I finally got around to reading Dimitri’s recent post on 2006 Civil War sales; unfortunately, I have to say that I don’t understand a word of it. Most of the links are of absolutely useless to understanding specific claims. I failed miserably in trying to navigate the Ingram site which is where Dimitri seems to have found the relevant slaes figures What exactly does it mean to say that “the sales debut of ‘new thinking’ titles is soft”? What books fall into this category? Do they straddle popular as opposed to academic publishing houses? According to Dimitri, “New Lincoln books were a washout,” including D. K. Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals which sold “especially poorly.” I am willing to admit to not understanding the publishing world, but if I remember correctly this book was on the NYT’s bestseller list for weeks. Is that fact not based somehow on sales? We also learn that the “springtime” of Grant books has passed and that it will be a long time before we see another study from a major publishing house. I am sure Dimitri was pleased to learn that McPherson’s Battle Cry “continues steady state with altogether insignificant sales variation year on year.” He goes on to speculate that sales of the book can be explained in large part by their use in college courses. William C. Davis and Gary Gallagher should be happy to learn that their recent releases are “suffering normal sales decay rates on modest debuts across a wide number of titles.” Savas Beatie, on the other hand, is doing just fine.
My biggest problem is that Dimitri’s “observations” seem to be based on some fact of the matter as to what counts as normal or positive sales figures. Perhaps there is some kind of standard, but none is provided in this post. Exactly what are these conclusions regarding specific titles and authors being compared with? How exactly are sales measured and how does this translate into an analysis of “success”?I don’t know how to even begin to make sense of any of this.
Finally, isn’t it interesting that Dimitri’s “observations” fall into line with his sometimes irrational disdain for the authors mentioned. Coincidence?
A couple of readers have shared their thoughts on recent reports that officials at the MOC are considering a move to Lexington. It’s impossible to infer anything from the comments of a few people, but I assume that there is a sizable population out there that would like to see the museum move out of Richmond. Let me say that I agree with those people who argue that the city of Lexington would make an ideal home for the museum as it would enjoy easy access off of Rt. 81 and would compliment the other attractions in the area. That is not the issue for me.
I believe that museums are not simply repositories of the past but serve the interests of the communities in which they are located. Their overall responsibility is to preserve the past in a way that allows local communities and visitors to better understand the causal relationship between the present and the past. In short, museums serve to provide a context in which those interested can better understand the way in which current debates often connect with issues or problems long gone. There is no better example of this than the Civil War. We are still dealing with its aftermath and unresolved problems on so many different levels and given its current expansion Richmond is an ideal place to come to terms with the history of the South and the changes that it has gone through over the past few decades. Those changes have raised issues that link to its Civil War past including the display of the Confederate flag and the numerous challenges to the make-up of its public spaces.
The MOC has a vital role to play in providing the space to discuss these and other issues in a meaningful way. It can do this by sharing a sophisticated history of the South and the Confederacy in a place that has been and will continue to be engaged in an emotional debate over the memory of the war and the tough issues of race. And as I pointed out the other day the fact that the museum does not pander to a narrow Lost Cause interpretation is absolutely essential to bringing interested parties together. In my review of the new Civil War museum at Tredegar I mentioned how impressed I was with the structure of the exhibit, including the final section which explored the various legacies of the war. It’s as wonderful space in which I can easily imagine being used in a number of ways to educate the local community. The MOC needs that kind of space.
Everyone is aware of the declining number of visitors to the museum in recent years, but few people have commented on the number of African-American visitors. I don’t have any numbers available, but I would guess (and I suspect that this is true for most Civil War sites) that few black Americans visit in large part because they don’t identify with the issues. How is it that an event that not only ended slavery, but also involved the recruitment of roughly 200,000 black Americans into the Union army does not figure into the collective memory of this nation’s African-American population? Well, those of you who read this blog know the answer to that question. Moving the museum to Lexington will make it more difficult to address the tough questions of the Civil War. It will also place the museum in a location that caters more to those who are tied to heroic images of Lee and Jackson and other Lost Cause themes.
Museums help those in local communities and beyond make sense of time and space. One of the comments to the last post mentioned that “Richmond has grown, by leaps and bounds, into a very ugly and inaccessible city.” We can debate the specifics of this reader’s assessment, but I continue to believe that the MOC can help us to better understand this change in all of its forms.
Today I learned that I am going to be honored by the Gettysburg Foundation. As you can imagine this comes as a great surprise, especially given my stance on the recent debate between the preservationists and the casino. I guess the board was willing to look beyond this. The news arrived through the mail. The envelope reads as follows: "You have been nominated to be honored at the opening of the world-class Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum. Please reply YES or NO in the next 7 days." I’ve been the recipient of a few honors and awards for my scholarship, but his really takes the cake. I still need to make a difficult decision involving how much money I will send the Gettysburg Foundation to verify my nomination. I can send $32 and receive a reproduction of the Gettysburg Address or $63 and receive a DVD of the movie Gettysburg along with the framed reproduction of the Address. I can also decline the offer by checking the box which states: "NO, I reject this nomination and don’t wish to help pass patriotic values to the next generation." How could anyone nominated for such an important occasion even think about accepting this honor?
The verification of my nomination will include having my name "added and preserved for all time on the GETTYSBURG FOUNDING MEMBERS HONOR ROLL, displayed at the new Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center."
They didn’t mention this in my letter, but I assume that I am going to have to prepare a few short appropriate remarks for the ceremony.
I find it almost impossible to believe that officials at Richmond’s Museum of the Confederacy are considering a move to Lexington in the Shenandoah Valley. Most of you are no doubt familiar with the MOC’s financial problems and the drop in the number of visitors owing to the expansion of the VCU Hospital. Apart from considerations of moving the museum across town and maintaining the present location of the White House of the Confederacy this is the first I’ve heard about moving shop across state.
Now before I offend the good citizens of Lexington let me say that I think their city is a wonderful place to visit and their Civil War history is clearly a rich one. That said, I don’t see any future for the MOC in Lexington – might as well place the museum on Mars. Yes, Lee and Jackson are both buried there, but barring the possibility of the two being resurrected to greet the supposed throngs of visitors I don’t see how their burial locations along with the history of the two schools can lay claim to being a sufficient reason for a move. Do museum officials really believe that a move to the Shenandoah Valley is somehow going to attract larger numbers of visitors. I just don’t see it. In the end, you can’t ignore the simple fact that Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy, and the museum itself has a deep connection with the city. The city is ringed with battlefield parks and is within close driving distance to Petersburg, Fredericksburg, and points east in the tidewater area.
The museum clearly needs to find a new location in Richmond because as I see it its purpose is most clearly defined in the city. The MOC’s biggest problem is its image and it starts with the name itself. My guess is that the city’s failure to fund the museum sufficiently has everything to do with this image and the larger cultural debates surrounding the Confederacy. The tragedy of it all is that this museum does not pander to a narrow Lost Cause view of the war. They have some very talented people working there who have put together excellent exhibits that touch on a wide range of issues including women’s roles and race. While I suggested at one point that the museum should consider a name change, I am convinced that the larger problems would persist regardless. Perhaps the museum needs to demonstrate its worth more clearly to city officials and other interested parties in the form of outreach to schools etc. The museum could be a wonderful venue where understanding of the Confederacy and the South is explored in ways that could prove helpful for an expanding and diverse city. In short I don’t see this museum as a place where we get to engage in an overly simplistic form of heritage celebration; it is a place to visit where one can learn and be challenged.
It’s 2:30am here in Charlottesville, I am awake and dealing with some back pain and a cold. I went around the horn and reread the posts dealing with this silly little distinction and had a few additional thoughts that I thought I might share. The one piece of the puzzle that seems to be missing is the extent to which this distinction serves to reinforce assumptions about the motivations of the individual "historian." I recently changed the subheading of my blog back to "Reflections of a High School History Teacher" so that my readers would understand that I am not an academic/college professor. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but many of the comments on my blog are premised on the assumption that because I research topics that fall into categories that are more closely aligned with academic interests and publish in places that are identified with college professors that I must be one myself. It’s even worse for someone who specializes in the history of the South and the Confederacy. I am automatically stuck with labels that connect me with the Ivory Tower not because of where I work, but because of the questions I ask.
A few people have pointed to the supposed "snubs" that have been leveled in their direction by academics, but my experience suggests that the overwhelming bias (bordering often on paranoia) comes from those who rush to politicize what some historians do. Part of my problem – which I assume is unique – is that while I identify myself as an amateur I don’t have much in common with what we would probably describe as the interests of the amateur historian. I assume we can all agree that most "amateur historians" are interested in strictly military aspects of the Civil War while "academic historians" tend to focus on questions about economics, politics, culture, and to the extent that the battlefield fits in it does so in a way that connects with one of these categories. Of course I am stretching things a bit here, but just to make a point.
In a way I envy historians like Eric and J.D as they don’t have to worry about being described as a revisionist or neo-liberal historian or even worse. They are not accused of trying to "tear down" the heritage of this country or "tarnish the good names" of historical figures. Only in Civil War circles can the idea of revision come to mean something negative as if I wake up in the morning with a personal vendetta as opposed to a curiosity that drives me to challenge and better my understanding of the past. There is a strong streak of anti-intellectualism in Civil War circles which I suspect has little to do with historical interests and everything to do with politics. No need to address that issue here. The defensiveness and/or insecurity of some of my readers is disturbing to say the least. I suspect that most – if not all – have never read a single word of my published work; and why would they have to if they start off on the assumption that I am an "academic" who is bent on tearing down everything that is good and sacred.
I don’t know if any of this makes sense, but it’s time to go back to bed.