The Anatomy of a Dimitri Rotov Review

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Dimitri hasn’t posted much in recent months, but yesterday he shared a review of Sam Hood’s new biography of John Bell Hood. I haven’t read the book nor do I plan on doing so. Let me be clear that this brief comment is not about the merits of Sam Hood’s new biography, but about Rotov’s evaluation of it. In that regard I have to say that I am deeply disappointed.  This is the same guy who over the years has gone to great lengths to knock down some of the most popular Civil War historians such as Gary Gallagher, Stephen Sears, James McPherson, and Joe Glatthaar and others that he has dubbed the “Centennial School.”  Rotov typically provides specific examples (even footnotes) from the texts he critiques and in the case of McPherson he even attempted to demonstrate instances of plagiarism. He is hard hitting and unapologetic.  That said, please don’t mistake this for a tacit agreement with his conclusions. I share this to highlight my disappointment with his most recent review.

Consider the following:

The demolition of Wiley Sword and his ilk is awe-inspiring and I hope it puts the fear of God into that great careless pack of out-of-control nonfiction writers who dominate best-seller lists. They will be held to account somewhere, sometime.

Speaking of which, I am partial to Sam Hood and this work for reasons obvious to those who have read me over time. In 1997, I began compiling and publishing examinations of the claims made against McClellan. My motivation was rage. Having binged on ACW pop history 1994-1997 after 30 years of reading good European history, I found ACW standards so primitive, so insulting, so outlandish as to require outrage.

I have been dwelling on the broader points here without adequately conveying how much excitement there is in author Hood’s specific takedowns of weak claims and garbage citations. I don’t know how Hood authors will be able to appear in public after this (but perhaps I underestimate the shamelessness of Civil War authors). If you enjoy the pointed historiographic criticism appearing occasionally in this blog, this book is for you. Here General Hood has been done a service as has ACW history.

At no point does Rotov offer any substantive critique of the book’s interpretation. No examples of how the author challenges prevailing thought are given. Nor does Rotov give us any indication of the picture of Hood that emerges as a result of this supposedly important new biography. Make no mistake, I don’t care whether he likes the book or not. What I find appalling is the blatant double-standard at work here. And what I find even more interesting is that this is almost always the case when it comes to books published by Savas Beatie.

32 comments… add one

  • Will Hickox Jun 29, 2013

    Read any interview with a respected Civil War historian and you’ll see that their motivation in what they do is “rage.” That is always a sure sign of dispassionate, evidence-based historical work.

  • Lyle Smith Jun 29, 2013

    Kevin, I think you should plan on reading the book. You criticized a blurb about the book a few months ago, and there is only one way to find out if the blurb doesn’t match with the substance of the book… by reading it.

    I’d also like to know what you’re getting at with your last sentence. Are you insinuating something about Mr. Rotov or the publisher Savas Beatie, or both? And what are you insinuating?

    I look forward to buying this book and reading it. It looks totally fascinating if there is substance to it.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 29, 2013

      I critiqued the blurb as a blurb and nothing more.

      I am not insinuating anything with that last sentence. Again, I find it interesting that Dimitri seems to give Savas books a pass. It’s nothing more than a descriptive claim.

      • Peter Jun 30, 2013

        I’m not sure it’s an accurate “descriptive claim,” Kevin. Dmitri was quite critical of the Savas Beatie book he mentioned before this one (Jordan’s _Bloody Sabbath_). Other than that, he hasn’t really done anything but mention the Wittenberg and Petruzzi Gettysburg titles and praise Cap Beatie’s Army of the Potomac series (which he started while Da Capo was publishing it).

        • Kevin Levin Jun 30, 2013

          You are probably right.

      • Ted Savas Jul 5, 2013

        Kevin

        I think your last sentence is really problematic. And Rotov gives our books a pass? I know he likes what we do generally because few other publishers do what what do. But you are implying that there is some incestuous relationship and frankly that sickens me.

        • Kevin Levin Jul 5, 2013

          Nothing could be further from the truth. I was simply making a descriptive claim that one reader has already challenged.

          • Ted Savas Jul 5, 2013

            Well I certainly read it that way. And I know how to read.

            • Kevin Levin Jul 5, 2013

              I make no assumption about any kind of relationship between the two of you. I apologize if that is how it comes off.

              • Ted Savas Jul 5, 2013

                Kevin

                Thank you for saying so.

                In case anyone is wondering, I have met Dimitri precisely once. (I think we had a sandwich somewhere four or five years ago.) We send him the same books we send to other reviewers, first galleys and then the final product. He has told me (via email) that he enjoys our publishing program because we do many books other publishers traditionally do not do, or do not so so well (i.,e., editing, notes, maps, organization,etc.) He is especially enamored by Beatie’s Army of the Potomac Series because the author has constructed his narrative from the bottom up and has ignored secondary sources and conclusions in doing so. He has also given us negative and mixed reviews, though overall his reviews have been positive.

                Dimitri is a contrarian–which is very beneficial in any discipline. He has long reminded me of the slave holding the wreath over a Roman emperor’s head on the chariot while whispering in his ear during a grand Triumph, ” You are only mortal”–or words to that effect. I for one appreciate his perspective–whether I agree or disagree. It is always fresh and beyond the bounds of the herd. Since I have never run with the herd, I can appreciate that, too.

                Best

                Ted

  • Chris Evans Jun 29, 2013

    I wish that we could just enjoy the plethora of books on the Civil War and how lucky we are to have them instead of always being mad at a historian for McClellan being bashed or Hood being bashed. I don’t think many Civil War readers are worried about putting the fear of God into Wiley Sword.

    I don’t think all of the Generals have to be heroes or heels. I don’t think it takes us anywhere for us all of sudden to go, “My God, I was mistaken Hood was THE military genius of American History.”

    I don’t like all of the bashing of historians just because they don’t always agree on a point.

    Sorry for the ramble,

    Chris

  • John Maass Jun 29, 2013

    Chris…. amen!!

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Jun 30, 2013

    Hi Kevin,
    The amazon.com book review of the John Bell Hood book says the author’s name is Stephen Hood but you refer to him in your post as “Sam” (which, BTW, was one of J B Hood’s nicknames from his West Point days and during the war). Not sure if you made a mistake or if Stephen Hood goes by the same nickname.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 30, 2013

      Thanks.

  • William Houston Jun 30, 2013

    I noticed the same thing about Dimitri’s review but assumed that he was reluctant to get into specifics, or perhaps was even asked not to do so, because the book hasn’t been released yet. Dimitri must be working from a review copy. Likewise, I’ve noticed that Mr. Hood himself has been somewhat reluctant to discuss specifics of his forthcoming book in various online forums. Let’s wait for the book to form a judgment. I have it pre-ordered from Amazon.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 30, 2013

      Like I said, I am not really interested in the content of the book. I am simply pointing out what I think is a clear inconsistency in the way Dimitri evaluates books. Whether I agree with his reviews or not, he almost always provides examples to back up his points. In this review we get little more than a comparison with his project to rehabilitate McClellan, which has no direct bearing on the book in question.

  • Nathan Towne Jul 1, 2013

    Kevin,

    I am sorry to hear that you won’t be getting a copy of this book. I have been looking forward to the book for quite awhile, although I do understand and sympathize with your reservations over the blurb that you commented on back in February.

    In fact, this is one of four books that I have mentally jotted down as “must-reads” for myself before the summer is out that I haven’t read yet.

    Anyways, if you would like, I can run down for you Sam Hood’s approach in the book after I read it and give you the lowdown of how good it is (or isn’t) after I read it?

    Nathan Towne

    • Kevin Levin Jul 1, 2013

      I am not that interested in Hood. I recently read my friend Brian Craig Miller’s recent study of Hood, but that will pretty much do it for me.

      • Nathan Towne Jul 1, 2013

        OK. Richard McMurray’s biography from 1983 remains the best study of Hood to date, although it is slim and Miller deals more with Hood’s postwar years. I took Miller’s study out from the library several years ago and it has value, but to be honest I didn’t feel as though it added much. Furthermore, Miller carries his study of Hood beyond the historical record in places, especially with regards to gender and the influence of gender on Hood’s life. He also didn’t ccover some things that it is really strange he wouldn’t cover and missed some information that would have benefitted his book. Overall, it is worth reading though. David Coffey’s study (1998) is utterly worthless.

        Nathan Towne

        • Chris Evans Jul 1, 2013

          Even with its age I think Dyer’s book from 1950 is still worth reading on Hood.

          Dyer’s Fighting Joe Wheeler is still a excellent look at that officer also.

          Chris

          • Nathan Towne Jul 2, 2013

            Chris,

            Dyer’s “The Gallant Hood” from 1950 is certainly worth a look, but as a study only goes so far. There was a lot of ground that he left uncovered. I hate to be mean to Coffey and to his book (1998), but I didn’t find it illuminating at all. McMurry (1983) is certainly the best study available, not including Sam Hood yet of course.

            As for Joseph Wheeler, there are four biographies of him that I am familiar with. “Campaigns of Wheeler and His Cavalry,” by W.C. Dodson from 1899, “General Joseph Wheeler and the Army of Tennessee,” by John Witherspoon Dubose from 1912 and Dyer (1941) and Longacre’s (2007) studies. Of these Dyer and Longacre are both worth reading as is Longacre’s study of the armies cavalry from 2009. Interestingly, there are some striking differences between his 2007 and 2009 studies with regards to Wheeler.

            I am not familiar with this book. Maybe you are?
            http://www.amazon.com/Joseph-Wheeler-Uniting-Blue-Gray/dp/0595231020/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1372773103&sr=1-5&keywords=joseph+wheeler

            If you aren’t I am sure Dave Powell will be.

            Nathan Towne

  • Dimitri Rotov Jul 5, 2013

    I don’t think these observations are unfair. Kevin has been with me for a long time and is used to a longer review with juicy details. The Hood review was skimpy for a couple of reasons:

    (a) I notice that in an age of twitter my longer posts with much detail get the worst numbers and I have been trying to go shorter. Breaking long posts into continuations also sees a significant decline of readership for each part. Readers avoid the lengthy posts.
    (b) After a long break from blogging I still need to get my energy up before I can attempt complex, longer posts. The rambling in this response testifies to that.
    But perhaps the issue should be to focus on the quality readers and give the full treatment each time “irregardless ” of eyeballs captured.

    My next Savas-Beatie review will be Varney’s book on the Grant-Rosecrans divide and I will keep Kevin’s comments in mind for that one.

    Now I should say that a critic can have no greater love for a publisher’s sensibility and output than I have for Savas Beatie’s. There is no question that I will give S-B a benefit of the doubt where I can. That house practically embodies a remedy for so many of the complaints I brought into this field and they are worth close attention and encouragement. That said, please do not discount my reviews on that basis but on whether or not I make my case. Here, Kevin says the case is not made without specific examples.Good enough. The Hood book and the Varney book are very exciting for me. They are like pages ripped from my own blog. If I don’t convey that and the review appears like a lukewarm favor for a pal, then the review has failed.

    I had dinner with Ted a few years ago and we spoke on the phone twice over the years. He is a Great Publisher and I told him so. The late Cap Beatie was a Great Researcher and I am proud to have blurbed him. But Savas Beatie publishes many specific items that do not interest me or which I am not competent to review. I leave those alone or simply acknowledge their release. If I post a review of an S-B work, I see merit in it or (in some cases demerit) in the specific work.

    Complaints are okay, esp. from longtime readers.

    p.s. Stephen Hood goes by the name “Sam,” which I should have mentioned.

    p.p.s. Reading between the lines of Kevin’s comments and based on previous remarks he made I think he feels that when he sees a name brand Wiley Sword type of author put down he needs more of a case made than just the denigration.

    - DR

    • Kevin Levin Jul 5, 2013

      Dimitri,

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment on this post. It’s also nice to see you blogging again.

      • Dimitri Rotov Jul 6, 2013

        Thanks Kevin. I often think of your meme *the Civil War as entertainment.*

  • Sam Hood Jul 6, 2013

    Gentlemen,

    Google Alerts led me to this discussion, which seems to really be more about Dimitri, Kevin Levin, and Ted Savas. I have never personally met any of the three. I’ll jump in here even though Kevin has already stated that JB Hood isn’t one of his interests, and I infer that Kevin has no personal affinity for me…although I may be wrong.

    That said, first, my name is Stephen Matthew Hood, and I am a distant relative of JB Hood. Second cousin I think, several times removed. I was given the nickname Sam as a baby in 1952 and some of my closest friends don’t know who Stephen Hood is. I felt compelled to author the book as Stephen rather than Sam because, simply by coincidence, JB Hood’s nickname was also Sam and it would have been too confusing.

    Kevin refers to my book as a biography. It is not remotely akin to a biography, except for an opening chapter that gives a biographical sketch of the general for the benefit of the rare reader of my book who doesn’t know JB Hood.

    My book is not so much about JB Hood, rather, it is about the historiography and literature of Hood that has shaped his current reputation. What I did was conduct what I called “forensic historiography,” painstakingly taking all the common truisms about Hood, and backtracking the sources. What I found was that in many cases the “facts” we accept about Hood have zero primary source evidence, and in most cases the primary source–where there is one–has little or no relationship to what authors have interpreted and portrayed. I simply take what writers like Sword, Horn, Connelly, McDonough, and others have written, provide the excerpts to the reader, and then present the primary source (when there is one) and give it verbatim to the reader.

    The results are astounding, and should be of interest to any history buff who admires his heroes or loathes his villains. It may very well be that both the heroes and villains are neither.

    Last summer I discovered Hood’s long-lost personal papers and had to rewrite several chapters of my book. Readers will now see proof that Hood was being written to by Richmond authorities after joining Johnston’s Army of Tennessee, and his “poison pen letters” were simply replies to direct inquiries. Readers will see two witnesses who identify Frank Cheatham as having intentionally disobeyed Hood’s orders at Spring Hill, allowing Schofield to escape. Readers will see that AP Stewart revealed that Pat Cleburne’s reckless death at Franklin was not due to anger at Hood, but Cleburne was in effect committing “suicide by Yankee” because he too disobeyed Hood’s orders the night before and felt personally responsible for the Yankee escape. These are not my interpretations, but observations in handwritten letters from Confederate generals and other officers found in Hood’s papers.

    I am disappointed that Kevin has no interest in reading my book, but I understand. If I am not interested in a subject or character, I won’t read even an excerpt about it.

    I am not in this for fame nor fortune. My intent is to clear the air about a defenseless dead man. If anyone cannot afford a book I will give them one.

    Sam Hood

    • Kevin Levin Jul 6, 2013

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. It would be more accurate to say that I don’t have the time right now to read it. Perhaps at some point. In the meantime perhaps you can share with us an example that highlights the methodology employed in your book.

  • Brad Jul 6, 2013

    I see that Dmitri doesn’t care for Guelzo’s Gettysburg although as he admits at the end of his article that he hasn’t read the book. His article is “a reaction to its public effects,” as he says. Huh? Well, not enough pro McClellan references I suppose. At least he’s consistent: he seems to dislike all of Guelzo’s work.

  • Dale Fishel Jul 9, 2013

    I found it fascinating that such an interesting exchange could begin with an admission by the host that he has no interest or plan to read the book featured in Mr. Rotov’s review. I highly encourage Mr. Levin to do so; I expect his subsequent response might be even more fascinating and inspiring for future comment. And, for Mr. Evans, Sam Hood’s book is in no way an attempt to portray General John Bell Hood as THE military genius of history. To the contrary Sam has simply examined the baseless allegations posed by some authors to paint him as an incompetent, lovelorn monster (among other unflattering things). The truth is he was a typical general of that tragic time struggling against terrific odds who experienced successes and failures; much the same as his peers on either side of the conflict. Sam has successfully challenged the way modern authors have ignored original sources and allowed theory, opinion and outright fabrication to creep into their publications posing as history. Some of these works make good historical novels. I highly recommend that you read this book!

    Respectfully

    • Kevin Levin Jul 9, 2013

      As I stated in the post, my concern had nothing to do with the content of the book, but with Dimitri’s claim to having reviewed it.

  • Dale Fishel Jul 9, 2013

    I saw that – but would hope you’d take the next step and see for yourself. I’d love to see your appraisal of Sam’s in depth research and findings!

  • William Jul 16, 2013

    Kevin it is time for you to remove the Blinders. Why is it you refuse to read the book ?

    • Kevin Levin Jul 16, 2013

      Right now I just don’t have the time and I’ve got a large backlog of books waiting in the wings. Thanks for your concern.

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