When PR Backfires

On occasion I receive requests to review books as part of Crossroads.  Unlike some of my colleagues, I don’t get many of these requests, nor am I flooded with examination copies from university presses (even in cases where I have published with said press).  I will be offering some reviews/previews with the next several weeks, but, as the following case suggests, I don’t always accept the offer, and what follows may explain why …

Here’s a passage excerpted from an e-mail I received not too long ago:

I’m following up regarding the opportunity I sent about The Lincoln Letter, William Martin’s newest historical novel. Immortalized in history as “The Great Emancipator,” Abraham Lincoln’s greatest achievement was his effort to end slavery in the United States by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and sponsoring the Thirteenth Amendment. And most Americans think they know Abraham Lincoln, but novelist William Martin’s research has shed new light on Lincoln and Washington D.C. And no, there weren’t any vampires. 
 
While researching for his novel The Lincoln Letter, Martin discovered:
  • Lincoln told Senator Sumner on July 4, 1862 that if he freed the slaves, half the troops would throw down their arms. Emancipation, he said, was “ a thunderbolt that will keep,” a powerful weapon, but one to be used at the right time
  • Lincoln finally read the Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet on July 21. They agreed to wait until there was a victory before promulgating it
  • McClellan’s strategy at Antietam of stopping Lee’s invasion of a border state gave Lincoln the victory he needed to issue the Emancipation Proclamation
  • The proclamation reached the troops on Sept. 22. Some were buoyed, others, as reported in the novel, were angry  
  • Lincoln also responded to a letter by Horace Greeley with the famous quote: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all of the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some of the slaves and leaving others along, I would also do that.”
Martin’s shrewd research gives highly detailed and accurate scenes of everyday life in Washington D.C. in the midst of the Civil War, with historic faces such as Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Wilkes Booth. Even the scenery surrounding the nation’s capital is realistic in its description; Martin illustrates Washington D.C. of the past with its over-crowded military hospitals and even the partially-completed Washington Monument. 
 
Backed by meticulous research, William Martin reveals the former president on a more personal and human level, leaving readers with the wish that they too could find the mythical diary of Abraham Lincoln. 

Here’s my reply:

—–

Thanks for contacting me with an invitation to review William Martin’s new novel. However, I’ve decided not to take you up on your offer, in large part because of the “discoveries” that you reported as contained within.  Several of these “discoveries,” such as Lincoln’s August 22, 1862 letter to Horace Greeley, are in fact fairly well known to most students of the war, including my blog readers … so what Mr. Martin may have discovered is not new to the rest of us (by the way, Lincoln said “alone,” not “along”).  I do not know a student of the war who is not aware of the impact of the Union victory at Antietam.

You cited two “discoveries” that, if true, would change historical scholarship in profound ways.  You say that Mr. Martin learned that on July 21, 1862, Lincoln shared plans of an emancipation proclamation with his cabinet.  However, historians commonly date this discussion as happening on July 22, 1862. There was a cabinet meeting on July 21, but Lincoln’s proposed proclamation was the topic of discussion on July 22; at that time, Lincoln did not read either the document that was issued on September 22, 1862, or the one issued on January 1, 1863, because he had yet to compose either document.  You also say that Mr. Martin learned that the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac learned of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862.  That would be rather interesting, since at noon that very day Lincoln convened his cabinet to make known his decision to issue a preliminary proclamation that paved the way for the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, should the Confederates not cease their quest for independence. The preliminary proclamation was made public the next day, so it would be an interesting find to learn that news of that document had somehow made its way from Washington to the Army of the Potomac prior to it being made public; clearly the army did not learn on September 22 of the Emancipation Proclamation itself, because it was issued some one hundred days later, and that final document differed in several aspects from the document of September 22, 1862.

Under such circumstances I question whether the discoveries you list will be treated as discoveries by my readers.  With that in mind, I have to decline your offer.  I wish Mr. Martin all the best with his endeavor.

—–

For all I know, William Martin’s historical novel will attract readers, maybe with good reason.  It may offer an engaging and absorbing account of the path Lincoln took towards emancipation.  In this case, however, the PR proved counterproductive, causing me to pass up the opportunity to review the book.  You’ll have to judge whether all of us are poorer for that.

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5 thoughts on “When PR Backfires

  1. He should have stuck with vampires or written a book about ghosts in Gettysburg. In either endeavor his discoveries would be fact and indisputable. Besides, that’s where the money is. Who cares about scholarship?

    Try paying the mortgage with your master’s degree.

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