Your Book Better Deliver On Its Promises

Screen Shot 2013-02-26 at 7.27.16 PMLast night I spent some time browsing Civil War titles on Amazon to redeem my book credit from last quarter.  As always, thanks to those of you who purchase items on Amazon through my affiliate links.  During my search I happened upon this forthcoming biography about John Bell Hood by Stephen Hood, who is apparently a distant relative.  I recently learned of a new collection of personal letters and other documents about Hood that were discovered, but have been kept under close wrap by Stephen Hood.  Given this development I decided to click the link for more information.  I was immediately struck by the description, which I assume will appear on the dust jacket.

Outlived by most of his critics, Hood’s published version of the major events and controversies of his Confederate military career met with scorn and skepticism. Many described his memoirs as nothing more than a polemic against his arch-rival Joseph E. Johnston. These unflattering opinions persisted throughout the decades and reached their nadir in 1992 when an influential author described Hood’s memoirs as “merely a bitter, misleading, and highly distorted treatise” replete with “distortions, misrepresentations, and outright falsifications.” Without any personal papers to contradict them, many historians took full advantage of the opportunity to portray Hood as an inept and dishonest opium addict and a conniving, vindictive cripple of a man. One writer went so far as to brand him “a fool with a license to kill his own men.” Authors misused sources and ignored or suppressed facts sympathetic to Hood.  Stephen M. “Sam” Hood, a distant relative of the general, embarked on a meticulous forensic study of the common perceptions and controversies of his famous kinsman. His careful use of the original sources of the broadly accepted “facts” about John Bell Hood uncovered startlingly poor scholarship by some of the most well-known and influential historians of the 20th and 21st centuries. These discoveries, coupled with his use of a large cache of recently discovered Hood papers-many penned by generals and other officers who served with General Hood-confirm accounts that originally appeared in Hood’s posthumously published memoir and resolve, for the first time, some of the most controversial aspects of Hood’s long career.   “Blindly accepting historical ‘truths’ without vigorous challenge,” cautions one historian, “is a perilous path to understanding real history.” The shocking revelations in John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General will forever change our perceptions of Hood as both a man and general, and those who set out to shape his legacy.

I know in a tough economy publishers must do whatever they can to market new titles so that they stand out from the crowd, but I am not sure I would want to impart such a tone on my book.  Is Mr. Hood really going to demonstrate that historians have “misused” and/or “ignored or suppressed facts sympathetic to Hood”?  It’s also difficult to tell whether some of these nameless historians intentionally distorted Hood’s record or simply came up short because they didn’t have access to these new sources.  This just comes off as downright reckless.

John Bell Hood’s name has come up a few times on this site, most notably in connection a few years ago with the John Bell Hood Society, which took out an advertisement at Civil War News attacking Wiley Sword.  Stephen Hood is the president of that organization and apparently has some real interpretive disagreements with Sword’s interpretation of John Bell Hood.

Is this the case of an author with too much of a personal investment in his subject?  We shall see.

A Holy War Against Wiley Sword?

sc00175ec3[Hat-Tip to David Woodbury]

This is one of those jaw-dropping stories that makes you wonder about the collective mental stability of our little Civil War community.  Apparently, the John Bell Hood Society is troubled by historian Wiley Sword’s characterization of Hood’s personal, intellectual, and battlefield skills.  To share this disgust the organization decided to take out an ad in Civil War News, which includes a link to a site where you can read their detailed critique harangue against Sword.  They accuse Sword of “engaging in an unholy Jihad against Gen. Hood, filtering from historical records any and all documented evidence that does not support his biased, agenda-based premise.”

I will leave it to you to read through their objections to Sword, but what I find disturbing is their overall tone.  Their choice of language reflects a misunderstanding of what is involved in historical analysis and ultimately reflects poorly on the members of the organization and renders their position as highly suspect.  They have every right to challenge a historical interpretation and anyone who is a serious student of history ought to welcome it.  Ultimately, any objection stands or falls based on whether it exposes an obvious oversight or mistake made during the research and writing process or offers a reasonable alternative interpretation of the same evidence.  Again, you will have to read through their response to Sword and judge for yourself.

Perhaps I am overly sensitive to this kind of language, but as someone who is constantly attacked and even threatened on occasion, I call on the publisher of Civil War News to pull this ad from their next issue if it is slated to appear.  There should be no toleration for this kind of incendiary language.

This attack against Sword is reminiscent of a similar response to Alan Nolan’s Lee Considered, which was first published in 1991.  A quick swing through the website of the John Bell Society reveals a group of worshippers rather than serious students of history and no doubt helps to explain the religious overtone of their response against Sword.  I guess this is what happens to people who are exposed to the study of history at an early age along the lines outlined by John J. Dwyer.  They no longer see history as a discipline that is continually in flux and open to revision as opposed to a holy text that must be defended against all sinners and non-believers.

Update: As a way of making my point here, I encourage all of you to read Victoria Bynum’s review of a new book on the State of Jones. It is an excellent example of what a critical review looks like without resorting to hyperbole and insult.