Megan Kate Nelson’s new post at Historista is sure to keep the controversy surrounding James McPherson’s recent New York Times “best of” list alive. There are two issues discussed in her post that I think are best kept separate even though there is some overlap. First, Megan highlights the extent to which academia remains an “old boys club”. At the same time she expresses some frustration regarding the unwillingness of her fellow historian to generate a new list that highlights a wider swath of talent.
I do not live or work in the world of academia and for that reason I am not qualified to comment on those factors that help to maintain a hierarchy defined by race and gender. What I find interesting is Megan’s commentary about the need for a new list, which I wholeheartedly applaud. I suspect that the resistance from her friends to name names stems from a couple of things. Most importantly, such a list on a Facebook thread would only serve to alienate certain people and lead to some awkward moments at the next conference. But even if various lists were offered, it wouldn’t mean much given that the audience extends no further than the historians who have taken an interest in the controversy. The problem with McPherson’s list stems from the fact that it appeared in the New York Times, which has a public audience. The issue is not the list as much as it is the publicity that it received.
If academic historians in the field of Civil War history want to see their “best of” list all they have to do is go to the next meeting of the Society of Civil War Historians or Southern Historical Association. Both of those conferences highlight a fairly healthy spectrum of historians from various backgrounds and if they are not on a panel you can easily find them wandering the book exhibit room. However, if they want to highlight the work of individual historians for a broader public than I suggest that they get to it. This discussion has proceeded as if the NYTs has some kind of monopoly on connecting academic historians with a wider reading public.
I noticed that many of the most vocal critics of McPherson and/or the NYTs do not have much of a social media presence beyond Facebook. That’s absolutely fine. The world of social media certainly isn’t for everyone, but the apparent lack of familiarity with the various ways to connect with a wide readership relates directly to the extent to which McPherson’s NYTs list is even taken seriously. In fact, I don’t believe it has any more influence at this stage than countless other digital mediums employed by individuals and organizations. What I am suggesting is that if you want to highlight the work of the best historians working today than JUST DO IT!
One of the goals that I started this blog with was to bridge the divide between the general public and academic historians. That involved highlighting scholarship that often went unnoticed beyond halls of academe. Since 2007 I’ve ended each year with a “Best Of” list. I would like to think that the historians listed represent a diverse group. More importantly, these lists, as well as other posts on books that I am reading, result in sales. All of my hyperlinks to books go through my Amazon affiliate account, which means that with each sale I get a very small percentage in the form of a credit. Over the past few weeks I’ve sold 23 copies of Ed Baptist’s new book. Here are some figures for past sales: 18 copies of Janney’s, Remembering the Civil War; 26 copies of Kelman’s, A Misplaced Massacre; and even 9 copies of Megan’s Ruin Nation. I even went back a few years and noticed 11 copies sold of Thavolia Glymph’s, Out of the House of Bondage. In short, one way to measure lists like the one published in the NYTs is if they result in new readers.
I agree with Megan that it is high time for a younger generation of historians to assert themselves by highlighting the very best new scholarship and the individuals behind it. It’s not enough to debate McPherson’s preferences or question whether he was the best choice for the NYTs. This rising crop of new scholars will make their mark and change the terms of the game for future generations by thinking anew about how to communicate with one another and the broader public about what they do. Get to it!
P.S. We still don’t have a “best of” list from Megan. 🙂