What’s In a List? I’ll Tell You

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. 🙂

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38 comments… add one
  • Pat Young Oct 13, 2014 @ 13:29

    I have reviewed several of the alternative “McPherson lists”. They seem to adhere to the dichotomies of male/female and white/black (with the exception of Misplaced Massacre). No works on Latinos, Asians, or immigrant history. No recognition of how America became diverse.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 13, 2014 @ 13:48

      Good point, Pat.

    • Al Mackey Oct 17, 2014 @ 13:21

      The lists I’ve seen seem to have some type of diversity as the #1 criterion, particularly in gender. It makes me wonder if those are the best historians writing today or the best [fill in demographic] historians writing today. I think if folks are upset with McPherson’s list, they should blame the question rather than the person answering the question.

  • Wayne W. S. Hsieh Oct 12, 2014 @ 21:45

    For what it’s worth, this is the reply I posted to Jason Phillips’ comment on Nelson’s blog:


    Seriously, I think folks are blowing this all a bit out of proportion, especially since McPherson’s own standing among academic historians strikes me as pretty modest at the moment. Does anyone really think a letter from McPherson would actually help all that much on a current hiring or tenure committee? I never really thought there was much of a “House McPherson”, and surely House Ayers is far more important? Furthermore, folks also seem to forgot the socially powerful position occupied by Drew Faust as President of Harvard. I think Faust has far more social/cultural influence today than McPherson.

    That being said, I think Phillips’ question of 3 influential books (both US and non-US history) to be an interesting one. Excluding the work of my own UVA advisers (Gallagher and Ayers) who I’m obviously too close to as their vassal to assess with complete dispassion (can one be a member of two Houses at once?), I’d list: J. E. Lendon, _Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity_; Isabel Hull, _Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany_; and Drew Faust, _Republic of Suffering_. As for work from outside the discipline (or academia in general), I’d name Sebastian Junger, _War_, the companion book to the documentary film, “Restrepo”.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 13, 2014 @ 5:01

      Hi Wayne,

      Nice to hear from you.

      That being said, I think Phillips’ question of 3 influential books (both US and non-US history) to be an interesting one.

      Sure, but who is this list for? Academic historians make lists like these all the time in the form of syllabi and conference panels. The more important question – at least as it relates to McPherson’s list – is what to recommend to the general public.

      • Wayne W. S. Hsieh Oct 16, 2014 @ 20:48

        Of the three books I listed, only Hull’s is probably “too academic” for a lay reader, due to a pretty theoretical introduction. You already know about Faust’s book, but Lendon also got reviewed in the NY Times and the Daily Telegraph, so it really isn’t a monograph restricted to an academic audience. Lendon’s book is a good example of how military history, frequently associated strictly with non-academic audiences in a pejorative way, actually can bridge the divide.

  • Hugh Lawson Oct 11, 2014 @ 18:11

    Here’s the New York Review of Books archive listing of McPhersons book reviews. It ends doubts whether McPherson has read any books in the last thirty years.

    • Pat Young Oct 12, 2014 @ 1:38

      And in fairness to McPherson, he does say that the last truly great book he read was “Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865” by James Oakes which published only a couple of years ago.

  • Christopher Shelley Oct 11, 2014 @ 10:21

    I’m just glad Kevin brought back the old masthead.

  • Total Oct 10, 2014 @ 4:27

    They didn’t ask him for books that encompass the spectrum of modern Civil War historians. They asked him for a list of good historians to read, right?

    No. They asked him for “best historians writing today.” That’s different.

    • Michael Lynch Oct 10, 2014 @ 6:57

      Well, Foner, Wood, Bailyn, and Fischer are some of the best historians writing today. They still produce excellent stuff. It’s not their fault they’re also mature white guys.

      • Total Oct 11, 2014 @ 6:39

        Sure. But your original point is wrong, and that’s what I was responding to.

        As to the other issue, McPherson can make whatever list he wants to, but when he does it for the New York Times, people are going to scrutinize it. And giving the appearance that 1) you haven’t read a new book in 30 years, and 2) that all the historians you know are from your own generation is going to get noticed and called out.

        • Michael Lynch Oct 11, 2014 @ 8:51

          If a NYT reader thinks McPherson hasn’t read any of the recent literature based on his list, the fault is the reader’s for not knowing who is still writing books. Fischer published a book in 2012. Wood published a book in 2011 and another in 2012. Bailyn published a book in 2012. McCullough published a book in 2011. The historians he cited might be older, but much of their work is recent.

          Why should it be McPherson’s responsibility to name younger historians or historians of a particular demographic? Is it just because he’s James McPherson, being interviewed by the NYT?

          • Total Oct 13, 2014 @ 11:49

            If a NYT reader thinks McPherson hasn’t read any of the recent literature based on his list, the fault is the reader’s for not knowing who is still writing books

            Well, that’s just silly. You mean if the Times gets another piece of news wrong, then it’s the readers fault for not knowing better?

            • Michael Lynch Oct 13, 2014 @ 14:45

              You misunderstand my point. McPherson named historians who are still producing good work. If a NYT reader sees his list and thinks he’s named only historians who are no longer producing, the mistake is the reader’s. McPherson answered the question he was asked. He listed historians who are still productive. Neither he nor the NYT conveyed any misinformation here. If the NYT prints misinformation, thr responsibility is on the NYT; if the NYT prints correct information and some reader misinterprets it as incorrect, the fault is the reader’s.

              • Total Oct 13, 2014 @ 15:57

                You misunderstand my point

                No, I understood it. I just didn’t agree with it. McPherson named historians who were cutting edge a generation ago They are no longer that, whether they are still writing books. I am arguing that McPherson has a responsibility to understand what is current in the field and represent that to the Times.

                John Keegan is still writing books of military history, but citing him does not mean that one is current with what is going on in military history at the moment.

                • Michael Lynch Oct 13, 2014 @ 16:11

                  But as you yourself said above, they asked him for the ” best historians writing today,” not the most cutting edge ones. If you don’t think Wood and Fischer are among the best, then that’s a difference of taste between you and McPherson (and a lot of other people). Wood and Fischer are still writing prize-winning, acclaimed books.

                  • Jimmy Dick Oct 13, 2014 @ 18:37

                    Gordon Wood is still cutting edge. In fact, his work from the 1960s is still some of the best there is on the American Revolution. Two of his books, The Creation of the American Republic and The Radicalism of the American Revolution are just as relevant today as the day they were first printed. His Empire of Liberty is an outstanding Pulitzer Prize finalist from 2011. He is well versed in the subject of the Revolution as is Bernard Bailyn who after winning one Pulitzer Prize for his work (The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution) switched subfields and went into social history where he won another Pulitzer Prize (Voyagers to the West). His latest work, (The Barbarous Years) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize two years ago. Bailyn has also been a major advocate for Atlantic History. These two alone have been so cutting edge for so long that their stuff is required reading for everyone studying the American Revolution.

                  • Total Oct 14, 2014 @ 6:10

                    But as you yourself said above, they asked him for the ” best historians writing today,” not the most cutting edge ones.

                    Even if I thought there was a substantial difference between the two things, that would still be a silly remark. The Timescan ask whatever it wants; I’m arguing that McPherson has a responsibility as a senior historian to represent the current state of the field broadly and with historians who are pushing the field forward in a range of ways. He didn’t do that.

                    • Jimmy Dick Oct 14, 2014 @ 8:51

                      I’m sure that’s in the handbook of Senior Historian. Probably right under Things to Always say in a Press Conference.

                    • Michael Lynch Oct 14, 2014 @ 11:31

                      So McPherson, as a senior historian, should avoid answering a direct question about who he thinks are the best historians writing today, and instead reply with a list of names that constitutes some sort of cross-section of working historians or younger historians or historians who reflect the latest historiographical trends. At what point does a historian become so eminent that he loses his right to express an opinion about who is doing the best work?

                • Al Mackey Oct 17, 2014 @ 13:17

                  “John Keegan is still writing books of military history”

                  That’s a real feat, considering he’s been dead for over two years.

                  The question was who are the best historians writing today, not who are the most cutting-edge historians, who has the most interesting take on a certain aspect, or who are some excellent young historians. Who is better than the historians he listed? Not just who is also good, but who is better?

                  I frankly think the criticism of McPherson is unfounded. Is he supposed to leave a better historian off the list in favor of another historian who may still be good but not as good as the one left off the list simply to have some diversity in his list? Just because a historian didn’t make the list he named doesn’t mean he doesn’t think they’re not doing good work.

          • Total Oct 13, 2014 @ 11:50

            Why should it be McPherson’s responsibility to name younger historians or historians of a particular demographic?

            It should be any historians responsibility to be up to date on their field, and if asked, provide up to date recommendations. That’s especially true if you’re representing the field in the NY Times.

            • Michael Lynch Oct 13, 2014 @ 14:39

              But, as I’ve pointed out above, the historians he named are still writing books. Their work is current, even though the authors writing it have quite a few years on them.

              • Total Oct 13, 2014 @ 15:53

                the historians he named are still writing books

                Is writing books the only requirement for being up to date on the field, or being cited that way?

                • Michael Lynch Oct 13, 2014 @ 16:14

                  I don’t understand the question. The NYT asked him for the best historians writing today, and he named some historians who are still writing acclaimed and significant books. That’s all I meant.

                  • Total Oct 14, 2014 @ 6:02

                    I don’t understand the question

                    Yes, I know.

                    • Michael Lynch Oct 14, 2014 @ 11:43

                      Geez, take it easy. I’m just asking you to clarify this question: “Is writing books the only requirement for being up to date on the field, or being cited that way?”

                      If you’re asking whether I think publishing a book is the only criterion for being considered an “up-to-date” historian, the answer is no. But if somebody asks a scholar to name the historians writing the best books nowadays, and the scholar responds by naming historians who are still writing really good books, then I don’t really see any issue. If the NYT had asked him to name the most promising young historians working right now, or the historians who are shifting the field in the most unexpected directions, then it would’ve been a bad answer.

                      If you don’t like the recent work Wood and Fischer have been doing, that’s fine. But the NYT wanted McPherson’s opinion, and he gave it to them. When the NYT asks you who’s writing the best history books, you can give them whatever list you want.

  • Brad Oct 9, 2014 @ 12:47

    I think this whole list thing is amusing in one respect — this list, that list — but I do see her point. As you said, it’s not so much about the list but who gets their name in the papers and that comes from, in my opinion, a reputation developed over years. If it wasn’t for Battle Hymn, would the public have heard of him?

    I suppose it’s a question of getting your name out there and I don’t think that happens overnight. I think the public has heard of Drew Faust, for example.

  • Rob Wick Oct 9, 2014 @ 10:01

    Fair enough, but I disagree. As I pointed out in another post, if the list had appeared in a historical journal, it might be more like internecine war, but part of the issue is the prominence of where the list appeared and the number of people who, supposedly, are missing out on otherwise valid scholarship because the names of those who wrote that missing work are somehow tamped down by the old boys in charge. It may be a smaller aspect of the popular v. academic discussion, but it is still a part of that debate.


    • Kevin Levin Oct 9, 2014 @ 10:03

      That was a good point, but the criticisms have not been about whether those included are academics, but whether they properly represent the field itself.

      • Michael Lynch Oct 9, 2014 @ 19:27

        I don’t think it’s fair to blame him for giving the paper a list that doesn’t represent the field. They didn’t ask him for books that encompass the spectrum of modern Civil War historians. They asked him for a list of good historians to read, right?

        And, to be fair to McPherson, the names on his list are darn good authors for the educated public to be reading. Gordon Wood, Eric Foner, Bernard Bailyn, and David Hackett Fischer are all brilliant scholars and engaging writers, and they’re still producing outstanding work.

        If somebody asked me to recommend five historians to be reading, my list would probably include some of the same names–not because I’m partial to mature white male historians, but because their work is superb.

  • Rob Wick Oct 9, 2014 @ 8:58

    As much as I hate to say it, I think this is an “East is east, west is west” kind of thing. The divide between academe and popular history and historians is far too broad to ever be broached. Both sides are promoting different results. Academic historians feel protective of the past and want to make sure only their methodology is employed in its interpretation. The reader seems almost secondary to the method. Popular historians (at least the good ones) want solid interpretation but the reader remains first. They believe that without someone to read (and buy) their book, the effort and cost they put into writing it has been wasted, and their next project won’t likely be picked up by a commercial publishing house.

    I wonder, too, what will replace the “old boys club?” Will it be an “old girls club” or whatever constituency feels underrepresented on a highly subjective list? Is the desired outcome simply a transfer of power; a zero-sum game where one side has to lose for the other side to win? Or is it a neutral field where whatever is considered the cream will rise to the top. If that is the case, what will determine what rises and what falls? Is it quality? How do you judge that? Is it sales? Bill O’Reilly has written tons of dreck disguised as history that has made him more of a multi-millionaire but only his acolytes would defend it as real history. Will there be a review panel which judges work?

    Like you, I don’t work in academia. However, I see what goes out of our bookstore every day. People who buy books generally don’t give a damn about the esoteric questions surrounding historical methodology or scholarship. They want to be entertained and if they end up being informed, so much the better. There’s a reason the old white guys sell more books or make lists like this. They have tapped into the only measure that seems to matter to a capitalist society. They have found a formula that makes their work sell and returns the investment the publisher put into it. This is nothing new. It’s why Carl Sandburg sold 48,000 sets of “Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years” in its first year of publication and James G. Randall sold 332 copies of “Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln” in two years. Most scholars would have put Randall’s book over Sandburg’s, yet the public didn’t.

    Your point about what academics can do to bring their work to a wider audience is well-taken. I just don’t see it ever happening. Much of the continuation of the “old boys club” is because no one is offering a viable alternative.


    • Kevin Levin Oct 9, 2014 @ 9:43

      Thanks for the comment, but I don’t see this as another chapter in the academic v. popular history debate.

  • Pat Young Oct 9, 2014 @ 5:23

    So, James McPherson published an old man list of books and authors that ignored any work done in the last quarter century. He is a white guy living in a white guy world. When he speaks to a “popular audience” at Civil War conferences, most of his fellow speakers and most of the audiences are white men over the age of 45. They engage him in conversations that are highly individuated in the discussion of white men like Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, that occasionally refer to non-whites in their roles as undifferentiated collectivities (“slaves”, USCT), and that discuss women almost entirely in their relationship to the men they had sex with (“Mary Lincoln”, “Varina Davis”).

    I would certainly agree that the readers who would take McPherson’s list as a guide would conform to that demographic.

    I often wonder, as someone outside academia who does a lot of organizing and media in immigrant communities, what the outreach is by younger non-white and women scholars of the Civil War do to reach out to new audiences. Instead of trying to convince the same white older men of the importance of their work, what are the strategies being employed to develop followings among Asian, Latino, and African American audiences? I often hear of efforts at “inclusivity” but I wonder how these strategies work in cooperation with communities of color as opposed to being focused on the mostly white academic community.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 9, 2014 @ 5:28

      Thanks for the comment, Pat.

      Instead of trying to convince the same white older men of the importance of their work, what are the strategies being employed to develop followings among Asian, Latino, and African American audiences? I often hear of efforts at “inclusivity” but I wonder how these strategies work in cooperation with communities of color as opposed to being focused on the mostly white academic community.

      I see a lot of action by scholars who fall into these categories on Twitter and other platforms. In other words, I think the conversation about McPherson has largely ignored what I see as gradual structural changes that will eventually bring about substantive change. Of course, I am an outsider looking in. All I can suggest is that if you perceive a lack of balance out there than take advantage of those tools that are available and do something about it. Let’s stop talking about it.

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