Clarification: I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that academic presses do not publish for the general public. That should have been clarified below. As many of you know the University of North Carolina is publishing my forthcoming book on the myth of the black Confederate soldier.
Earlier today I came across a posted a short clip from a recent conversation with historians Gordon Wood and Joseph Ellis. I have read my share of books by Wood and Ellis and have learned and profited from both. This is largely what makes this brief clip so painful to watch.
Both Ellis and Wood make a number of questionable claims about the state of the history profession. They clearly have a problem with the recent turn toward social, cultural, and gender history, not because the interpretations themselves are flawed, but because they believe it has come to overshadow a more “positive” or traditional narrative of America’s founding. As a result, they argue that students entering college now and American generally know less about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers than previous generations. Of course, there is no evidence to substantiate these claims.
Unfortunately, they follow this up by pushing the popular meme that academic historians have abandoned the general public. Wood longs for the days when Richard Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward, Oscar Handlin, and Daniel Boorstin (all men) “wrote for two audiences simultaneously.” The notion that academic historians no longer write for the general public is absolute nonsense. To perpetuate this is incredibly irresponsible.
David Blight is getting set to publish a major biography of Frederick Douglass with Simon & Schuster. I am in the middle of reading Steven J. Ross’s Hitler in Los Angeles, which was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize. We are living in a golden age of history books written by academics for a wide audience.
As I write this I am looking at a shelf that contains recent titles by Jane Kamensky, Alan Taylor, T. H. Breen, Jill Lepore, Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter Onuf, William J. Cooper, Pamela Haag, Eric Rauchway, Heather Ann Thompson, Nicholas Stargardt, Jacqueline Jones, Gordon Wood, and Bryant Simon. All of these people are academic historians who have recently published books with non-academic presses.
Others are going to be much harder on Wood and Ellis. That’s fine. Both helped to spark my interest in history back in the early 1990s. Ellis’s American Sphinx is still one of my favorite biographies and Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution focused me on issues and questions that I never before thought about.
I am disappointed that neither Ellis nor Wood has taken the time to do a more thorough review of the field that they helped to popularize and beyond. There is an incredible amount of high quality history being written by their colleagues. Instead, Ellis and Wood have manifested into the tired cliche of the disgruntled elderly man railing against a world that has passed him by.