Reviewing Civil War History

I sympathize with Dimitri Rotov’s disappointment regarding the quality of many Civil War book reviews. A good book review can make or break whether I decide to read a book, or if I have it can help bring my own evaluation of the author’s argument into sharper relief. Unfortunately, as Dimitri noted, too many reviews fail to move beyond a simple retelling of the story without any evaluation of the historian’s argument. The reviewer should be able to analyze the assumptions employed by the historian, the kinds of evidence employed, and whether the conclusions cited follow from the kinds of evidence used. A good review should also give the reader a sense of the broader historiography in which the study is located. This makes it clearer as to what body of scholarship the author is responding to. No doubt, much of the problem surrounding the quality of book reviews stems from the fact that most people are simply not trained to look for the overall argument in a book; in short, they read it as a straightforward narrative and miss the analytical points. The other thing to keep in mind is that the quality or style of the book review will have everything to do with the place of publication. The type of review that I write for a newspaper or popular magazine will be different from one written for an academic journal – different audiences.

My preferred type of review is one that presents an overall evaluation of the argument, including the types of sources used. Reviews should stick to the content of the argument; all too often reviewers will criticize a study for what it doesn’t address. I agree that at times this can be a deficiency, but I’ve read too many where this approach serves as a substitute for not dealing head on with the argument presented. Negative reviews are fine, but one can always find a redeeming quality to the book. As I work on completing my own manuscript I’ve learned to appreciate and respect my fellow writers for the time and energy (plus a little insanity) it takes to produce a book-length study. I have written over 40 reviews and in that time I have written only 1 overall negative evaluation. It was written a few years ago for Civil War Times Illustrated. The book was on the Army of Northern Virginia and was written by a guy whose only qualification was that he handled the publication of The Killer Angels when it was first released. Unfortunately, the book was a complete disaster. If I remember correctly, there was not one archival source and he used D. S. Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants as a central source. Don’t get me wrong, I am not dissin (did I spell that correctly?) Freeman, but we’ve come a long way since that book. Just thinking about it makes me upset as I will never get back those few hours spent reading it. SOME BOOKS DO DESERVE TO BE TORN APART! The author is a great example of the tendency on the part of too many people who wake up one day and decide that they are going to write a Civil War book. And fortunately there are plenty of crappy publishers out there who are just waiting to snatch it up. O.K. enough with the rant. Where to go for good Civil War book reviews?

If you want solid analytical reviews, check out the journal, Civil War History or the Journal of Southern History. The Journal of American History and even the American Historical Review typically include a few reviews from the period. Go to your local college or university library for these titles. The New York Review of Books is one of my favorite book review sheets in general. Reviewers usually evaluate more than one book at a time and the quality is almost always first-rate. Gordon Wood’s reviews (he’s more colonial/American Revolution) are by far the most interesting. You finish his reviews and you feel smarter. The popular magazines are of course a mixed bag depending on who is reviewing the title. Still, you can usually get a decent review out of these mags. The online publication Civil War Book Review is usually very reliable as they do not have to worry too much about length.

Writing a review is a great way to get started if you have any interest in developing your analytical skills or if you have ever thought about writing Civil War history. I wrote my first book review of James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades for the Washington Times back in 1997.

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