John Stauffer Strikes Again

I have written over 75 book reviews in the last ten years that have appeared in both popular magazines and academic journals.  Anyone who has bridged both arenas knows that the focus, length, and style differ depending on the audience.  When I write for a popular magazine I lean more toward sharing the overall narrative and a bit of critical assessment if time permits.  Writing for a journal, however, demands much more of an analytical edge.  Readers are looking for analysis and assessment of the author’s thesis as well as an understanding of how the book fits into the broader historiography.  The former can be fun while the latter can at times be daunting.  Regardless of publication I’ve never felt a need to attack an author on a personal level since it has nothing to do with the content contained in the book.  Most of you out there will no doubt agree with this.

With that you can imagine my surprise and disappointment as I made my way through a section of the latest issue of Reviews in American History.  I do not subscribe to this journal and I thank one of my readers for passing it along.  The journal allows reviewers the opportunity to write extensive critiques of books that include responses by the authors themselves.  They can be very informative and incredibly entertaining as both reviewer and author do their best to defend their respective turf.  The most recent issue [March 2010] includes two reviews of John Stauffer’s book Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (2008), one by John Ernest and the other by W. Caleb McDaniel.  [I should point out that I have not read Giants, but I have read most of his previous study, The Black Hearts of Men.]

First, a bit of background.  Many of you will remember the inappropriate accusations leveled on this site at Prof. Vikki Bynum by Prof. Stauffer as a result of her critique of his new book on the State of Jones.  Prof. McDaniel teaches at Rice University and is the former blogger at Mode For Caleb, which is in my mind still one of the best written history blogs.

McDaniel’s review of Giants is thorough and at times highly critical.  He challenges specific claims made by Stauffer as well as his analysis that assumes a close relationship framed around friendship and an understanding of the two as “self made men.”  McDaniel also offers commentary on the structure of the book and points to sections that seem irrelevant to the broader argument:

Some chapters also veer into subjects whose relevance to the main narrative is unclear. In a lengthy excursus on Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Speed, who is introduced as “the love of his life,” Stauffer defends C. A. Tripp’s controversial thesis that Lincoln and Speed, who shared a bed as young men, were more than platonic friends (p. 108). Those unconvinced by Tripp will probably find little here to change their minds. More importantly, Stauffer leaves unclear this section’s connection to his main argument about the “parallel lives” of Lincoln and Douglass, except for the sotto voce implication that both men endured marriages strained by love for another—in Lincoln’s case, Speed, and in Douglass’s case, Ottilie Assling and Julia Griffiths. (p. 171)

While the review is highly critical there is nothing inappropriate about this review, which I encourage you to read for yourself.  Unfortunately, Stauffer’s response to McDaniel is anything but professional.  Consider his response to the above passage:

Of course, he also hates my “lengthy excursus on Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua Speed.” My main points in the six pages I devote to the subject are that Speed helped “civilize” Lincoln, contributing to his self-making; and that in light of what we know about romantic friendship at the time, coupled with the facts surrounding Speed’s and Lincoln’s friendship, there is no reason to suppose they weren’t physically intimate at some point during their four years of sleeping together in the same small bed, long after Lincoln could afford a bed of his own. To ignore this, as Mcdaniel wants to do, is to pretend that same-sex carnal relationships were abnormal. It thus presumes a dislike or fear about such relationships, reflecting a presentist and homophobic perspective. (p. 180)

Now, as far as I am concerned there is nothing inappropriate about Stauffer’s response up until that last sentence.  It is unfortunate that the editors at Reviews didn’t point this out to Stauffer as problematic.  It undercuts his entire argument because it colors the response as defensive.  Where is the professionalism?  But wait, it gets even better.  Stauffer concludes his response by referencing a webpage that McDaniel created to help his students manage the immense amount of reading that they must complete.  I find it hard to believe that Stauffer didn’t understand how this was being used:

Perhaps one reason for Mcdaniel’s animosity toward GIANTS stems from our different approaches to reading history. Mcdaniel calls for “active skimming,” as he says in his essay, “How to read for History.” do not read in a linear fashion, he tells students. Instead, jump directly from the intro to the conclusion, then from the first to last page of each chapter. “Don’t read every paragraph line by line” and “do not get hung up on things you do not under- stand.” In the second go-round, “decide which sections of the book are most important to read” in the traditional mode. The goal is simply to understand the author’s argument, ignoring the niceties of form, style, figures of speech, ambiguities, and things suggested or evoked. I confess that I was taught to read linearly, from beginning to end. and I still do! I love surprises and ambiguities and consider form and content, manner and matter, virtually inseparable. To me, the idea of jumping from opening to ending seems almost sacrilegious, destroying the subtleties and nuances of the narrative. Had I written GIANTS with Mcdaniel’s “history reader” in mind, I would have modeled it on a prosecutor’s brief or how-to guide, with lots of bullet points and bold-faced type. fortunately, most people read in the old-fashioned way, if the book’s sales, reviews, and awards are any indication. They like to look for “the stories hinted at between the lines,” to use ernest’s felicitous phrase. (p. 180)

It is unfortunate that McDaniel had to devote time to dealing with personal attacks rather than a more refined and professional response:

In reply, however, Stauffer draws several generalizations about me. He attributes my analysis to animosity and intolerance of ambiguity, suggests I was not taught how to read properly, and groundlessly insinuates that homophobic assumptions clouded my judgment. I cannot respond to all these charges here, nor is this the place to do so. The most personal charges are only answerable by my life and by those who best know me and my work….

Stauffer concludes by speculating that an unrelated teaching tool he found on my website explains how I read books for a scholarly review. I wrote “How to read for History” to help undergraduates read effectively for a semester-long history course, and notwithstanding Stauffer’s highly selective excerpts, the essay encourages students to read books carefully, more than once, constantly adjusting their judgments as they reread. I, too, gave Giants a careful reading, and I encourage interested readers to judge the book for themselves. (pp. 181-82)

I sense a pattern here.

John Stauffer Responds

Thanks to Prof. Stauffer for taking the time to write up such a thorough response to the recent criticisms of The State of Jones that can be found here and elsewhere.  I would much rather move on from this controversy, but given the circumstances outlined at the beginning of his response I thought it was only fair to post it.

I rarely read blogs, and this summer I’ve had difficulty keeping up with the Internet:  my wife gave birth to a boy, we’ve been without shower and kitchen owing to a house addition, and I’ve had to finish two 10,000 word essays on deadline.  Sally Jenkins and I welcome debate, as we emphasized, and the fact that I was unaware of your tacit expectation that I should read and post responses on your blog should not be interpreted as a refusal to engage in public and scholarly conversation.

You may be right in suggesting that “the blogosphere is now shaping” academic debates and historiography.  After all, the past forty years have witnessed an extraordinary democratization in academia, with scholars of the highest order having richly diverse institutional affiliations, from high schools, newspapers, and magazines to museums, educational institutes, the film industry, and colleges and universities of all ranks.  The Internet, which has revolutionized access to archives and other repositories of knowledge, has accelerated the democratization.  My hunch is that blogs will contribute to this process. In any event, let me try to address the major criticisms of “The State of Jones”

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David Reynolds Reviews The State of Jones or Why Blogging Matters

It could have been one of those “teachable moments” where the authors of two very different studies of Civil War Mississippi discuss the problem of competing historical interpretations.  Instead, the authors of The State of Jones have done all they can to avoid addressing what are clearly serious problems with their book.  You can find Sally Jenkins responding to negative reviews over at Amazon and various other sites.  More curious is the disappearing act performed by Harvard professor, John Stauffer, who as far as I know has said nothing since his personal attack against Victoria Bynum that was posted here a few weeks ago.  Stauffer’s silence has not worked to their advantage since it has placed Jenkins in the difficult position of having to respond to questions of interpretation and historiography – questions that she is completely incapable of handling.

In the pages of the New York Times we can see the continued fallout from the way Jenkins and Stauffer have chosen to respond to legitimate interpretive challenges.  While David Reynolds is not the first academic historian to review The State of Jones, his review reads more like a synopsis of the debate that played out at Bynum’s Renegade South and here rather than a thorough analysis of the argument.  In fact, while I have no reason to believe that Reynolds did not read the book, he doesn’t critique anything that hasn’t already been raised by a host of readers.  This does not bode well for future reviews of the book and suggests that the blogosphere is now shaping the way even academic historians are viewing this controversy.  Of course, it didn’t have to turn out this way.  As I’ve suggested before, this unfortunate result has as much to do with feelings of defensiveness and pride as it does with not understanding how to engage bloggers and Online readers.  Hopefully, it will serve as a lesson for future authors.

Another Angle on the State of Jones

I‘ve been thinking quite a bit about this little controversy as I make my way around the blogosphere and read the comments from various quarters.  While there is no way of getting around the fact that this book has serious interpretive flaws, I have to wonder whether, in the end, the book has some redeeming qualities.  It may be more accurate to suggest that given the state of our popular memory of the South, slavery, race, and the Civil War generally this book may still serve a positive function.

Continue reading “Another Angle on the State of Jones”

A Statement About the State of Jones Dispute

[Cross-Posted at Cliopatria]

The ongoing dispute between Victoria Bynum, the author of the well-regarded study, The Free State of Jones (UNC Press, 2001) and Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, the authors of the brand new book, The State of Jones (Doubleday, 2009), shows no sign of letting up.  Now that the story has been picked up by  the New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed, I’ve decided to explain how I came to be involved in this little squabble.  I’ve received a number of emails from interested readers inquiring as to how I got involved, including a few that have taken liberties in assuming some kind of loyalty to one side.  I want to clear the air and offer my own assessment of this unfortunate incident.

Continue reading “A Statement About the State of Jones Dispute”