to matching Catton – but then again I have my issues with Blight’s analysis in Race and Reunion…as I have noted publicly many times. Issues aside, I never miss a chance to hear Blight speak and I read whatever he publishes. For those of you in the LA area, he will be speaking at the Huntington Library in October. Of course, I will be in the front row.

  • John Buchanan Sep 23, 2011 @ 6:13

    I think I agree with the general consensus that there is no Catton today. Catton was able to capture perfectly the timing of the Centenial with a great writing style. He as able to reach a large segment of the population with a popular writing style which gave a decent overview. I think he was for the Civil War what Cornelius Ryan was for World War 2…a journalist who was able to tell a great story who published at the right time and reach a large audience.

    I would also ask this…how many Americans would have heard of James McPherson, Shelby Foote or Ed Bearss without Ken Burns? Say what you will about the Burnsfest but it brought the Civil War to life for millions for whom it was an unknown topic…just ask Jeff Shaara and Ron Maxwell how well that has worked out!

    • TF Smith Sep 23, 2011 @ 7:45

      I think John’s comment actually made the case – Ken Burns, for good or ill, is/was the Catton of our generation.


    • John Maass Sep 26, 2011 @ 6:32

      Good point!

  • David Woodbury Sep 23, 2011 @ 2:09

    There are no Catton’s or Foote’s in the present era — no one with that narrative power to tell the story to a broad audience. McPherson may be the closest, but even his popular work tilts necessarily to the academic side of the divide. Training and specialization don’t allow for that broad appeal now, and anything with too broad of an appeal is savaged by the academy (McPherson walks that tightrope).

    • Kevin Levin Sep 23, 2011 @ 2:11

      I tend to agree with you, David.

  • Noma Sep 22, 2011 @ 20:43

    I personally love Bruce Catton. Every book you’ve never read by him turns out to be a treasure as soon as you open it. There’s the theoretical question that is raised: Was he actually in the Civil War. Born in 1899, the answer seems apparent. But, as you read his books, the true answer becomes obvious: Yes.

    As far as Shelby Foote is concerned, there is something I find too sweet and too enthusiastic about his style, which for me at least, simply does not ring true. As I learn more about his admiration for Nathan Bedford Forrest, I begin to understand why. When I found out that he was buried next to the Forrest family plot, that basically cinched my antipathy toward Foote. As the officer in charge of the Fort Pillow massacre, and the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, Forrest was basically the greatest American terrorist of all time. For an illiterate country bumpkin to paste a Forrest bumper sticker on his car is one thing, but for a well-read man like Foote to have any personal admiration for Forrest is simply inexcusable.

    David Blight is of course fantastic.

    James McPherson is of course very fantastic. So fatherly, generous, understanding and knowledgeable. I love this link that Brooks Simpson just put up at Crossroads. At 40 minutes, McPherson gives an excellent explanation of how — from one perspective — those who did not have slaves had an even greater stake in slavery than those who did.


    But speaking of Brooks Simpson, I’m surprised his name has not appeared on this list. Generous, insightful, knowledgeable, feisty, inclusive. And, he seems to be the expert on original sources. Whenever I’m looking for a reprint of original material from the 19th century, more often than not, I find that Brooks Simpson has written the introduction to the new version. He’s amazingly prolific.

    My last nominee would be Jean Edward Smith for his fantastic biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Although he’s not specifically a Civil War historian, his biography of Grant cannot be ignored.

  • JMRudy Sep 22, 2011 @ 15:33

    I think you’ve answered your own question, here, Kevin: Blight is the Catton of our generation. He has redefined how we think of the war, both from the academic standpoint of looking at evolutionary memory and meanings, and in the public perception of the war. Think about your wife’s entranced reaction. I think about mine too. I’ve listened to the Yale Open Course he produced at least 4 times cover to cover. I jokingly and respectfully call it, “Storytime with Professor Blight.”

    Certainly Blight doesn’t have the poet laureate style status which Catton seemed to attain during the Centennial, but he’s close.

    I’d also throw in Ed Ayers’ name in for a close second. His popular work with the Valley of the Shadows and his current work on BackStory seems to be setting him up as an American Public History sage.

    • Margaret D. Blough Sep 22, 2011 @ 19:20

      I don’t see how one can exclude either John Hope Franklin or Don Fehrenbacher. While neither focused much on the military aspects of the war, their work, particularly on the issue of slavery, is critical to our understanding of the era.

  • Rob Wick Sep 22, 2011 @ 13:48


    As far as historians of that era, I also think room has to be made for James G. Randall, and to an extent, Carl Sandburg. I know some will disagree, especially with Sandburg (who never considered himself a historian) but both men were often spoken of (often in the same breath) as the standard by which other Lincoln books were measured. Randall attempted to wrest Lincoln from what he called the “heavy hand of the amateur” and place him into the hands of the academic (not with complete success) and Sandburg tried to keep Lincoln in the hands of the “people,” (again, not with complete success). There was an undeniable tension between the two men, who in spite of that tension, were the best of friends up to Randall’s death in 1953. I do agree with you on Catton and Penn Warren. I am still on the chapter discussing Catton, so I can’t comment on Wilson or Baldwin yet. From my prior reading, Wilson was more well-known as a literary critic in general, of which Patriotic Gore was just a part, albeit an important one.

    In terms of today, McPherson would come the closest in terms of name recognition and popularity (Dimitri Rotov not withstanding) and probably Stephen Sears and Gary Gallagher. I often wonder, however, how well Nevins, Catton et al would be known today, given the amount of information overload we have. Isn’t it possible that the reason there are no real “literary figures” to speak of is that there are far more outlets than there were in the 1950s and 1960s which has served to almost water down the amount of influence on critic, or one magazine, might hold?


    • Ken Noe Sep 22, 2011 @ 14:53

      I agree with a lot of this, Rob. McPherson probably comes closest to Catton or Nevins in terms of connecting with a broader public, but Battle Cry of Freedom is almost a quarter of a century old. What has had as much general impact more recently? Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is the book people always mention to me. Meanwhile the number one Civil War best seller on Amazon today was Bill O’Reilly’s Lincoln assassination book. Would Catton or Warren have been on cable news every night? Maybe, but in a world that’s gone from three networks to 300, I’m not sure who can hold the sort of place those guys did.

      • Rob Wick Sep 22, 2011 @ 16:34

        I’ve often wondered why McPherson won’t bring out an updated edition of Battle Cry of Freedom? I know in interviews he states that the book still holds up well, but as you point out there has been a quarter century of new scholarship which has come out since the book’s publication. And it isn’t like there isn’t a precedent for updating in the Oxford series. Robert Middlekauff brought out a new edition on the American Revolution a few years back.

        As for O’Reilly…what can I say? The man has a platform and knows how to use it. From the advance copies I’ve seen, the book is crap, but to an under-informed public they’ll look and listen to him and think it’s the greatest Lincoln book they’ve read in decades. Gresham’s Law, indeed!


        • Scott Ackerman Sep 26, 2011 @ 8:59

          Oxford published an edition of Battle Cry of Freedom in 2003 that included a new afterword by McPherson where he addresses exactly the issue you raised. McPherson discusses some of the recent (again for 10 years ago) historiographic trends in Civil War scholarship, and tries to tie up what he feels was a thematic loose end in the original (“Freedom, or Liberty.” ) I realize this is not incorporating the new research into his narrative, and it is a rather limited reflection on the path of some Civil War historiography, but I just thought I would point out the 2003 afterword as addressing some of the issues you have raised.

    • Arleigh Birchler Sep 23, 2011 @ 19:47

      I am probably the least knowledgable of anyone who has joined this discussion. I might be able to add something about name recognition since I do not recognize many of them. I have read one book by Bruce Catton, one by Blight, one by McPherson, Shelby Foote’s Trilogy, and one by Brook Simpson. I thought that Foote’s admiration of Forrest was based solely on his success as a tactician, and had nothing to do with Forrest’s racial feelings, whatever they may have been. I do not think Foote had any use for racists. Perhaps I am naive. I believe the book I read by Catton was “The Coming Fury”. I enjoyed the style while it was very clear to me that these were fictionalized accounts and not historic scholarship. I thought Blight’s treatment of the effect of reunion on race relationships was very good. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom was a good book. By the time I read it I had read several others and perhaps did not pay as much attention to it. I very much enjoyed Brook’s Book on Ulysses Grant. My ancestors history is very closely tied to that of the young Abraham Lincoln. They knew him before he gained any national prominence. I believe that because of that association there is a lot more information about that branch of my family tree than any other. I would really like to read Sandburg’s book on the Prairie years, but have not gotten to it. I probably never will since my time is taken up now studying Carolina Native Plants. Another source of my limited knowledge about the War Between the States was the Time Life series on the Civil War. I am sure this is not a scholarly source, but it appeared that most of the articles were written by folks with some knowledge and credentials.

  • John Cummings Sep 22, 2011 @ 13:27

    Personally, I have always had a high regard for Catton and his work. Having grown up in the post centennial years (born as the commemoration began in March of 1961), I was introduced to the history of the Civil War via his books and editorship at the helm of American Heritage. Some say he has a decided “Yankee” slant, but that is beside the point, his narrative style brought the story to life for millions, and I always read it as “matter of fact”.
    I am curious though, since so many lately treat only “trained historians” as worthy of notice, how Catton, who was a “journalist”, period, by strictest sense, fits into the hierarchy of today’s rigid crowd? Out of respect for his actual function as a historian by practice and not by education, where does he fit today? Shelby Foote is bashed in many circles for his lack of degree. What keeps Catton in good graces? Or is he not overly regarded by academia currently?
    By the way, I think David Blight is the Garrison Keeler of history, and he knows it. Respect the voice, right?

  • Scott Manning Sep 22, 2011 @ 13:18

    Shelby Foote!

  • Arleigh Birchler Sep 22, 2011 @ 12:55

    The Coming Fury was also one of my favorite books at about the same time.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 22, 2011 @ 12:56

      Anything else you want to throw in there, Arleigh?

      • Arleigh Birchler Sep 22, 2011 @ 13:27

        Only to recommend that anyone interested in the subject should read them. As with all book, take it for what it is, not what it is not.

  • Arleigh Birchler Sep 22, 2011 @ 12:52

    I really enjoyed Race and Reunion.

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