Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg Know Who Owns History

Update: Perhaps Burstein and Isenberg should be more concerned about one of their own.

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg believe that news of Fareed Zakaria’s recent admission that he lifted part of a recent op-ed on gun control from one written by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker is evidence that journalists should not write history.  This confused and downright nasty rant tells us almost nothing about the quality of history books written by journalists, though I would venture to suggest that it tells us a great deal about where they stand on who owns the past:

Frankly, we in the history business wish we could take out a restraining order on the big-budget popularizers of history (many of them trained in journalism) who pontificate with great flair and happily take credit over the airwaves for possessing great insight into the past. Journalists are good at journalism – we wouldn’t suggest sending off historians to be foreign correspondents. But journalists aren’t equipped to make sense of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

First, who exactly are Burstein and Isenberg speaking for from within the history profession?  One gets the impression that the authors are not so much upset with the fact that journalists write history, but that some are successful and in a few cases have become popular public figures.  Even more disturbing is that the authors fail to muster anything approaching an argument that the majority of popular history books written by journalists are flawed.  Just because they do not result from the same process that a dissertation goes through does not necessarily warrant such a dismissive and condescending attitude.

Their trump card, of course, is the recent troubles of Doris Kearns Goodwin, which we all know about. Interestingly, the authors cite Peter Charles Hoffer’s Past Imperfect, but conveniently fail to mention Michael Bellesiles – an academic who manufactured evidence for his history of guns in America.  No, instead of that they go after David McCullough, not because he plagiarized anything, but because he is popular:

Second best, actually. The beloved David McCullough, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is routinely enshrined as “a national treasure” and “America’s greatest living historian.” But nothing he writes is given real credibility by any careful historian because history is grounded in evidence, and McCullough isn’t familiar with more than a smattering of the secondary literature on most subjects he tackles. He hires a younger researcher (the Goodwin method) to read for him and tell him what’s important. If he doesn’t read in depth the books and articles he lists in his very thorough bibliography, which someone else presumably compiled, how honest is he being with the reader?

What makes him a historian? It’s his avuncular personality, not any mastery of the sources.

Though more than a million copies of his book “John Adams” sold, even more Americans were influenced by the HBO series of the same name, which was marketed as if based on the book. In reality, not only was the history grossly distorted, many of the scenes were stolen from “The Adams Chronicles,” which appeared on PBS in the 1970s. There are far better books on Adams than McCullough’s, but they haven’t been hyped. There’s no money in it. History is hard to sell if it’s complicated.

This is so incredibly bitter.  I guess in the worlds of Burstein and Isenberg, Gordon Wood doesn’t count as a “careful historian.”  Here is what Wood said about McCullough and the book:

Unlike Tuchman, who feuded with university professors of history, McCullough has the respect of academic historians, maybe because he respects them. McCullough actually attends historical conferences and sits patiently listening to long specialized papers. Anyone who does that, and doesn’t have to, deserves respect.

So well known is McCullough that any book he now writes becomes an expectant event. Learning that McCullough was working on a biography of John Adams, readers of popular history and professional historians alike have eagerly awaited its publication. They will not be disappointed. This big but extremely readable book is by far the best biography of Adams ever written.

I think Burstein and Isenberg owe McCullough and apology.  And what exactly is wrong with hiring an assistant, who can help to sort through the immense amount of documents that come with any major project?  The last time I checked university professors use graduate students as assistants in pretty much the same way.

Throughout the essay the authors blur the distinction between popularity, plagiarism, and the difficulty of writing analytical history to the point where it’s not even clear to the reader what they are so upset about.  What is clear is that they believe the only people who should write history are historians with a PhD.  They close with the following:

The trend will no doubt continue. The public seems to like what is most easily digestible, especially if it comes from the word processor of someone congenial whom they regularly see on TV. And publishers know they can successfully market a book from a household name, no matter how derivative its content. Name recognition trumps quality. Appearance is everything.

You know, once in a while those charges of elitism directed at academics holds and here is a wonderful example.  They seem to have no grasp as to what the general public wants in a good history book.  I suspect that most people who read a lot of history are looking for good stories that help to make sense of the world around them and give meaning to their lives.

The real problem here is that both Burstein and Isenberg want to be high-profile historians.  Just check out their personal websites.

I could go on and on about this article, but I want to get back to a really good biography of Andrew Jackson by Jon Meacham.

Union and Civil War Memory

Today Brooks Simpson is asking his readers for their understanding of why white northerners resisted secession and disunion in 1861.  It’s a good question and one that is rarely discussed or taken seriously.  I’ve learned a great deal from reading Russell McClintock’s Lincoln and the Decision for War: The Northern Response to Secession.

Brooks’s question is a good one, but I think we can extend it south of the Mason-Dixon Line as well.  Paul Quigley does a brilliant job in his new book of analyzing how white southerners negotiated their own deep ties to union during this period, including those who remained loyal and those who came to identify closely with the Confederacy.

My question is a slightly different one.  Why do we find it so difficult to appreciate the concept of union for millions of Americans (north and south) in 1861?  It’s also challenging to teach it and as I contemplate my own return to the classroom in a few weeks I look forward to the opportunity to take another crack at it.  In the meantime here is a lecture by Gary Gallagher in which he explores some of these questions based on his latest book, The Union War.

Did Massachusetts Participate in the Civil War?

Of course, it’s a silly question, but I do have a point.  Last week an AP story on the challenges of commemorating the Civil War in Mississippi was picked up by news organizations across the country.  No one will deny that there are plenty of landmines to negotiate, but I am impressed by what is taking place.  Mississippians are exploring their past.

More to the point, the “angst-filled” state of Mississippi is doing a hell of a lot more than my new home of Massachusetts, which just recently established a Civil War sesquicentennial commission.  Other than the website, however, there is no activity to report.  This is unfortunate since we are approaching a crucial time in our sesquicentennial remembrance in which Massachusetts played a key role.  Surely the state can find the resources to organize some type of event to mark the raising of the first black soldiers as well as other key moments in the state’s Civil War past.

As someone new to the state I certainly understand the place of the Revolution in our popular imagination, but there is plenty to learn and to commemorate from that Second American Revolution.

300 Comments and Not a Word to Read

I love writing for the Atlantic, but I have learned to hate the comments section.  My last post on changing attitudes surrounding the public display of the Confederate flag is now pushing 300 comments, but I would venture that 98% of them are worthless.  It should come as no surprise that the post has been co-opted by a few select voices, who clearly have way too much time on their hands.  One woman apparently spent a sleepless night and the better part of a day writing and monitoring the post.  The level of vitriol and pettiness now being expressed is quite impressive and I have no doubt that they will get at least another 100 comments out of it. I did my best to respond to the few comments that actually touched on points in the post, but they are now lost in a sea of narcissism.  The comments thread is a perfect example of why I moderate discussion here.

The comments included the standard litany of accusations that I am anti-Southern/Confederate and that I am part of a broader conspiracy that wants to remove all reminders of the Confederacy, including the flag.  This is silly.  In fact, the post in question was an attempt to challenge the standard narrative that paints Southerners as one-dimensional and makes a few descriptive claims that may or may not be true.

  • Southerners (white and black) do not speak with one voice on what is acceptable surrounding the display of the Confederate flag.
  • A growing number of Southerners (white and black) acknowledge the complex history of the flag from its use as a battle flag to its role in the resistance to desegregation.
  • Over the past few years the flag’s visibility on high-profile public and private sites has waned.
  • Organizations that have challenged the removal or absence of the flag from such places have met with little success.

Those are four descriptive claims that, like I said above, may or may not be accurate.

I do believe that the visibility of the Confederate flag will continue to suffer owing, in part, to the people who claim to be its staunchest defenders.  This all or nothing attitude is simply not a workable strategy if the points I made above are accurate.  Despite what my detractors say, I do not want to see the Confederate flag completely removed from our historical landscapes because it is part of our history.  It has an important story to tell.  The only question remaining is whether moderate voices will emerge from various constituencies to lead a discussion about what is and is not acceptable.

What is clear is that the status quo is untenable and even the most creative insults that you can hurl in my direction is not going to change that.

Our Obsession With the Confederate Flag

My editor at the Atlantic asked me to revise a recent post on the DNC and the Confederate flag.  You can read it below or at the Atlantic.  I have no doubt that it will raise the usual cries of South/Confederate heritage bashing from the usual suspects.  What I find funny is that the posts I’ve written for the Atlantic that could be construed as Union bashing or whatever the equivalent is this side of the Mason-Dixon Line rarely receive any kind of condemnation.  Funny how that works.  Click here for the rest of the my Atlantic columns.

Next month’s Democratic National Convention and the nomination of the nation’s first black president for a second term in the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, will provide an ideal backdrop for those looking to assess the region’s progress on the racial front. At front and center for many sits the Confederate flag.

Reports are likely to resemble this recent article from The Charlotte Observer, written by Elizabeth Leland, who believes that “remnants of the Old South linger in our region — and none as divisive as the Confederate flag.” Such articles follow a well-worn pattern that includes interviews with one or two white southern men who fly the flag on their property or pickup truck and believe it represents “heritage, not hate.” (As an auto mechanic quoted in Leland’s story puts it, “I’ve lived here since I was a little rascal and my daddy always had an American flag and a Confederate flag, and I do, too.”)

Click to continue

She’s Back

I haven’t commented on what Brooks Simpson refers to as “the gift that keeps on giving” in some time, but news that Ann DeWitt is once again posting is too good to pass up.  You know Ms. DeWitt as the person who discovered an entire regiment of black Confederate cooks and the owner of one of the most confused websites on this subject.  She is now posting under the name “Little Rebel” and it looks like Ms. DeWitt’s “research” interests have led her to a subject near and dear to my heart.

Yes, we all can’t wait for the next big discovery.  In the eight years that I’ve spent with Mahone’s men I have never come across a reference to anything other than body servants and impressed slaves.  This is not to say that Confederates under Mahone’s command did not have black soldiers on their minds.  They wrote a great deal about an entire division of black soldiers, who took part in the battle of the Crater and they wrote openly and approvingly about their massacre.  In all the letters, diaries, and postwar accounts penned by Confederates who were there not one mentioned their own loyal black soldiers.

Spend enough time with what Confederate soldiers actually wrote and you will have some idea of why the Confederacy struggled with the question of the enlistment of blacks.

Why Petersburg’s South Side Depot Matters

I couldn’t be more pleased to hear that we are one step closer to seeing Petersburg’s South Side Depot renovated and utilized by the National Park Service as a welcome center and as a site to interpret the city’s rich Civil War history and beyond.  It’s nice to see the involvement of the Civil War Trust as well.  While I fully support their focus on battlefields it is essential that they involve themselves in the preservation of endangered sites beyond the battlefield that can only enhance the public’s understanding of the war.  In the case of Petersburg the battlefield was the city itself.

As someone who has thought a great deal about the challenges of interpreting the city’s Civil War history the addition of this site downtown will assist the NPS in their continued effort to reach out to the local population, especially African Americans.  I explore some of these more recent challenges in the final chapter of my new book on the battle of the Crater and historical memory.

Many local blacks that I interviewed during the course of my research never learned about or even visited the local battlefields, including the Crater.  One gentleman shared that while growing up he believed the site of the Crater was off limits to blacks.  Others simply believed that the NPS’s mission was to interpret and protect and interpretation that appealed to whites only.  As recent as the 1970s black students at Petersburg State University believed that the primary function of the NPS to be the “maintaining or glorifying the image of the Confederacy.”  The upshot is a history of mistrust that the NPS has worked hard to overcome since this time.

A comment by NPS Superintendent Lewis Rogers echoes these concerns:

I’m African-American. When I grew up, I didn’t think there was anything in the Civil War for me. I learned there were African-Americans who fought in the Civil War, and Native Americans who fought in the Civil War, both of which fought at Petersburg.  We want to reach out to the urban population … and to become more a part of fabric of the community. We have four sites, but most are out in more rural areas. … We want the opportunity to be right in town and be part of the fabric of the community. We hope it will also help stimulate the economy.

An NPS presence downtown will build on the addition of walking tours that have proven to be very successful and popular among locals.  The Depot itself will take this one step further by applying the necessary assets to interpret not only the battles, but the postwar period as well.  William Mahone used the Depot as an office during part of this period, which opens up a number of avenues to discuss his involvement in the railroads as well as the racial politics of the Readjuster Party during the 1880s.

All in all this is really good news for Petersburg and I can’t wait to see what they do with the place.