Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg Know Who Owns History

Update: Perhaps Burstein and Isenberg should be more concerned about one of their own.

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg believe that news of Fareed Zakaria’s recent admission that he lifted part of a recent op-ed on gun control from one written by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker is evidence that journalists should not write history.  This confused and downright nasty rant tells us almost nothing about the quality of history books written by journalists, though I would venture to suggest that it tells us a great deal about where they stand on who owns the past:

Frankly, we in the history business wish we could take out a restraining order on the big-budget popularizers of history (many of them trained in journalism) who pontificate with great flair and happily take credit over the airwaves for possessing great insight into the past. Journalists are good at journalism – we wouldn’t suggest sending off historians to be foreign correspondents. But journalists aren’t equipped to make sense of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

First, who exactly are Burstein and Isenberg speaking for from within the history profession?  One gets the impression that the authors are not so much upset with the fact that journalists write history, but that some are successful and in a few cases have become popular public figures.  Even more disturbing is that the authors fail to muster anything approaching an argument that the majority of popular history books written by journalists are flawed.  Just because they do not result from the same process that a dissertation goes through does not necessarily warrant such a dismissive and condescending attitude.

Their trump card, of course, is the recent troubles of Doris Kearns Goodwin, which we all know about. Interestingly, the authors cite Peter Charles Hoffer’s Past Imperfect, but conveniently fail to mention Michael Bellesiles – an academic who manufactured evidence for his history of guns in America.  No, instead of that they go after David McCullough, not because he plagiarized anything, but because he is popular:

Second best, actually. The beloved David McCullough, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is routinely enshrined as “a national treasure” and “America’s greatest living historian.” But nothing he writes is given real credibility by any careful historian because history is grounded in evidence, and McCullough isn’t familiar with more than a smattering of the secondary literature on most subjects he tackles. He hires a younger researcher (the Goodwin method) to read for him and tell him what’s important. If he doesn’t read in depth the books and articles he lists in his very thorough bibliography, which someone else presumably compiled, how honest is he being with the reader?

What makes him a historian? It’s his avuncular personality, not any mastery of the sources.

Though more than a million copies of his book “John Adams” sold, even more Americans were influenced by the HBO series of the same name, which was marketed as if based on the book. In reality, not only was the history grossly distorted, many of the scenes were stolen from “The Adams Chronicles,” which appeared on PBS in the 1970s. There are far better books on Adams than McCullough’s, but they haven’t been hyped. There’s no money in it. History is hard to sell if it’s complicated.

This is so incredibly bitter.  I guess in the worlds of Burstein and Isenberg, Gordon Wood doesn’t count as a “careful historian.”  Here is what Wood said about McCullough and the book:

Unlike Tuchman, who feuded with university professors of history, McCullough has the respect of academic historians, maybe because he respects them. McCullough actually attends historical conferences and sits patiently listening to long specialized papers. Anyone who does that, and doesn’t have to, deserves respect.

So well known is McCullough that any book he now writes becomes an expectant event. Learning that McCullough was working on a biography of John Adams, readers of popular history and professional historians alike have eagerly awaited its publication. They will not be disappointed. This big but extremely readable book is by far the best biography of Adams ever written.

I think Burstein and Isenberg owe McCullough and apology.  And what exactly is wrong with hiring an assistant, who can help to sort through the immense amount of documents that come with any major project?  The last time I checked university professors use graduate students as assistants in pretty much the same way.

Throughout the essay the authors blur the distinction between popularity, plagiarism, and the difficulty of writing analytical history to the point where it’s not even clear to the reader what they are so upset about.  What is clear is that they believe the only people who should write history are historians with a PhD.  They close with the following:

The trend will no doubt continue. The public seems to like what is most easily digestible, especially if it comes from the word processor of someone congenial whom they regularly see on TV. And publishers know they can successfully market a book from a household name, no matter how derivative its content. Name recognition trumps quality. Appearance is everything.

You know, once in a while those charges of elitism directed at academics holds and here is a wonderful example.  They seem to have no grasp as to what the general public wants in a good history book.  I suspect that most people who read a lot of history are looking for good stories that help to make sense of the world around them and give meaning to their lives.

The real problem here is that both Burstein and Isenberg want to be high-profile historians.  Just check out their personal websites.

I could go on and on about this article, but I want to get back to a really good biography of Andrew Jackson by Jon Meacham.

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47 comments… add one

  • Ryan Quint Aug 20, 2012

    Shouldn’t forget Mark Bowden, who wrote “Black Hawk Down,” or any of Sebastian Junger’s works. Two journalists whose books are better than some ‘historians.’ David Barton comes to mind.

    • Michael Douglas Aug 20, 2012

      The David Barton whose Jefferson book was so rife with falsehoods that his publisher recently pulled it?

      • Ryan Quint Aug 20, 2012

        One and the same.

  • London John Aug 20, 2012

    I’m currently re-reading the first history of the Civil War I ever read, Bruce Catton’s 3-vol Centennial History. BC didn’t have a history degree and was never an academic – how do you rate his books?
    From a quick look at the popular history books I own mostly by British authors the non-academics seem to outnumber the academics by 2 or 3 to 1. But academic historians seem to increasingly want to be on TV. Academic historians being popularisers dates back at least 50 years to AJP TAylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper, and nothing wrong with it, but now it seems few regard their university posts as a full-time job.

  • Andy Hall Aug 20, 2012

    Sounds like Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are the sort of folks who give academic historians a bad name — superior, entitled, and disdainful of anyone whose “popular” work is more successful that their own. Zakaria’s plagiarism problem, like Goodwin’s, is serious enough on its own merits, but doesn’t necessarily necessarily detract from the content of their work or their conclusions.

    Far worse examples of plagiarism have existed within the academy, too; I had the good fortune of taking an historical methods course in the same department, and knowing the same faculty, who’d been burned by Jayme Sokolow, who probably still ranks among the most infamous academic historian plagiarists out there. (It was these same faculty who, once they realized his game, promptly kicked Sokolow to the curb and set him off an an entirely different career path; far from protecting one of their own, they understood the damage he had done to his institution and profession, and moved quickly to cauterize the wound.) The Sokolow case, subsequently profiled in Thomas Mallon’s Stolen Words, was required reading for graduate students in the very department where it actually happened.

    I’m also curious why Burstein and Isenberg’s essay make no mention of Stephen Ambrose, whose own fabrication of research extended back to citing interviews with former President Eisenhower, which in turn formed the basis of his entire career as an historian, and which are (at least) an order of magnitude more serious than anything perpetrated by Goodwin. Ambrose is at least McCullough’s equal in popularity, especially when it comes to 20th century subjects, so why not even a passing reference to Ambrose’s rather flagrant misdeeds? Oh, that’s right, Ambrose was both a graduate and former faculty member at LSU, where both Burstein and Isenberg now teach.

    Talk about protecting one’s one’s own. . . .

    • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2012

      Good point about the failure to reference Ambrose. Like I said in the post, they also conveniently failed to mention Bellesiles. I still can’t figure out what Zakaria’s little incident has to do with history. There is no evidence that he has lifted anything for his recent books, which are not strictly works of history. It’s a confused piece that tells us a great deal about who gets to be the gate-keepers.

    • Douglas Egerton Aug 20, 2012

      Actually, Andy, Professor Ambrose’s Ph.D. was from Madison Wisconsin, and he taught at the University of New Orleans, not LSU. And in any case, he died long before Professors Burstein and Isenberg arrived at LSU. And Kevin, maybe I attended the wrong schools, but I have never heard of professors assigning their graduate students to do research for them. I’m at a liberal arts college, so I don’t have graduate students, but my grad professors never did that, and in any case, I can’t imagine using research assistants, since I don’t really know what I’m digging for until I find it. And as for Meacham’s biography of Jackson, for me that makes Burstein’s and Isenberg’s case, since I’m not sure what he said that Robert Remini didn’t say first. I guess I’m in the minority, since I thought their essay was a smart, nicely reasoned essay.

      • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2012

        Hi Douglas,

        Thanks for the comment.

        And Kevin, maybe I attended the wrong schools, but I have never heard of professors assigning their graduate students to do research for them.

        I don’t believe I stated that assistants do research for their professors, but that they assist them in various ways during the process. I have plenty of friends who have done this during the course of their graduate careers.

        And as for Meacham’s biography of Jackson, for me that makes Burstein’s and Isenberg’s case, since I’m not sure what he said that Robert Remini didn’t say first.

        Not sure what case this makes. I can cite plenty of examples of academic historians who have published books that don’t say anything new. To single out journalists and other popular writers is about something else entirely. Burstein and Isenberg start by focusing on the dangers of journalists writing history by focusing on Fareed Zakaria, who is not a historian and D.K. Goodwin. They then go after popular historians like McCullough who has had some success writing popular history. This is an incredibly confused piece.

      • Andy Hall Aug 20, 2012

        His masters (1958) was from LSU. Obviously he taught there before these authors’ time, but still — if we’re going to go around with pitchforks and torches looking for wildly-successful, popular historians who committed gross professional malpractice, Ambrose needs to be near the top of the list, and it’s hard to imagine his omission being purely coincidental.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2012

          if we’re going to go around with pitchforks and torches looking for wildly-successful, popular historians who committed gross professional malpractice, Ambrose needs to be near the top of the list, and it’s hard to imagine his omission being purely coincidental.

          I agree. He figures prominently in Peter Charles Hoffer’s book, which the authors reference.

        • Lyle Smith Aug 20, 2012

          My guess is that they didn’t mention Stephen Ambrose because he is dead. The others are all alive and writing.

          And as Mr./Dr. Egerton mentioned above Ambrose never taught at LSU. He taught at UNO and ran the Eisenhower Institute, which at the time was a part of the LSU system, but was not the same school or in the same city. UNO today is no longer a part of the LSU system, but the University of Louisiana system.

          As far the general arguments being made… I can see where the professors are coming from. The product of an academic is likely to be of a higher quality. That said, of course non-professionals can write good history or on whatever subject outside their area of training.

          Fareed Zakaria is a smart man. He’s now more or less a public intellectual, which means he knows a lot about a lot, but perhaps doesn’t have the time to become expertly knowledgeable about something more specific. I see this in a lot of other public intellectuals. They’re smart and knowledgeable, but usually aren’t taking the time to write on something at the level an academic might. They often work more quickly, and their work is meant to further public discourse and not academic understanding. There is some kind of difference between the two that might should be recognized and distinguished.

          • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2012

            I think the point you are making, which I agree with, is that Zakaria was lazy. To say that he is incapable of understanding the relevant history on a deeper level is just plain stupid.

            • Lyle Smith Aug 20, 2012

              Yes, that’s right.

          • Lyle Smith Aug 20, 2012

            That should be the Eisenhower Center and not Institute. Oops.

      • Brooks D. Simpson Aug 21, 2012

        Both Nancy Isenberg and Stephen Ambrose received their Ph. D.s from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. What one wants to make of that fact is another thing altogether (my own Ph.D. is also from Wisconsin). I have known professors who have hired graduate students as research assistants. I don’t do that.

  • Jimmy Dick Aug 20, 2012

    Kevin, there is truth in your post, but at the same time there is an element of truth in what Burstein and Isenberg stated. We’ve brought that up on this blog how some people are writing really bad history. Burstein and Isenberg made some poor choices in their selections of who to criticize in my opinion when there are so many other deserving candidates. Three recent or well known bad history writers would be Bill O’Reilly, Thomas DiLorenzo, and David Barton. All three have been featured here for their atrocious mangling of history. The problem is where do we stand on what constitutes bad history and what can do we about it?
    Of course we need to be giving credit to those writers who do write well and help advance the narrative of history. McCullough is an example. I believe I can say the same about Rick Atkinson who wrote An Army at Dawn and Day of Battle concerning WWII. Both books were well written and documented. An Army at Dawn won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for history. Whether one employs an assistant or not isn’t really important to me. Many historians employ assistants. Grad students acting in a research role are assisting the author. What we should be doing is focusing on the people that can’t write good history or are writing polemic works and trying to pass them off as factually driven history.
    That list of authors contains such academic luminaries such as Glenn Beck whose written collection is a waste of perfectly good trees and should be filed in the fantasy section along with a lot of other politically drive historical works. The Kennedy brothers meet the same requirements. The list is long so add to it please. I would love to see the AHA or OAH put out a disclaimer for any book that fails to meet their standards of peer review and request that books that fail their standards be listed as fiction. That might ignite an entire war in the media, but then it might just draw attention to what is fact and what is fantasy.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2012

      Jimmy,

      The problem here is that Burstein and Isenberg did not impugn all journalists because their books are fundamentally flawed, but that their reliance on narrative does not reflect the practices taught in the academy. They focused on Goodwin and mentioned a few others as examples of egregious mistakes, but then they went after McCullough and anyone else who dares to approach the writing of history with different goals. There are good examples of popular histories written by journalists and there are bad books as well. The same can be said for those who write analytical history.

      As I said in the post, this piece was all over the place and even included a factually mistaken claim about there being no academic historians who find value in McCullough’s work. It took me 30 seconds to find the Wood quote. Perhaps the authors should steer clear of writing anything that smells of journalism.

      • Jimmy Dick Aug 20, 2012

        I agree about them being off the mark. We have real problems confronting the field of history with really atrocious history being written by people who deliberately distort the historical record to further then own ideologies. Unfortunately the public doesn’t know who is who and that is where our professional organizations are going to have to step up.

        It’s pathetic that historians can spend years honing their research abilities, years in actually researching and then writing on a subject, and have a two bit TV or radio announcer toss out a book with little to no factual evidence to support their theories and that book becomes a best seller. Then the historian’s credentials are villified by said announcer when they reveal the erroneous work of fiction that the announcer is masquerading as history.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2012

          It comes down to the fact that we live in a free marketplace of ideas and if academic historians want to compete for popular audiences than they must step forward and make their case. Some embrace this as part of their professional goals and others do not. Some will be successful while others will not. One of the things that was most disappointing about the Salon piece was that they blamed McCullough and others for their success without taking a closer look at what demand their books satisfy. Most popular writers of history labor in the trenches with little success. It just came off as sour grapes.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2012
      • David Silbey Aug 20, 2012

        Thanks for the shout-out, Kevin.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2012

          No problem. Well done.

  • Richard Williams Aug 20, 2012

    If I’m not mistaken, I believe Shelby Foote originally worked as a journalist. I would certainly consider Foote a credible historian.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 20, 2012

      as well as Bruce Catton.

      • Joshua Brown Aug 20, 2012

        Hi Kevin,

        Loved the post. Glad to see I wasn’t the only one feeling rather disturbed at the nature of the article and how Isenberg and Burstein went from a legitimate argument on plagiarism to lambasting popular historians and journalists.

        I think it’s obvious these two (Isenberg and Burstein) have axes to grind, mostly involving their lack of public notoriety. I don’t know too much about how academia thinks about us non-historians (though I intend to major in history), but I think you were absolutely right when you argued that they didn’t understand what makes the public grasp history. To me, it’s when you make it “come alive”, so to speak. It’s when a person can actually put themselves into that moment in time, hear the sounds and smell the smells, that they become truly gripped by history. It’s also when they can find stories they can relate to, either in a very personal sense or in a more general sense of parallels in time and setting. Many people understand the past best when it’s put into a narrative. I see nothing shameful in that. Burstein and Isenberg apparently do.

        By the way, another great historian who is also a journalist/columnist is T.R. Fehrenbach. His “This Kind of War” is considered required reading on the Korean War. I loved the book and intend to read it again in the near future.

        • Kevin Levin Aug 21, 2012

          Hi Joshua,

          Thanks for taking the time to write and glad to hear you enjoyed the post.

  • Rob Wick Aug 21, 2012

    Sadly, this has been going on since the professionalization of history began. First, it was Frances Parkman, then it was Carl Sandburg, then Barbara Tuchman and now David McCullough. While it oversimplifies it to say jealousy is rearing its ugly head, that has certainly played a role. However, as you point out with Gordon Wood, there are a number of academic historians, both past and present, who are confident enough in their own ability that they can accept other’s work not as a threat but as their own contribution to the field.

    In 1939, James G. Randall wrote a review of Sandburg’s The War Years in the American Historical Review. Although he was fair in his review, he fumed privately to F. Lauriston Bullard that he was too easy on Sandburg and that there was a conspiracy among reviewers to be that way. Of course, Randall never explained why, if that conspiracy was present, he decided to join it. However, a few years later Randall got to know Sandburg personally and realized that his own prejudices had clouded his vision. Randall wrote to Sandburg that The War Years was “pure genius” and even expressed his opinion that The Prairie Years, long the bane of academic historians, made other books on Lincoln look “dull and stupid.” Randall would have never accepted Sandburg’s methodology, but he did accept Sandburg.

    Oh, and for the record, Randall had research assistants who were paid for by the University of Illinois as an employment perk.

    Excellent analysis, Kevin.

    Best
    Rob

  • Keith Muchowski Aug 21, 2012

    I have spent considerable time in academia and would have to say it is very much a guild, complete with gate keepers and rules of enforcement. Personally I have always made a distinction between popular history (a dumbed down version of the past) and narrative history (written for a wide audience written in an intelligent way, usually but not always using primary sources to at least some degree). Where would we be without people such as the late David Halberstam, Robert Caro, and other journalists who brought their considerable interviewing and research skills to their craft?

    I’m not sure where the part about research assistants fits into the conversation. For whatever it is worth though, it is worth mentioning that even writers working for a general audience have employed people to do research–nd I mean beyond just photocopying and filing. For starters, where would Catton and Allan Nevins have been without E.B. “Pete” Long?

  • H Donald Capps Aug 22, 2012

    “History is hard to sell if it’s complicated.”

    The above was the one line from the Burstein & Isenberg article that provoked an out-loud laugh and which should become one of the quotations that the History News Network collects.

    The fundamental problem with the article, in my view, is less the point they were attempting to make — as open to question as it might be — than the way they went about attempting to make it. Yes, there are historians who fall short of the mark for various reasons just as there journalists who must have Clio on her knees weeping in despair given what they do to the very notion in History in what they have produced and palm off as “history.”

    For what little it is worth, it is my observation that it is perhaps easier — this being a very relative term — for a good journalist to become a good historian than the other way around (I could cite Niall Ferguson as an obvious example of the latter, but I will not since that would, perhaps, simply be stating what is obvious to even The Untrained Eye). I have had — and continue to have in some cases — some serious heartburn with some journalists and their attempts to write what might be considered history. yet, on the other hand, I have seen what I consider to be very good to excellent works history produced by journalists.

    The same applies to those now considered as “independent researchers” — who were once thought of as “non-academic” historians — where some of us now reside (even though my membership card to the Faculty Club is still good I discovered several years ago), whether by choice or the lack of opportunities in the current academic market. Barbara Tuchman is one of the major factors that tipped me in the direction of becoming an historian, her approach to the material in The Guns of August making something “click” in my head regarding the way history could be written.

    While I certainly turn several shades of green with envy regarding those who can write history in such a manner as for it to be “popular” and yet still be “good history,” adding Jamie McPherson and Gordon Wood, as just a few examples to the Usual Suspects such as McCullough and Tuchman, rather than turning a jaundiced eye towards their efforts I am very thankful for their ability to get people to actually read history.

    In my former life as a military historian, I got to meet and spend time with Steve Ambrose. Long before it became an issue, it was an open secret within at least a part of the community as to how Steve was probably “writing” his books. I was, to say the least, quite disappointed to realize what Steve was doing. As a mere tadpole within the community, it did not inspire much confidence.

    Given that there are many rooms in Clio’s mansion, the problems of journalists and independent researchers brushing up those in the History Academe vary somewhat. I would suggest that certain areas or niches in that mansion tend to be more problematic that others, miltary history — and the War of the Rebellion in particular — being one of these. If simply a fraction of the effort focused on, say, the Gettysburg campaign, were directed at other topics within the scope of the war, Clio would be better served. Yet, as Burstein and Isenberg point out in the quotation I selected, there is not likely to be much of a demand for books on the Klu Klux Civil War in the Up Country of South Carolina in the 1870/71 period.

    In closing, I think that I did detect the not so faint scent of sour grapes in the articles, whether it was intended or not, which tends tomitigate (if not negate) some of their arguments as well as make it somethoing of a muddled effort.

  • Steve Light Aug 23, 2012

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I have long been troubled by academic historians who dismiss popular history, and took a few classes taught by professors who thought this way as an undergraduate history major.

    To me, these historians (and I don’t mean this as a blanket statement – I think it is a select group) miss the point. Popular historians expand the reach of history, encourage more people to become interested, and…hopefully, read more history. Perhaps they don’t carry the weight of academic works, but if your only goal is to engage with other academics, what is the point? Your only creating an echo chamber.

    On another note, I’ve seen a number of journalist-turned-historians mentioned in the comments here, but have not seen Tony Horowitz brought up. I have on my shelf but have not read yet his book about John Brown’s raid. Does anyone have any thoughts about the quality of that work?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 23, 2012

      Hi Steve,

      Thanks for the comment. I tend to agree with you that academic historians who take the position of Burnstein and Isenberg is relatively small. It’s unfortunate, because there are issues about the broader democratization of history that are worth addressing.

  • BillWAF Aug 31, 2012

    Does anyone remember McCullough’s biography of Truman? Frankly, that book supports the Burstein and Isenberg case. When McCullough wrote it, there existed a large body of scholarship about the decision to use the A-bomb. McCullough clearly had not bothered to review that work at all. Since I have not read his other work, I cannot comment on it.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2012

      Since I have not read the book it’s impossible for me to know what specific point you are making. There is good popular history and there is bad popular history. What Burstein and Isenberg did was dismiss the entire field without taking the time to explore it.

      • BillWAF Sep 1, 2012

        Since I referred to McCullough’s failure to deal with a large, relevant body of work in his Truman biography, your point is irrelevant to mine. To spell out what I felt to be my obvious point, my comment referred to one the claim, namely that: “McCullough isn’t familiar with more than a smattering of the secondary literature on most subjects he tackles.” My point was that in the one case upon which I could comment, McCullough was guilty as charged.

        • Kevin Levin Sep 1, 2012

          Not sure what point you’ve made other than reaffirm the obvious: that there is good and bad popular history. Gordon Wood speaks very highly of David McCullough as a historian. I don’t know who you are, but I have heard of Gordon Wood.

          • BillWAF Sep 1, 2012

            “Not sure what point you’ve made other than reaffirm the obvious: that there is good and bad popular history.”

            Clearly, you do not know the point I made. Even when I spell it out, you do not get it. My specific point was that McCullough ignored an important body of literature when he wrote his Truman bio. I am happy that you have heard of Gordon Wood. Perhaps you also know that he is not a 20th century historian, so his rather general defense of McCullough is not relevant to my point.

            However, since you are such an expert on Gordon Wood, I would like to hear your view of the Gordon Wood/Jill Lepore controversy. For my part, that controversy illustrates another reason why I do not find Wood’s comment dispositive.

            In his attack upon Lepore’s “The Whites of Their Eyes” (which is about the Tea Party’s odd ideas, about American history, particularly about the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers), Wood attacked Lepore for pointing out the historical mistakes in the Tea Party’s historical claims.

            Wood never makes the case that Lepore’s history is incorrect. Nor does he explicitly claim that the Tea Party is actually correct. Instead, he argues that Lepore does understand (or perhaps respect) that: “humans have sought to sanctify their societies, buttress their institutions, and invest their lives and their nations with a sense of destiny.” Basically, he almost comes out for mythology as opposed to history. Facts be damned, these ideas make people feel better. In view of that, is it a surprise that Wood would like McCullough?

            • BillWAF Sep 1, 2012

              The sentence above should have read: Instead, he argues that Lepore does not understand (or perhaps respect) that: “humans have sought to sanctify their societies, buttress their institutions, and invest their lives and their nations with a sense of destiny.”

            • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2012

              My specific point was that McCullough ignored an important body of literature when he wrote his Truman bio.

              So, McCullough ignored the historiography in reference to one event covered in a roughly 700 page book. And this supposedly proves that McCullough ought to be dismissed as a historian as well as the broader field of popular history. Yes, I understand.

              I am familiar with the Wood – Lepore debate.

              • BillWAF Sep 2, 2012

                Since McCullough spends alot of space in the Truman book on the use of the A bomb, his apparent failure to review the literature on it is a serious problem. If you had bothered to look at the book, you would know that. (Unless you have read the book, but decided to make a dishonest argument.)

                • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2012

                  I have not read the book.

                  Since McCullough spends alot of space in the Truman book on the use of the A bomb, his apparent failure to review the literature on it is a serious problem.

                  OK. That, in and of itself, does not render his entire output as not being worthy of consideration and it certainly tells us next to nothing about the broader field of popular history. Burstein and Isenberg claimed that no serious academic historian takes his work seriously. I cited Gordon Wood, who praised his book on Adams as the best biography ever written about our third president. It was a perfect example of the shallowness of the overall article.

                  • Michael Rodgers Sep 2, 2012

                    You already told him that you did not read the book. Then he decided to insult you and then insult you some more. Lovely.

                    • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2012

                      Michael,

                      It’s no big deal.

              • Woodrowfan Sep 2, 2012

                McCullough is a very good writer, and a good popular historian. I enjoy his books. I recommend some of his books to students. But he does tend to ignore some of the larger historiographic debates and often seems to have a level of knowledge of the relevant literature closer to that of a good graduate student rather than that of a scholar who has spent a career studying the same subject.

                This is not meant to be a slam on McCullough. He writes better than 90% of us and I’ve yet to see him make the kind of whopper you can see in other popular histories. But if a student asked me to recommend a book on Truman, I’d point them to Alonzo Hamby’s Truman bio, which reflects a lifetime of careful study, than McCullough’s book which was the result of a handful of year’s work assisted by other researchers.

                • Kevin Levin Sep 2, 2012

                  But he does tend to ignore some of the larger historiographic debates and often seems to have a level of knowledge of the relevant literature closer to that of a good graduate student rather than that of a scholar who has spent a career studying the same subject.

                  My guess is that you are right about this, but I have never heard McCullough try to pass himself off as anything other than a popular historian who hopes for his books to entertain and educate. I have no reason to doubt that his biography of Truman reflects a poor reading of the relevant historiography, but I can find the same kinds of criticisms directed at books written by academics. Burstein and Isenberg were the ones who brought up McCullough in their article. They made a claim that was false and I corrected them. It took me 30 seconds to find the review by Gordon Wood. So much for their research skills.

  • Ron Duquette Sep 11, 2014

    Without making any direct commentary on the immediate subject of the debate in this blog, I’d like to simply make the point that what Drs. Isenberg and Burstein complain about – non-historians, especially journalists, writing history – applies somewhat to a field which I am very much interested in, that of first-person interpretation or portrayal. It may seem off to the side, but here goes.

    Just as in the field of history where there are those who follow the path of The Academy and those who follow the path of The Popular – and they do seem to be mutually exclusive – there are those in this field of historic portrayal who do the same. The purpose of first-person portrayal is to provoke, to get people to think hard about, the history that they’ve received as young people (and, we hope, as they’ve gotten older). But because The Academy’s approach to history tends to be “dry” and “academic” (imagine!), or at least is seen as such, most people who want to read history tend to go to the McCulloughs and watch Ken Burns (I know, how dare I bring him into the discussion). I’ve run into the same discussion in reference to first-person portrayal – accuracy (a more academic approach, if you must) versus entertainment (the more popular approach).

    And here’s where my comment is heading: the two need not be mutually exclusive. One cannot be simply a regurgitator of fact after fact after fact – it is a deadly potion designed only to kill your reader or your audience by means of boredom. Similarly, one cannot only be tap-dancing one’s way through history – to quote from John Adams in “1776,” “Mr. Jefferson, dear Mr. Jefferson; I’m only 41, I still have my virility; I can dance through Cupid’s groves with great agility; but there’s more to life than sexual combustibility!” We must find a way, whether in first-person portrayal or in the field of writing history, of being able to have history go beyond the written page, to come to life, and penetrate into the minds and hearts of those who have come to us for further knowledge and elucidation. Yes, we must do the work, do the research, and not ever be satisfied with the results – whether portraying or writing – but we must also remember that if no one comes to see us portray or read our books, we’ve lost the opportunity. That there are historians and non-historians who have plagiarized and bowdlerized and falsified history is admitted – and damnation on that entire crew. But let us also damn historians and non-historians who think that the only people who should be writing history either must have a Ph. D. after their names OR never set foot in The Academy. Perhaps what I’m really arguing is, how about a little mutual respect, folks?

    Incidentally, Kevin, thank you for this blog and this discussion. It’s really refreshing to come across this kind of conversation.

    • Kevin Levin Sep 11, 2014

      Hi Ron,

      First, thanks for the kind words about the blog. I agree overall with your comment.

      And here’s where my comment is heading: the two [academic & popular history] need not be mutually exclusive.

      What I find so interesting is that the authors of the article chose to bring up McCullough’s biography of Adams even though scholars such as Gordon Wood and Joseph Ellis praised it in published reviews. The lines between the two are not strictly defined. Is Ed Baptist’s new book (published by Basic) about Americans slavery and capitalism meant for academics or a popular audience? The same can be asked about McCullough’s books, but the question itself framed in this way makes little sense to me. What we want is for historians to make the past meaningful and relevant and this can be done in any number of ways.

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