Your Book Better Deliver On Its Promises

Screen Shot 2013-02-26 at 7.27.16 PMLast night I spent some time browsing Civil War titles on Amazon to redeem my book credit from last quarter.  As always, thanks to those of you who purchase items on Amazon through my affiliate links.  During my search I happened upon this forthcoming biography about John Bell Hood by Stephen Hood, who is apparently a distant relative.  I recently learned of a new collection of personal letters and other documents about Hood that were discovered, but have been kept under close wrap by Stephen Hood.  Given this development I decided to click the link for more information.  I was immediately struck by the description, which I assume will appear on the dust jacket.

Outlived by most of his critics, Hood’s published version of the major events and controversies of his Confederate military career met with scorn and skepticism. Many described his memoirs as nothing more than a polemic against his arch-rival Joseph E. Johnston. These unflattering opinions persisted throughout the decades and reached their nadir in 1992 when an influential author described Hood’s memoirs as “merely a bitter, misleading, and highly distorted treatise” replete with “distortions, misrepresentations, and outright falsifications.” Without any personal papers to contradict them, many historians took full advantage of the opportunity to portray Hood as an inept and dishonest opium addict and a conniving, vindictive cripple of a man. One writer went so far as to brand him “a fool with a license to kill his own men.” Authors misused sources and ignored or suppressed facts sympathetic to Hood.  Stephen M. “Sam” Hood, a distant relative of the general, embarked on a meticulous forensic study of the common perceptions and controversies of his famous kinsman. His careful use of the original sources of the broadly accepted “facts” about John Bell Hood uncovered startlingly poor scholarship by some of the most well-known and influential historians of the 20th and 21st centuries. These discoveries, coupled with his use of a large cache of recently discovered Hood papers-many penned by generals and other officers who served with General Hood-confirm accounts that originally appeared in Hood’s posthumously published memoir and resolve, for the first time, some of the most controversial aspects of Hood’s long career.   “Blindly accepting historical ‘truths’ without vigorous challenge,” cautions one historian, “is a perilous path to understanding real history.” The shocking revelations in John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General will forever change our perceptions of Hood as both a man and general, and those who set out to shape his legacy.

I know in a tough economy publishers must do whatever they can to market new titles so that they stand out from the crowd, but I am not sure I would want to impart such a tone on my book.  Is Mr. Hood really going to demonstrate that historians have “misused” and/or “ignored or suppressed facts sympathetic to Hood”?  It’s also difficult to tell whether some of these nameless historians intentionally distorted Hood’s record or simply came up short because they didn’t have access to these new sources.  This just comes off as downright reckless.

John Bell Hood’s name has come up a few times on this site, most notably in connection a few years ago with the John Bell Hood Society, which took out an advertisement at Civil War News attacking Wiley Sword.  Stephen Hood is the president of that organization and apparently has some real interpretive disagreements with Sword’s interpretation of John Bell Hood.

Is this the case of an author with too much of a personal investment in his subject?  We shall see.

28 comments… add one

  • Alec Rogers Feb 26, 2013

    What good is a civil war if the combatants’ descendants can’t wage personal vendettas on the combatants’ behalf (vendettas may be supplied by descendants’ own imagination; must be 18 or over to qualify)?

    • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2013

      When you get to this point it’s perhaps time to find another hobby. :-)

  • Eric Wittenberg Feb 26, 2013

    Kevin,

    Sam Hood is an old friend of mine. You might want to read the interview that I did with Sam that is found on my blog. Doing so will shed a lot of light on this for you.

    Sam is descended directly from one of General Hood’s brothers.

    Those passages you have highlighted deal mainly with one author in particular, WIley Sword. Sam takes exception to Sword’s characterization of General Hood, and in particular, his characterization of Hood’s conduct at the Battles of Franklin and Nashville. Sword’s book definitely does accuse General Hood of being a drug addict, drug addled, etc. According to Sam, this is simply not accurate and simply not supported by the historic record. Sam wrote this book in an effort to set that record straight.

    The book also takes advantage of a very large cache of General Hood’s personal papers that were previously unknown. One of Sam’s cousins had these materials, and had no idea what he had until Sam was allowed to examine them. These papers–which include the general’s correspondence with many of his comrades–apparently go a long way to showing that Sword’s interpretation is wrong (I have not seen them, so I am relying on what Sam tells me to say this).

    I am, by the way, in large part responsible for this book being published by Savas-Beatie. Sam was going to self-publish it, but I persuaded him that his work would receive a far more serious look from the community if it was published by a legitimate publishing house instead of something like iUniverse.

    My interview with Sam can be found here.

    Eric

    • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2013

      Hi Eric,

      Thanks for the information. It’s clear that he has a problem with Sword’s interpretation and I am clearly no expert on the battle associated with Hood or Hood himself. I wonder, however, whether too much is being made of Sword. You mentioned the point about Hood being a drug addict, but Brian Craig Miller’s recent study of Hood states that there is no evidence to support such a claim so it’s not as if everyone out there supports it.

      • Eric Wittenberg Feb 26, 2013

        Understood, Kevin. However, I first met Sam in about 1999, and he was working on this manuscript then. This has been a very long-term project for him that predates Miller’s book by quite a bit.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 26, 2013

          OK, but the book descriptions makes it sound like Hood scholars have all bought into that particular point. It’s the book description that I find problematic. I know nothing about the content of the book.

  • Eric Wittenberg Feb 26, 2013

    I need to correct myself: Sam is descended from the General’s grandfather, not one of his brothers. Please forgive my inexact memory.

    Eric

  • Eric A. Jacobson Feb 27, 2013

    Kevin,

    I cannot speak to the blurb you quoted above, but I think this book is another necessary step in the ongoing battle regarding Civil War memory. Hood has been so mischaracterized that in some circles that many even many relatively serious students of the war have no idea what other facts might point toward and/or indicate. Because Hood has been so battered, and almost libeled, true understanding of the events around Atlanta and as well as Franklin and Nashville can be hard to discern. I know this firsthand as someone who works in the arena of the 1864 Tennessee Campaign and has written three books about it. Interestingly, Hood’s harshest critics are often great supporters of the Lost Cause. I’ve always found it intriguing that they are the very ones who have propogated this anti-Hood agenda, and usually base their claims on myth, legend, and emotion. Facts to them are convenient side points that are easily discarded. But let’s be honest, that is a typical approach. Cleburne and Forrest have become legends, almost immortal, and Hood is just the drig addicted, idiot general who killed the former and wouldn’t listen to the latter, or so some say. :)

    At the very least, I think this book will and should open some eyes to a new and critical way of evaluating Hood. I have read some of the newly found papers and also the manuscript and cannot wait for the book to come out.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2013

      Hi Eric,

      I don’t doubt anything you’ve said here. Between you and Eric Wittenberg it looks like we can anticipate a decent book on Hood. I was simply commenting on the book blurb in light of the last story I posted that involved Stephen Hood. I tend to agree with those who suggest that it’s never a good idea to fall in love with dead people. The tone is a bit too strident for my taste and I still think that the author has put himself in a difficult position. How exactly is he going to demonstrate an intent to distort the historical record?

      • Eric A. Jacobson Feb 27, 2013

        I understood your point about the book blurb. In my opinion, the book will show that long before the Hood papers were found there was ample evidence that ran contrary to what many authors, scholars, and general students of the war put forth as the “truth” about Hood and related 1864 events. I also ran across plenty of it during my research which dates back over 20 years. I really couldn’t believe how what I was finding had never been included in previous books. If it wasn’t intentional by some it was outright sloppy research and honestly I don’t know which is worse In fact, at one point I wrote of it as an “anti-Hood cabal.” That said, Sam will have to weather some criticism. It comes with the territory. :)

        • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2013

          The most effective way to address bad research is by doing better research. Let the research and interpretation speak for itself. No reason to accuse people of intentionally distorting the past unless, of course, you can prove it. I guess I am a bit sensitive to these types of claims given the kinds of accusations I read online about my own published work.

  • Greg Wade Feb 27, 2013

    I have personally seen many of the General Hood papers, took part in discussions with Sam Hood when they were first discovered. I absolutely believe they are authentic and in some regards, ground breaking. Sam is a dynamic defender of General John Bell Hood. At the same time, he has never allowed his passion to get in the way of facts. On the contrary, he is meticulous in getting the facts right.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2013

      Greg,

      The issue is not simply whether he gets his facts right, but whether his interpretation is convincing. Regardless of the topic, there is always room for more than one interpretation. We shall see how successful the author is in defending his preferred interpretation. That said, the author has claimed that others have intentionally distorted the historical record. That is a different type of claim altogether. Dare I say that his reputation is on the line.

      • Timothy J. Orr Feb 27, 2013

        Kevin, at the risk of sounding like I’m just echoing your point, I have to agree with you emphatically. The blurb’s tone speaks as if some vast conspiracy existed. It makes it appear as if Sword and others “suppressed” crucial evidence just for the sake of bersmirching Hood’s character. That’s not how history works. Historians find evidence, they write books. Later on, someone else finds new evidence, he or she writes another book, and revises the current interpretation. That’s the process of history; there’s nothing personal about it. We write about what we know at the time, and all subsequent history, by definition, is revisionist. To suggest that older historians have purposefully misused a biographical subject when they could have done otherwise is a bold assertion and it better be backed by hard evidence. Kevin, you’re spot on: the author better deliver on this.

        • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2013

          Couldn’t have said it any better.

  • Nathan Towne Feb 27, 2013

    I have to concur on the general consensus above. What is accepted as fact in some quarters regarding Hood is simply astonishing. For example, it is commonly believed in many circles, even those with a general knowledge of Hood’s service in the Western theater that his memoirs are laden with misrepresentation and libelous statements, particularly with regards to Johnston. Interstingly, Hood’s accounts of many controversial aspects of the Atlanta campaign are directly substantiated by overwhelming testimony, such as at Cassville and Pumpinvine Creek, where as Johnston’s accounts of those episodes in his self-exonerating Narrative are easily discredited. Thankfully, over the last forty-five years diligent historians such as Thomas Lawrence Connelly, Richard McMurray, Stephen Davis, Albert Castel, Eric Jacobson e.t.c. have peeled back many of these pernicious notions regarding Hood, but they are still incredibly persistant. Having talked to Sam, I feel comfortable with the project in his hands, even though there are some small points I think I disagree with him on and look forward to his book.

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2013

      Nathan,

      Thanks for the comment. Let me once again emphasize that I am not in any way suggesting that specific points of interpretation do not need to be addressed. There is nothing different about this situation than any number of other interpretive debates that can be found in history generally. What I am pointing out as problematic is a specific claim that is being made on the description (dust jacket) about what is contained in this book. I will be pulling for Mr. Hood 100%, but in addition to making the case for his preferred interpretation he is going to need to support his claims that specific historians have intentionally distorted the past.

  • Nathan Towne Feb 27, 2013

    Furthermore, Richard McMurray’s biography from 1982 remains the best study of Hood. McMurray’s biography has some genuine qualities and his interpretations are for the most part fair and well supported, but there is alot of material to work with that wasn’t included due to the books focus. Additionally, it is seriously lacking in military detail. The engagement and controversy surrounding Kolb’s farm for example is covered in a single page. Hence, there is a tremendous amount of ground to cover regarding Hood.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2013

      Furthermore, your own comment diffuses much of Mr. Hood’s thunder. There are indeed a number of historians who have worked to correct the historical record. I don’t mind sexy book descriptions, but perhaps we should keep the personal vendettas at arms length.

      • Nathan Towne Feb 27, 2013

        Certainly, I am not trying to espouse any vendetta. I try to remain as objective as possible, at least in my analysis of a situation. I just hope that you give Sam the benefit of the doubt and read his book. That is all.

        Nathan Towne

        • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2013

          Sorry about that. I meant the author’s apparent vendetta against certain historians. Again, the issue I am pointing out is very specific. Eric Wittenberg and Eric Jacobsen have already pointed out that the book is worth reading and both are respected historians. I am taking issue with a specific accusation made against people that the author obviously has some disagreements with.

          • Nathan Towne Feb 27, 2013

            Of course. This is how historical debate works. Historiography is largely revisions on tone, analysis, arguments and presentation, sometimes supplemented with new evidence, or emphasizing existing evidence. With regards to Hood however, what is presented as fact and what is considered to be viable interpretation amongst a substantial portion of the Civil War community is astonishing. Infortunately, the astute historians who had rigorously tried to tear this positions down are still fighting against the grain of what is considered “common knowledge.”

            As far as any serious allegations against authors, one must obviously substantiate such a serious allegation as intellectual fraud. Despite the abundant interpretative failings in Sword’s book (especially pertaining to, although not exclusive to Hood) for the most part the problems seemed to me interpretative, although at times lazy and dishonest with qoutes taken out of proper context e.t.c. Sam has stated however, after having looked at all of Sword’s sources that he has come across a litany of letters, diaries e.t.c. in which sentences were reconstructed without elipses and writers interpretations completely misconstrued. This behavior crosses the line of subpar, vitriolic and faulty analysis into the realm of academic fraud. I think Sam is incorporating his findings into his book, in addition to studying Hood. Hence the tone of the blurb.

            In addition, Savas Beatie, the Cadillac of American Civil War publishing, is publishing his book. They apparently believe, having read the manuscript, that the title and tone are warranted.

            However, I do see your perspective. Normally an ad hominem attack is reckless and unsuitable in a book. Best reserved for the blogosphere.

            Nathan Towne

            • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2013

              This behavior crosses the line of subpar, vitriolic and faulty analysis into the realm of academic fraud.

              I guess we shall see, but it doesn’t look like you are in a position to make such a claim.

  • Nathan Towne Feb 27, 2013

    I didn’t make such a claim. I have problems with Sword’s book, especially with regards to tone and interpretation. I never called his work fraudulant.

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin Feb 27, 2013

      OK. Thanks for the clarification. I think this thread between us is pretty much played out. Let’s talk again once the book is published. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Nathan Towne Apr 12, 2013

    Kevin,

    I just read our conversation at the end of February again and noticed that you may have perceived it as being somewhat hostile towards Wiley Sword, Joe Johnston or yourself. I feel bad that that may be the case.

    In some ways I actually have a lot of respect for Joe Johnston. He is a very complicated man who cannot be explained easily. It would take a full length discussion to lay out many of my views with regards to Johnston. His hostility towards the Davis administartion and towards Hood however borders on libel and had a very strong influence on historiography for many years. Unfortunately, his claims repeatedly fail to hold up when weighed against the historical record and it has only been in the last fifty to sixty years that his claims have been deconstructed.

    As for Wiley Sword, anyone who knows me knows that I have detailed numerous occasions where his book runs directly contrary to the historical record and the tone he adopts in his writing is so unjustifiably malicious towards Hood I believe many assertions he makes are nothing less than slander. I am fully prepared to demonstrate the gravity of his Franklin-Nashville campaign study’s failings at any time.

    If you ever want to discuss matters I am more than willing. Hope that there were no hard feelings as I recognize that you made no statements in particular against Hood.

    Nathan Towne

  • Rob Baker Aug 5, 2013

    For what it’s worth, I know NPS Ranger Lee White read the book and found it favorable.

    https://www.facebook.com/lee.white.127/posts/10200713742340772

  • Tony Aug 13, 2013

    I have read the first few chapters … so far it’s a bit nit-picking:

    Chapter 1: Brief Biographical Background on Hood
    Chapter 2: Only after 1928 or so did people start calling Hood poopy-head.
    Chapter 3: Robert E. Lee only half-heartedly complained about Hood as a replacement for Johnston, didn’t have any better suggestions, and Johnston sucked worse anyway. “All lion and none of the fox” is apochryphal, and a pox on your houses for perpetuating the saying.

    I’m guessing that the further chapters are a bit more meaty. Personally, I enjoy authors pointing out where their interpretations diverge from previous histories, because I’m one of the unwashed hobbyists often unfamiliar with histories written before Y2K. However, I think body-of-the-book should be reserved for the earth-shattering (Grant planned all along to move south of Vicksburg … for example), while maybe reserving a thorough study of the historiography for an afterward?

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