This past week The New York Times featured James McPherson in its “By the Book” series. McPherson was asked a couple of questions about those books that influenced his development as a scholar and who he sees as currently shaping the field. Well, his responses touched off an interesting discussion on the feed of one of my Facebook friends. No need to link to the discussion. The concern is not only that McPherson privileges male scholars, but that his responses ignore recent scholarship.
Here are a few examples of his “best of” responses:
Best Civil War book: The best book is actually an eight-volume series published from 1947 to 1971, by Allan Nevins: “Ordeal of the Union,” “The Emergence of Lincoln” and “The War for the Union.” It is all there — the political, economic, social, diplomatic and military history of the causes, course and consequences of the war, written in the magisterial style for which Nevins was famous.
Best Historians Writing Today: Bernard Bailyn, David Brion Davis, Gordon Wood, Eric Foner, David McCullough, David Hackett Fischer. In elegant prose, based on impeccable research, they have covered the broad sweep of American history from the early colonial settlements through Harry Truman’s administration.
Best Books about African-American History: John Hope Franklin’s “From Slavery to Freedom” continues to stand alone as the best general history. Ira Berlin’s books on slavery and free blacks in the era of slavery, plus the monumental multivolume series he oversaw, “Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation,” are landmarks in the field.
I certainly understand the concerns of my friends about the absence of women (other than Doris Kearns Goodwin) and those who would have liked to have seen references to recent scholarly developments, but this is McPherson’s list. He’s a smart guy, who produced some very important and influential work in his career. McPherson is also retired and may not have stayed on top of all the recent literature. Let’s give the guy a break. This is what he likes. Perhaps a different set of questions would have yielded different answers. Regardless, McPherson is not the poster-boy for whatever institutional hierarchies still frame the academy.
McPherson was asked to take part in the series, in part, because he has a new book out on Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. Over the past two decades he has continued to produce traditional military history that has become increasingly marginalized by academic Civil War historians. That, at least, is the argument made by Gary Gallagher and Katy Meier in an essay that is forthcoming in the next issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era. [I had a chance to read it because I have a short essay in it as well.] Among other things they cite the absence of traditional military history topics at the biennial meetings of the meetings of the Society of Civil War Historians, which they argue has generated “basic misunderstandings about military history.” I think it’s gotten worse since the first meeting, but I will wait until the issue is published to say more.
My point for now is that it is easy to criticize McPherson for what appears to be a rather narrow/traditional or even “Whiggish” view of the field, but the recent turn in Civil War history may also be creating and reinforcing a new set of assumptions about what is acceptable among scholars interested in the Civil War era.