William M.E. Rachal Award

Cimg0032_5Yesterday my wife and I spent part of the afternoon in Richmond at the Virginia Historical Society.  We attended the Annual Meeting where I was presented the William M.E. Rachal award for best overall article in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 2005.  A number of people were honored, including a high school student for excellence in research, a teacher from Northern Virginia, and various employees and volunteers at the historical society. 

My award was presented by John R. Pagan who serves on the editorial advisory board for the journal.  I greatly appreciate his kind words about my article.  Apparently he thoroughly enjoyed the piece.  This was a very important day for me.  When I started writing about the Civil War more seriously about 5 years ago I set my sights on publishing something in a respected history journal.  I actually remember thinking to myself that if I could get something in the VMHB than I will know that I am on the right track.  Winning this award is basically icing on the cake. 

I was particularly impressed with the presentation made by the President of the VHS, Charles F. Bryan, who touched on the importance and role of the organization  According to Bryan, one of the more important freedoms that we enjoy in this country is the freedom to think and write about the past.  It sounds simple, but I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it in these terms.  He mentioned the Taliban’s attempt to destroy the history contained in various archives throughout Afghanistan and the destruction of Buddhist Temples.  We have the ability in this country to "learn the lessons of history freely and without censorship."  The moral component expressed here is so important to me.  I often think of this in the context of my work on Civil War memory.  We are free to study the past without censorship, but unfortunately we often do for any number of reasons.  Perhaps my work falls into a second-order idea of a freedom to think about the past.  On a more practical level, Bryan shared a remarkable statistic on the connection between history and democracy.  There are over 15,000 historical societies throughout this country – more than any other nation. 

Following the meeting we made our way over to the Virginia House for a reception.  There were over 700 people in attendance and by the look and sound of things represented Richmond’s "High Society."  Needless to say I felt like a fish out of water, but I still had a good time.  All in all it was a great day.

Photograph: The photograph is of Paul Levengood who is the Managing editor of the journal in the center and Nelson Lankford who is the Chief Editor on the right.  I am obviously the one on the left.


Levin on McPherson and Rotov

Here are a few older posts which track my comments on both James McPherson and Dimitri Rotov.  Perhaps they will serve to place my most recent post in broader context.   

A Response to Dimtri Rotov – Part 1: November 8, 2005

As I stated in my opening message, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed browsing on a daily basis the blog maintained by Dimitri Rotov. He represents the kind of reader that I easily relate to. We are Civil War enthusiasts who demand intelligent history that continually challenges our central assumptions surrounding the war. Anyone familiar with Dimitri’s site knows that he is especially concerned about our tendency to interpret Gen. George B. McClellan from a naieve and simplistic perspective which ignores the historical context in which he operated. I’ve read most of Ethan Rafuse’s recent study of the general, called McClellan’s War (Indiana University Press, 2005). Rafuse emphasizes "Little Mac’s" Whig background and how that perspective shaped his thinking re: grand strategy. I do not want to get into a debate about whether Mac has been unfairly treated.

I am much more interested in Rotov’s obsession with historians James McPherson, Gary Gallagher, and Stephen Sears, who he claims continue to push a centennial style view of the war. I think this is unfair and looses sight of the way both McPherson and Gallagher have challenged specific assumptions of the war. Both McPherson and Gallagher have emphasized and led the way in encouraging students of the war not to overlook the myriad ways in which the battlefield was connected to the home front. Both historians have also emphasized the importance of slavery and emancipation as both central to understanding the cause of the war and the evolution of the war itself. The emphasis on social history is clearly a positive step; I believe that social histories of the war are by far the most interesting contributions in the last few years. Exactly how many studies of the second day of Gettysburg do we need? Gallagher has challenged the long-standing assumption that Confederate defeat was inevitable. This of course is a central assumption in the Lost Cause interpretation of the war. I can still hear Shelby Foote in his southern drawl argue that the "North fought that war with one hand tied behind its back." He has also encouraged students of the war to acknowledge the ways in which ex-Confederates shaped the earliest histories of the war to serve their own political and perhaps psychological needs.

My point for now is that Rotov goes to far in his criticisms of these historians. I would urge him to be a bit more inclusive given his interest in Civil War historiography.

Another Perspective on McPherson: November 22, 2005

I make it a point to check out Dimitri Rotov’s blog at least once a day. He offers insightful observations about the state of Civil War publishing that any critical reader can appreciate. That said, I cannot for the life of me understand why he is so obsessed with James McPherson. As many of you know McPherson recently retired from Princeton University’s history department; he enjoys continued popularity in Civil War circles for his Pulitzer-Prize winning, Battle Cry of Freedom (BCF) and other studies. Dimitri criticizes BCF because it tends to simplify certain aspects of the military side of the Civil War. As I understand the criticism, the book emphasizes narrative and tends towards ovesimplification (take for example M’s coverage of the recovery of the Lost Orders) as opposed to critical analysis. It is important to keep in mind the origins of this book. It is part of Oxford University Press’s American History Series; each volume provides a concise overview of a specific period in American history and synthesizes as much of the scholarly work in the field as possible. BCF covers the decades leading up to and through the Civil War years and into the beginning of Reconstruction. I agree with Dimitri that at times McPherson shades off into dramatic narrative that gives short thrift to ongoing debates, but keep in mind that before taking on this project his main area of interest was not military history narrowly understood. At the same time the book anticipates more recent histories that attempt to integrate the military side of the war with events off the battlefield. The strongest parts of the book, in my humble opinion, are on the pre-war years.

It is safe to say that McPherson did not anticipate or even look for the kind of popularity that resulted from strong sales. I agree that to a certain extent he has pandered a bit to the more commercial side of the Civil War, but this is not anything to be too concerned about. Various groups are constantly complaining of the "ivory tower" mentality of many historians that confine themselves to writing books and articles for their academic friends and pay little attention to writing for the general public. McPherson’s recent studies of the ideology of soldiers, though not the first, have shed light on an important aspect of the military side of the war. They are written for a wide audience and are analytically driven. Dimitri’s concerns about the so-called "centennial interpretation" that McPherson and others espouse can easily be offest by taking a wider view of McPherson’s scholarship. One way to interpret McPherson’s post-BCF career is an attempt to address the demands of two different constituencies, one popular and the other academic. Yes, recent books such as Antietam: Crossroads of Freedom present a very straight-forward analysis of the military aspects of the campaign. At the same time the book does an excellent job connecting the battlefield to other issues. This aspect of McPherson’s work is very different from the articles published in academic journals such as the American Historical Review and Journal of American History. Here you will find McPherson at his analytical best. Characterizing McPherson’s scholarship as "centennialist" is simply too narrow and fails to take into account the fact that much of his work over the years falls beyond the confines of the years between 1861-1865.

In his most recent post, Dimitri ponders the absence of well-known Civil War scholars who studied under McPherson, though it is not clear why this is important. I think the simple answer to this question is the fact that academia continues to look down on military history. My guess is that McPherson’s students concentrated on some aspect of 19th century history, including slavery, politics, or social history. Take a quick look at the job postings and you will rarely find a school looking specifically for a Civil War scholar. In short, it would be suicidal to go on the job market with a specialization in the Civil War. Cast your net wider and I am sure you would find scores of professional historians who would be more than willing to make public their connection and indebtedness to McPherson. By the way, if you are looking for another McPherson student in Civil War studies, check out John E. Clark Jr’s, Railroads in the Civil War (LSU Press, 2001). Clark teaches history at MPACT Academy and Garrett Morgan Transportation Academy in Paterson, New Jersey.

Response to Obligatory McPherson Post: December 03, 2005

I am finally getting a grip on what is troubling me regarding Rotov’s obsession with McPherson, and more specifically, this so-called "centennial" interpretation of the Civil War. As to the latter, I can report that there is no centennial interpretation out there. I took the time to read old posts on Dimitri’s site (I know, "get a life", but this is what you do when you are procrastinating finishing a paper that must be delivered next month) and could not find a coherent statement defining the school of thought. What I did find were relatively brief snippets of criticisms about how certain historians interpret McClellan or tend to push specific narrative points such as "Lincoln Finds a General." But does all of this taken together really constitute a coherent school of thought? I think not. I am assuming that a distinct "school of thought" must contain fundamental or foundational assumptions/principles that distinguish it in the broader historiographic landscape. Examples include the Lost Cause interpretation of the 19th century and the Progressive and Revisionist schools in the 20th century. If there are widely accepted assumptions surrounding the study of the Civil War, they include the relatively new school of social history which takes seriously the view from the ground, including the home front and the common soldier, etc. In addition, Civil War history must acknowledge the crucial role that slavery and African Americans played in the coming of the war and the evolution of the war itself. The problem, as I see it, is the sharp split between popular history which analyzes battles in a vacuum divorced from broader issues and academic history which concentrates on issues away from the battlefield without serious consideration of the military side.

As for criticisms of McPherson the rock star, all I can say is that it is time to move on. In reference to the interviews and excessive adulation it is enough to say that 99.999999% of Americans could care less. The Civil War community, including academic historians, "buffs" preservationists, etc, doesn’t even appear on any meaningful public radar screen. Let’s not turn McPherson’s public image into something it is not: I am confident that he will not be appearing on Entertainment Tonight anytime soon. And if he wants to write a volume on the Navy for the Littlefield series, so be it. George Rable, who is an incredibly talented historian at the University of Alabama, is now writing the volume on religion in the Civil War. I may be wrong, but he has no prior experience researching this topic.


Another Ride on the McPherson Express

I was wondering when we would see another McPherson rant from Dimitri Rotov over at Civil War Bookshelf.  This installment does not disappoint as it is
filled with what has become the routine incoherent references to a so-called “centennial school” and now a pseudo-analysis of McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom as some kind of sufficient indicator for the broader Civil War market.  This post is filled with intimations of an American Heritage/Allen Nevins cabal to somehow subvert the integrity of Civil War history.  It is tempting to think that most people who read these McPherson rants see through the smoke
screen of vague references and accusations.  Still it is worth pointing a few things out to help the uninformed see their way through the noise.

First, it is not clear to me that Dimitri has ever read Battle Cry of Freedom or much of anything that McPherson has written.  Just consider his comment that McPherson “executed his commission by aggregating material millions of Americans had already read in American Heritage and in popular books by American Heritage writers.  All Dimitri has to do to is look at the footnotes throughout the book.  Where are all these supposed references to American Heritage?  In addition, to characterize McPherson as an unknown among Civil War historians before the publication of this book is dumfounding.  I suspect that Dimitri is working under an extremely narrow interpretation of the field.  McPherson has written numerous articles and book reviews in scholarly journals on mid-nineteenth century America.  News flash: the Civil War was bigger than George McClellan, Antietam, and the Army of the Potomac.
McPherson’s concentration on race and African-American history constitutes an absolutely essential part of our understanding of the Civil War-Reconstruction era.  I highly recommend that Dimitri read The Struggle for Equality (Princeton University Press, 1964) and The Abolitionist Legacy: From Reconstruction to the NAACP (Princeton University Press, 1975).  And this is supposedly the work of an unknown Civil War historian? Give me a break. Both volumes are well worth your time if you really have an interest in the Civil War-Reconstruction era.

The most bizarre claim that Dimitri makes is to characterize Gary Gallagher’s agreeing to allow McPherson the opportunity to write the volume on Civil War navies for the Littlefield Series as a “shakedown.”  What can one say in response to such irresponsible language?  It at least suggests that Dimitri knows nothing of the steps that Gallagher has taken to secure some of the most respected scholars in the field and his attention to turning out a series of books that will not only reflect the state of the field, but push it further as well.  I think I am starting to understand why the comments option is off.  Haven’t we had enough of this silliness?


One Final Comment on Doris Kearns Goodwin

I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed in Eric Wittenberg’s post on plagiarism.  It is disturbing that such high-profile writers are being exposed as guilty of what is at bottom a silly and dishonest practice.  In the end it is a reflection of character.  As Ken Noe mentioned in a comment on Eric’s site the worst part is the effect it is having on college students.  I can say the same in reference to the high school level.   I would of preferred to have seen Doris Kearns Goodwin take responsibility for her past mistakes.  My guess is that most of her readers would have maintained their loyalty and given her another chance.  I have done so even without the admission of guilt and the reason I’ve done so is that it easy to check up on her and no doubt scores of people have already gone through Team of Rivals looking for problems.  We all deserve second and maybe even third chances. 

The other day I was browsing in my local bookstore in the American history section when an elderly woman and a store employee walked down the aisle looking for a copy of Goodwin’s book.  The customer mentioned that many of her friends had read and enjoyed the book.  This woman bought the book and no doubt will read it and also enjoy it.  My point is that whether you are disappointed with Goodwin’s behavior or not her book on Lincoln is being read by many people around the country.  As I’ve stated before I don’t believe the book sheds any new light on Lincoln, but it is well written and for someone who knows little about  Lincoln and the Civil War it is a great place to start.  I say this given the quality of the overall percentage of Civil War studies currently on the market.  Most of these books are poorly researched and poorly written.  In other words, I would rather people read Goodwin than at least 80% (perhaps even higher) of the rest of the books currently available.  Americans don’t read much and if Jay Leno’s humorous segments on historical literacy are any measure they read even less about this nation’s past.  If Goodwin’s books fall into the hands of people who don’t typically read history than I say more power to her.

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How We Understand the Past

I love to read historical studies that force me out of my intellectual comfort zone.  We interpret the past from fixed points and at times through deeply entrenched assumptions.  It is sometimes difficult to see beyond our narrow windows into the past, but at the same time it is absolutely essential that we do so.  Think of the ways we tend to think about political acts in history.  We read speeches, political pamphlets, and look for the logic of discourse – not just any logic, but one rooted in the Western tradition.  And then a historian such as Eugene Genovese or more recently Stephen Hahn comes along and forces us to re-think our approach.  Are there other ways to investigate political behavior beyond the realm of formal discourse?  What happens when we try?  Stephen Hahn’s analysis of the political acts of slaves and newly-freed African Americans highlights the importance of the imagination in historical studies:

To look out from slavery is not to discount the powerful currents of liberal and republican ideals that African Americans embraced and advanced during the Civil War and Reconstruction….It is instead to suggest that African Americans continually made and remade their politics and political history in complex relation to shifting events; they did not have their politics and political history made for them.  In so doing, they often assimilated ideas and institutions from the outside to their own goals and practices, giving a distinctive shape to their political struggles and, by extension, to the interpretive significance of those struggles.  Thus, in the pages that follow, I present kinship, labor, and circuits of communication and education (especially rumor) as fundamental components of slave and freed politics, and try to show how they enabled organization and solidarity, and then were reconfigured by the course and outcome of political contests. (pp. 6-7)

Hahn widens the scope of what can be considered politically motivated behavior and why it is important to do so.  It is easy to think that the past comes pre-packaged with a set of assumptions or directions for its interpretation.  Within the context of Civil War studies this point-of-view is often expressed by more casual readers who label new approaches to history as "liberal" or "revisionist."  The mistake, however, is thinking that it is possible to delineate what it means to study the past and how to go about it.  What I appreciate about historians like Hahn and others is their ability to force the reader to step back to question the way a given subject is interpreted.  And the reason this is so important is that it opens up new questions. 

I recently ordered the latest historical study by Mark Smith titled How Race is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses.  Smith analyzes the importance of the various senses in thinking about the past.  We tend to interpret the past from a cognitive perspective.  Most of our time as historians is spent thinking about both the spoken and written word.  We think of the past as a world of words.  What follows is a lengthy paragraph from an article published by Smith in Joan Cashin’s The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War:

Listening to how various Southern constituencies heard the Civil War is important for (at least) three reasons.  First, listening to the heard war muddies the tidy distinction some historians have made about the separateness of home and battlefield and contributes to a more recent emphasis stressing the conceptual necessity of blending of the two, particularly when trying to understand the Confederacy.  Second, particular Southern constituencies constructed the soundscapes of the Civil War differently.  There were, in effect, multiple acoustic home fronts during the war, and they were contingent on time, place, and status.  And third, listening to actual and perceived soundscapes in the Civil War South suggests how, in addition to all the other well-known contradictions that wilted the Southern will to prosecute the war, the introduction of new noises and the muting of old sounds probably helped erode Confederates’ long-term commitment and ability to resist their noisy Northern army.  Unlike Northerners, who found the fewer noises generated by the war perfectly compatible with their imagined and preferred future, Southern elites experienced new and deeply troubling noises and silences.  While mobilization in the North was, for the most part, in harmony with their idealized and actual industrial, free-labor soundscape, gearing up for war in the South quickly became too Northern for many white Southern tastes.  Because the actual sounds of war were far fainter in the North, there was much less adjustment to make than in the South where noises of battle and strife increasingly encroached on the Southern, tranquil, idealized home front.  In the end, such radical changes in the Southern soundscape, while inspiring feverish resistance and even a degree of accomodation in the first instance, probably had the effect of enervating the Southern will to win not just because of the new noises inaugurated by the war but also because these conflagration muted traditional Southern sounds.  Although sometimes unintended, sound itself became part of psychological warfare on the Confederate home front.  For other Southern constituencies, slaves in particular, the sounds of war were the welcomed notes of freedom. ("Of Bells, Booms, Sounds, and Silences: Listening to the Civil War South" p. 11)

The idea of a soundscape is fascinating to me and the point that different sounds held widely different meanings to various groups.  I have to say that I am not sure how salient a factor sound is to an explanation of Confederate defeat or the loss of will late in the war, but it doesn’t really matter.  Smith doesn’t simply add to our knowledge of the war he provides a novel new way to think about it.  Again, it is in those moments where new questions and the possibility of new data come together.  We grow as historians and consumers of history.

Embrace Revision!