About James McPherson’s List

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.

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34 comments… add one
  • Gerald Fetner, Ph. D. Jan 26, 2015 @ 11:32

    By chance, I came across this website and the discussion of McPherson’s comment regarding his having found Nevins’s works on the Civil War influential. This led me to comb through some notes I had taken in writing the biography of Nevins. At the time Nevins came to write ORDEAL, the debate over the causes of the Civil War divided themselves over whether the conflict was avoidable or inevitable. Beard believed it was irrespressible because by the 1850s there had developedt two distinct economic and cultural systems that made reconciliaton impossible, hence the resort to war to undo this situation.
    The other view was that the war might have been avoided were it not for the radicals on both sides who inflamed the issue of slavery to a point that made war the only recourse.
    Nevins tried to find a middle ground. There was no question that slavery was an economic system that was untenable in the light of the market economy developing in the North and West. Then he shifted his view somewhat to suggest that even with this fracture, the war might have been avoided if there were strong leaders who could understand the extent to which race adjustment lay just below the surface of the issue of emancipation. Then, he blames the abolishionists for making this kind of reconciliation impossible. Coming out of the progressive era, Nevins believed strongly in the importance of competence and professionalism.

    At the time Nevins began the series of books, he was writing frequently about the need for the Allies to try to persuade Germany of the foolishness of trying to build a closed society. The whole nature of leadership beginning with TR and Wilson affected Nevins very much. It was during this period that he was a journalist for two of the most influential “liberal” newspapers, the NEW YORK WORLD and the NEW YORK EVENING POST. He carried over this theme of leadership into the series of biographies he help spawn-the American Political Leaders.

    Anyway, I thought I would just make this comment.

    Gerald Fetner, Ph. D.

  • Jarret Ruminski Oct 21, 2014 @ 12:34

    It seems like every few years, Gary Gallagher writes an article or puts together a panel at the SCWH that reiterates his running theme that military history is being marginalized. There’s undoubtedly truth to that sentiment, but it hasn’t stopped him and others from publishing (very good) books on the subject and organizing panels at the top conferences. It’s also true (IMO) that military history needs to expand more to cover the larger social-political context of battles and armies. It’s doing this already, but, as is the case with more entrenched fields, it’s been a slow process.

  • Dudley Bokoski Oct 13, 2014 @ 4:56

    McPherson is an historian but he’s also a writer and I believe he probably answered the question from that perspective. There are historians doing very good research in fields that should spark interest in debate but they aren’t always the best writers. History is a collection of stories and good story telling connects with the public in a way which good research by itself can’t. The historians from the generation after McPherson who will break into various lists first will the best writers and not necessarily the best researchers with the most groundbreaking topic.

    I think a reason we’re not seeing young historians break through to broader acceptance is because there is less emphasis generally in education regarding the nuts and bolts of writing (form and style). If you listen to NPR for any length of time you’ll hear great young story tellers, better than from my era, because we’re becoming more expressive as a society in ways other than traditional writing. But writing? Maybe not so much. Finding a balance in the future will be a challenge for writers and historians.

  • Lyle Smith Oct 6, 2014 @ 12:20

    No that it matters, but I agree with your defense of McPherson. He likes who he likes, and there is nothing wrong with that.

  • Dan Weinfeld Oct 6, 2014 @ 6:46

    Re: marginzliation of CW military history. I’m assuming that a good barometer is examing articles in the Journal of the Civil War Era and Civil War History journal. Do they publish anything considered traditional military history? I haven’t looked and don’t know. There is barely anything directly CW related being presented at AHA in Jan. 2015, let alone CW military. At least Blight talks about the war in his Yale course so that’s an improvement over 25 years ago when David Donald excised the “war” part from his Civil War course.

  • James Harrigan Oct 6, 2014 @ 5:40

    I have learned so much from McPherson but I was disappointed by this exchange:

    Q: And what are the best books about African-American history?

    A: John Hope Franklin’s “From Slavery to Freedom” continues to stand alone as the best general history.

    Franklin’s book, which I have not read, was first published in 1967. Can it really be the case that this book is still the best general history of African-Americans? I kind of doubt it. Kevin et al, any other nominees that are more current than From Slavery to Freedom?

    • Kevin Levin Oct 6, 2014 @ 6:41

      As the best general history? I would probably suggest Ira Berlin’s trilogy, but that gets us back into the issue at hand.

    • Lee Oct 7, 2014 @ 10:55


      “From Slavery to Freedom” was actually first published in 1947, not 1967. However, it’s been periodically revised and updated since (most recently in 2010). It’s an excellent book.

  • Noma Oct 5, 2014 @ 20:35

    I’m currently reading Allan Nevins’s “Hamilton Fish: The Inner Workings of the Grant Administration.” I have not read his “Ordeal of the Union.” In a way, I was surprised to see that he lauded both Allan Nevins and Jean Edward Smith (“Grant”), since they seem to have opposite views on Grant.

    I personally appreciate Smith’s biography, and I was enjoying the Fish biography, until it hit Grant’s actual presidency. Then it felt like I was hearing arguments that were too sympathetic to the Confederate side, saying basically: Why couldn’t we have just waited and let the South free their slaves naturally, instead of going to war?

    I found that pretty chilling, that blaming of the northern abolitionist “extremists.” Upon researching a little bit, I found that Fish had been on the board of trustees at Columbia, before the so-called Dunning School — and that Nevins was there beginning in 1929, less than 10 years after the death of Dunning himself. I felt like, maybe to some extent his perspective was polluted by the pro-Confederate sympathies of the Dunning School.

    I was also a little stunned by some of his criticisms of (black) Congressman Hiram Revels.

    Overall, I appreciated McPherson’s list, but I still would like to hear more of what other have to say about Allan Nevins. Am I misunderstanding his perspective?

    • Rob Wick Oct 6, 2014 @ 2:32


      I’m getting ready to leave for work, but when I get home I’ll post an interesting letter i found from Nevins to James G. Randall concerning Randall’s book Civil War and Reconstruction. Nevins is pretty clear about his pro-Southern feelings.


      • Rob Wick Oct 6, 2014 @ 14:17


        As promised, I found the letter Nevins wrote to Randall. Before that, though, just a little background. In 1930, Nevins, who was general editor of the Heath New History Series, recruited Randall to write a volume on the Civil War and Reconstruction which could be used both as a textbook and which would appeal to the general lay reader. The book appeared in 1936. Coincidentally, it was still used as the basic text for the Civil War class I took in college in 1984. On April 15, 1934 Nevins wrote Randall a letter after going through the first draft of Randall’s manuscript. The relevant part of the three-page letter is as follows:

        “The first third of the book strikes me as having a certain Southern bias. As I feel a natural bias in that direction myself, I don’t think I am unduly sensitive on the point. Of course this bias (if it exists) chimes with the general direction of historical writing on the period in the past fifteen years, but I suspect a reaction will take place. My marginal comments I have indicated some of the passages that strike me as unfair. I would not lessen the criticism of Northern extremists, but I think you might well include a good deal more criticism of Southern extremists. After all, Southern leaders were very vindictive in their utterances: Southern leaders did nothing–absolutely nothing–to rid their section of the moral and economic incubus of slavery; and while Wendell Phillips and Garrison talked of disunion, it was the South and not the North which seceded. I do think you ought earnestly to consider whether your treatment will not invite criticism. To make the Southern point of view effective it should be brought forward very tactfully and persuasively, and I fear you may rather arouse antagonism at a few points.” (Source: Allan Nevins to James G. Randall, April 15, 1934, Box 4, James G. Randall Papers, University of Illinois Archives)

        I take a couple of things from this. First, I think your point regarding the Dunning School is spot on. Nevins says as much in the comment on “the general direction of historical writing on the period in the past fifteen years.” I also think Nevins’s concerns, while encompassing general historical fairness, are written with the notion that bad reviews and publicity on a pronounced Southern bias might hurt sales and the general reputation of the book.

        From his early lecture notes, Randall could be termed a disciple of the Dunning School as could many of his generation, although most of his criticism of Reconstruction came from a Constitutional perspective. Randall had both a physical as well as emotional tie to the South as a region. He taught at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia where he met his wife, Ruth Painter. He was very close to Ruth’s father, F.V.N. Painter. Interestingly, Ruth’s brother, Theophilus Painter, was the Painter in the Swett v. Painter case which set the stage four years later for the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

        The only biography of Nevins I am aware of is Gerald L. Fetner’s “Immersed in Great Affairs.” http://www.sunypress.edu/p-3877-immersed-in-great-affairs.aspx


        • Nomna Oct 6, 2014 @ 19:13

          Rob, thank you very kindly for the letter and your assessment of it. We’re discussing the Times interview on the Yankee Heritage facebook page. If you have no objection, I would like to share it with readers there. It seems like it opens up some interesting insights to Nevins — who was definitely an influential writer. Would it be okay if I shared your note?

          • Noma Oct 6, 2014 @ 19:14

            (Ooops — can’t spell my own name — Noma!)

            • Rob Wick Oct 7, 2014 @ 14:57

              By all means, Noma. Feel free to share it.


              • Noma Oct 7, 2014 @ 17:59

                Rob, thank you so much!

                Also, if anyone feels inclined to suggest a good rebuttal to some of Allan Nevins flimsy assertions about Grant, I would be grateful for any titles you could recommend.

                — Noma

                • robertpollock401374112 Oct 8, 2014 @ 7:28


                  Have you read “President Grant Reconsidered” by Frank J. Scaturro?

  • Brad Oct 5, 2014 @ 15:10

    I don’t know what marginalized is supposed to mean. Does it mean military history is not as popular as it used to be or not part of the current trend. So? Does that make it not worth writing about or reading. Now, military history doesn’t interest me as much as say a books like Walter Johnson’s or Oakes’ Freedom National but I’m glad people are still writing them.

    One of the best Civil War books I’ve ever read is David Potter’s The Impending Crisis. Well, he’s been dead for almost 40 years but his work is still essential reading. No made up facts in there either.

    This is really a mountain out of a molehill.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 5, 2014 @ 15:44

      One of the best Civil War books I’ve ever read is David Potter’s The Impending Crisis. Well, he’s been dead for almost 40 years but his work is still essential reading.

      I suspect that everyone in the discussion that I alluded to would agree with you. That’s not really the issue.

      I was simply pointing out that a good case can be made that the SCWH has marginalized scholarship that falls within the confines of traditional military history. In other words, certain historians and interpretations have been privileged over others, which is something I suggest ought to be remembered in critiques of McPherson’s list. It may or may not be relevant.

      Again, I certainly understand many of the concerns expressed about who and what is not included in M’s list.

      • Brad Oct 6, 2014 @ 16:02

        I went over to Civil Wars Books and Authors after posting my comment and he wasn’t that kind to McPherson’s latest work. I agree that his latest few books haven’t been that scintillating.

  • Rob Wick Oct 5, 2014 @ 13:00

    Can there be some allowance for where the article appeared? Would readers of the New York Times, most of whom are certainly erudite and well-read, find analytical works of lesser interest then a riveting (and academically-rigorous) narrative? Most of McPherson’s choices, including what I have to term a brave selection of David McCullough, are authors that live in both worlds, i.e., narrative history v. academic analysis and have been able to forge a synthesis of the two that the general reading public has found accessible and engrossing. They are what I would call “big picture” historians, or historians who write generally sweeping or synthesis-based books that, generally speaking, have less of an appeal to specialists as opposed to the general lay reader. Given that McPherson himself belongs in this category, I don’t find his choices surprising. Not to say that books with a broad-based appeal aren’t read by specialists (with the exception of McCullough), but they also appeal to a broader reading public. I also think there’s no small reason that those works mentioned by McPherson are by older scholars who are not bound by the stricture of tenure committees or fear their work will receive the meed of popular public approval. Let’s face it. Specialized academic studies, written by the up-and-coming generation of scholars, both male and female, generally don’t appeal to the broad-based reader likely to pick up the New York Times. To fault McPherson for giving his own opinion based on the questions presented, seems unfair. Plus, even though I have no evidence to support this assertion, I imagine McPherson keeps up to date with all aspects of Civil War scholarship. Maybe he finds much of it enlightening. Maybe he finds much of it turgid.

    Had McPherson been asked the same questions by the Journal of American History or the American Historical Review, I think there might have been more room for concern, given that their readership is made up of academically-minded readers who, as a rule, would prefer more analytically-driven works of scholarship. But even then, had he not mentioned Barbara Fields or Drew Gilpin Faust or Annette Gordon-Reed, the man is entitled to his opinion.

    HIstorical study, by it’s very nature, marries the work of the past with the promise of the new. I think most readers of the New York Times, while not necessarily averse to specialized academic studies, would be more likely to pick up Eric Foner or Ira Berlin’s work instead of a book devoted to antebellum gender studies in Louisiana. Not that anything is wrong with that type of book, but there’s a reason its author is called a specialist and not a generalist.


    • Kevin Levin Oct 5, 2014 @ 13:14

      This is a great point. You are probably right that McPherson would have provided a different list if we were talking about the JAH. Audience is a big part of this story.

  • Meg Thompson Oct 5, 2014 @ 7:51

    I reread the question asked of McPherson, and the first definitely applies to the past–what were his early influences? Of course this would create an answer in which older books and older authors would dominate. I even wonder who he was reading when he was eleven–when dreams of the future are first beginning to come into focus.

    Those of us who are making our way into this profession by the back roads–on-line classes, blogs, just sticking in our opinions when given the opportunity–are very aware that academia is not a well-paying profession. Neither is being a researcher. So–those old guys (and gals) have probably had to wait until they could afford the “luxury” of studying history. It is all pretty complex, and just about everything over which we have no control is in effect–gender, age, background and socio-economic status, race–you play the hand you were dealt.

    Personally, I am hopeful that House Nelson/Levin let me hang out there for a bit. The company seems very pleasant.

  • megankatenelson Oct 5, 2014 @ 6:01

    Kevin, I’m reposting here what I posted on the FB thread: Instead of focusing specifically on the issue of list-making and McPherson’s age and emeritus status, perhaps we should think more about how power is structured and reinforced in our field–how McPherson ended up giving this interview in the first place.

    Scholars gain power and status through their PhD programs and advisors (a system I have often compared to Game of Thrones–House Gallagher, House McPherson, that upstart House Berry), the presses they publish with, the awards they win, the places they teach, the professional positions they hold. These power structures are still dominated by white men, but this is changing right now–which is one of the reasons that panel at the Southern last year got so out of hand. #redwedding

    • Kevin Levin Oct 5, 2014 @ 6:22

      Hi Megan,

      Thanks for re-posting this. I don’t necessarily disagree with you. It is changing, but don’t you think we need to acknowledge the extent to which scholars such as McPherson, Gallagher, and Berry have helped this along? How many female scholars have these three helped to shepherd through their respective programs. The current and past president of the SCWH are both top-notch female scholars. Both have published multiple books in Gallagher’s UNC series and the current president was his student.

      I think the FB discussion went too far in using the McPherson interview as a place to unload on the power structure.

      Now stop wandering the desert and come home so we can talk about this further over a couple of Honeybadgers!

      • Karen L. Cox Oct 6, 2014 @ 6:11

        I disagree that it went too far. The fact is, we rarely have these discussion in such a public way. We might grumble among each other, but it was much more revealing on Facebook. Most people acknowledge McPherson as a kind and generous man, but that’s not what rubbed so many wrong. I agree with someone’s comment that if you are the “go-to” guy, then you should know the recent historiography. If I am the “go-to” person for a particular topic, then I should be up to date on the literature. If he’s no longer that person, then the NYT needs to get with the program.

        And no, we don’t necessarily “need to acknowledge” how these white men have “helped” female scholars. The fact that you’d make that point illustrates some need to justify the ongoing white male hierarchy of the academy where women are just hanging out waiting to be anointed by Mr. Man. You are sort of saying that by virtue of having studied with one of them, they were helped. Women need female mentors, too. How about we need to acknowledge–and I think this is one of the more important points being made in that thread–the work of women, people of color, etc.?

        As I said there, and I’ll say here, this is about much more than McPherson and his list. That it touched off a heated discussion about structural issues is important. It signals that we all know how the game is played and the rules still privilege men.

        • Kevin Levin Oct 6, 2014 @ 6:40

          Hi Karen,

          Thanks for taking the time to comment.

          I disagree that it went too far.

          I also agree that it was a fascinating discussion.

          I agree with someone’s comment that if you are the “go-to” guy, then you should know the recent historiography.

          Does McPherson see himself as the go-to guy? I honestly don’t know.

          The fact that you’d make that point illustrates some need to justify the ongoing white male hierarchy of the academy where women are just hanging out waiting to be anointed by Mr. Man.

          I think this is an incredibly unfair comment. I said this because the FB discussion early on did seem to be going after McPherson personally and I simply thought a broader perspective was in order. My wife just completed a Phd program in neuroscience and I can share some pretty disturbing things about the gender hierarchy. I am sorry to see that you decided to assume this about me. 🙁

          That it touched off a heated discussion about structural issues is important. It signals that we all know how the game is played and the rules still privilege men.

          I am in complete agreement.

          • Karen L. Cox Oct 6, 2014 @ 7:09

            I suppose I didn’t see the posts as going after him personally. In fact, so many people emphasized their deep respect for McPherson. I think that your comment that somehow we need to acknowledge all that they’ve done for female scholars rubbed me wrong, because it points up the fact that they are in power and seemed to suggest that women should be grateful even if it is unlikely that they’ll ever attain that kind of privilege in the academy. If that’s a misrepresentation of your true feelings on this, I apologize.

            • Kevin Levin Oct 6, 2014 @ 7:14

              I suppose I didn’t see the posts as going after him personally.

              I am not sure how we can get away from such an assessment given that it was the content of the list that set off the thread. The “deep respect” at times came off as a qualifier to criticism of the list, which I certainly understand. As another blog reader inquired, I wonder whether the JAH would have resulted in a different list by McPherson. Just a thought.

              …because it points up the fact that they are in power and seemed to suggest that women should be grateful even if it is unlikely that they’ll ever attain that kind of privilege in the academy.

              That in no way represents my particular point-of-view, so thank you.

              • Karen L. Cox Oct 7, 2014 @ 6:10

                It may not represent your point of view, but it still reads like “we need to acknowledge how all these white men of privilege have helped women from their position of power.” You know, I was lucky to have a woman mentor me in my dissertation, but at the end of the day I had to write it (as did the female students of these men) and I had to go on the job market (as did these women) and the power structure is what it is. I have my own stories about that. Now, it’s 2014, and I am currently the ONLY woman who is a full professor in my department.

                • Kevin Levin Oct 7, 2014 @ 6:17

                  As you know, I don’t live in your world, but as I mentioned yesterday I experienced the gender hierarchy of academia through my wife, who recently completed her Phd in science. At times she found the experience to be extremely frustrating and even humiliating. It seems to me that you are interpreting my comment through this lens, which I completely understand. We are in agreement. Beyond that I don’t know what more I can say.

  • edabney Oct 5, 2014 @ 5:15

    Though I do find it odd that his “best historians writing today” are just feature NO ONE new. Don’t get me wrong I love Eric Foner’s work but it’s just strange that not one historian (born after 1950) is featured. Clearly his list features some great historians; but, in a time where people are consistently saying “no one cares about history anymore” this list reinforced that only senior citizen white men care and continue to write history.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 5, 2014 @ 5:18

      I don’t necessarily disagree with you. There are some incredibly talented people at work in the field, but he may simply not be aware of much of it.

    • Lisa Laskin Oct 5, 2014 @ 6:00

      Agree (as a Facebook friend of Kevin’s whose post on this generated NO interesting discussion!). Lord knows I’d recommend Bailyn and Foner and co. to everyone. And McPherson is my first choice for anyone who asks for an intro recommendation to the CW. But this particular response feels like a list that could have been generated 20 years ago. I think being “not aware” is a little too forgiving, especially as you point out that he is still active in his own field. Which is a field that can only be made even better by its engagement with the rest of American history (and McP’s continuing contributions to it).

      • Kevin Levin Oct 5, 2014 @ 6:33

        Hi Lisa,

        I think being “not aware” is a little too forgiving, especially as you point out that he is still active in his own field.

        Perhaps, but not by much. Like I said, McPherson is active, but he is active in an area of Civil War history that has become more and more marginalized within the broader field of academic Civil War history. I think this is unfortunate for a number of reasons. Perhaps McPherson doesn’t see much of current scholarship that is relevant to the kind of Civil War history that he is still writing.

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