On Book Reviews and Controversy

I was hoping for a quiet weekend in which to get some work done before MLB dealt with PED offenders, including one Mr. Alex Rodriguez, next week. No such luck …

Harry Smeltzer treated his audience today to a statement of his decision to review two books published by Savas Beatie: a discussion of John Bell Hood based on new materials and Frank Varney’s General Grant and the Writing of History, which explores how Grant’s accounts of various events misled readers and slighted various people, especially (at least in this volume) William S. Rosecrans. Now, Harry’s admitted that he hasn’t read the books yet, so he’s loathe to comment on their contents, but he’s already predicting how people will react to a review he hasn’t written of a book he hasn’t read. Varney’s book, Smeltzer tells us, “delves into the ever dangerous waters of U. S. Grant criticism. The mere mention of the book is likely to bring Grant fans out of the woodwork – I’ve seen them operate, and it ain’t pretty. They are such rabid gatekeepers (and I have no doubt they view themselves as such) that a perceived slight to anyone in the Grant solar system, let alone HUG himself, is likely to elicit a response of biblical proportions.”

This, of course, is exactly what controversy/confrontational blogging is all about: taking shots at people just for the hell of it and hoping that you’ll get a reaction (mission accomplished, Harry!). Talk about hit counts …

Let me advance a modest suggestion. It might be a good idea to read the book first. It might then be a good idea to write the review one announces that one intends to write. Then it might be a good idea to read the responses to the review, and to assess those responses much as you might assess the book itself … on their merits. To dismiss a criticism of the Varney book (or of a flawed review) by saying that the critic is a “Grant gatekeeper” does not advance the discussion (although it would be interesting if Smeltzer could find it within himself to identify these gatekeepers by name). Surely Smeltzer would not appreciate having his own objectivity questioned just because he happens to have a higher opinion of some Union generals than others might have.

Yet Smeltzer persists in this I’m objective/others are not (maybe I should say I’m disinterested/others are not, but too many people don’t know what disinterested means) argument: “I have no dog in either fight, regardless of my thoughts on those who do (have dogs in the fight – I’m too distracted to figure out how to write that sentence so that it doesn’t end in a preposition.) I’ll report back to you as best I can. But I have a sneaky feeling that my efforts will be deemed woefully inadequate by partisans of all stripes.” In short, he’s already dismissed criticism of a review he has yet to write about a book he has yet to read.

So much for “content” blogging.

I have Varney’s book (no, the publisher did not send me a copy), and I’ve skimmed it. As one might expect, I was curious as to what he said about my work (it is one of the most amusing aspects of my line of work that scholars often deny their humanity in such instances, which, when you think about it, is a sign of their humanity). Truth is, Varney deems my biography “admirable” (page 130) and had very little critical to say about it (those minor matters will be addressed at another time, when I believe I’ll be able to clarify a few things). Nor do I find the central premise of his book to be objectionable: that Grant’s writings advanced a case for his interests and reputation over that of other generals, including Rosecrans, and that some historians and biographers at times have been insufficiently critical or questioning of Grant’s accounts. Indeed, in an introduction to Grant’s Memoirs in 1996, I offered criticisms of that work as containing distortions and omissions; I’ve done so more recently in a piece about what Grant had to say about Shiloh and its aftermath. What this says about unnamed gatekeepers or unnamed dog owners I haven’t a clue.

Varney’s book should stand and fall based upon what he presents. So should the evaluations of those who comment on the book. Why anyone should claim otherwise is best left for them to explain (and they should also explain why they are above a fray that wish to stir up).

Now, I could predict how I think Harry Smeltzer and certain other people will respond to these pointed observations, and in fact I could follow Smeltzer’s lead and launch a preemptive first strike by discounting their (as yet unseen) complaints as the product of this or that. But I won’t. Let’s just say that the more this sort of stuff goes on, the less the discussion will be about the actual contents of Varney’s book, and that, I would suggest, is a disservice to both the author and scholarship as a whole.

I have been an interested onlooker in the debate over the other volume under discussion. That discussion has also gone off the rails already into a discussion of vested interests with precious little reference to the content of the volume. Having not read the book, I had no reason to comment on it, and I was hoping for a more informed discussion based on the merits of the volume.  I maintain hopes that I will yet encounter that discussion. But one sign that people like talking more about each other than about the work some of us do surfaced this morning in Kevin Levin’s blog, which I encountered after I read Harry Smeltzer’s post. I wish we had better things to do than to go down that road again. I most certainly do. The semester’s looming and I’m behind on other obligations.

No wonder they call August the dog days of summer.

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43 thoughts on “On Book Reviews and Controversy

    • It’s becoming a more frequent practice, however regrettable. But give Dimitri credit: at least he names names. He doesn’t pretend he’s above the fray. Even Connie Chastain has guts enough to do that. Some don’t.

      • Not naming names in this context is a good sign that you’re dealing with someone who loves to dish it out but is totally incapable of taking it. You can’t even investigate the validity of his opinion much less respond to it when you’re, at best, guessing at the targets.

        For me, a red flag is his insistence on referring to Grant by the initials HUG. Yes, it was his birth name and an overly cute acronym but it was not the name he used from West Point on.

        As for the accuracy or lack thereof in Grant’s “Memoirs”. Read the title and the author, people. You’re reading his personal account of his life, written at a time when he was dying a horrible, painful death at the end of an amazing life. He wasn’t a scholar and never pretended to be. Of course, Grant’s memoirs advanced his own case over those generals with whom he had been in conflict. That can be said of most Civil War memoirs, to varying degrees. I think, for a scholar, as you indicate, the work, in dealing with Grant’s memoirs as a source, is to test out what Grant or any one else like him writes against not only the accounts of other participants but what can be objectively verified to see how reliable the author of the memoir is.

        • Well, we’ve been over this ground before in the Civil War blogosphere, most notably when there was the content/controversy/confrontation discussion. This will follow that predictable pattern. Just watch.

        • In this case I await the usual unfolding story. I’ve already named Harry Smeltzer. I’ve since highlighted a tweet that is easily traceable to its source. Why discourage the others by naming them?

          Just watch.

          I assume you know that I named Harry. His entry did not name names. The same failure to name names appeared in initial posts over the content/controversy/confrontation blogging dust-up. But why you would ask me to name a name I’ve already named seems … well, I won’t go there.

          Why construct strawmen?

          I wonder why you don’t ask Smeltzer as to the people he was discussing, but you ask me, even though I spoke directly about Harry’s blog entry.

          This is the sort of exchange I was expecting, of course. Why discuss content when one can add to controversy (while claiming one is all about the content)?

          Carry on.

      • Ironically, Dimitri recently jumped in the other direction on the Hood book. Makes one wonder whether it was actually GBM who lost a leg and most use of one arm. :)

  1. My problem with the Varney book is less the book than the Amazon blurb, which suggests a vast conspiracy to tilt historical discussion in favor of Grant and to the detriment of Rosecrans. I’m just not interested in reading that kind of stuff, especially when neither the author nor an advocate are able to supply a single concrete example of this in a discussion lasting for nearly 200 posts.

    • I’m not sure I read the Amazon blurb that way. But Smeltzer’s post (and the attaboys I’ve seen since) are like the prepublication blurb that drew fire from Kevin. Only in later comments (after this post appeared) did Smeltzer speak of an anti-Grant/pro-Rosecrans crowd or suggest that maybe he wouldn’t like the book. Now, if he’d only spend the time he spends on building up anticipation for his review on reading the book and writing the review, we might get somewhere. But when I see something like this:

      “To Read or Not to Read – That is the Question” Harry takes on both the Grant and Hood bios!

      … and I know that Smeltzer does no such thing, well, I can tell where this is going. If the tweet had said “Harry promises someday to review two books,” that would have been accurate. Incomplete, but it’s only 140 characters.

      • Somewhere in the Amazon blurb the blunt claim is made that Grant perjured himself in front of an official Court of Inquiry. I’m fairly sure this can only be a reference to the Warren Court; leaving aside the correctness of the charge (which I would dispute)—What the hell does the Warren Court have to do with Rosecrans? (The blurb also suggests that Grant’s drinking affected the outcome of a battle.)

        • As to the issue of the court of inquiry: that’s because the two volumes were originally intended to be published as one volume. They were split during the editorial process, and I’m adding new chapters to the volume II. The blurb apparently got missed. Sorry for any confusion..

    • James, I’d like to point out that I suggested that you read the book rather than have me try to explain a couple of hundred pages of text via a series of online posts. I stand by what I said then: read it, then we can discuss what you do or don’t like about it. Until then we really have no basis for discussion. Not to be rude, but I spent years researching and writing the book. I’m under no obligation to explain it to you in an online discussion. Not that I’m not interested in your opinion, just that it would be helpful if it were an informed opinion. You obviously know a lot about the Civil War: so do I. But we can’t discuss a book we haven’t both read.

      • Well, you could have simply pointed out that there is discussion of the Warren Court controversy in the book (or a second volume—I’m not sure which it is), and that would have explained things. But you seemed unwilling to do so, thus my comment.

        • And, believe me, on the subject of Five Forks and the Warren Court, my opinion is an informed opinion, even w/o having read your book.

  2. Interesting post.

    I’m a bit of a ‘gatekeeper’ for Grant, myself. As I mentioned to Harry in a post I think the George Thomas (who I also ‘like’) fans are much more rabid and defensive than the Grant ‘people’.

    But I’m a follower of Generals on both sides and really don’t understand why it becomes so important to people to rip down one General to put up another one.

    The Hood book I’ve heard so much hype that one of these days I’ll actually have to read the thing. It won’t be the first time I’ve read positive things though about Hood as army commander. I’ll just have to see how it goes to ripping Wiley Sword.

    Chris

    • See, I don’t think one needs to rip anyone. It’s the story that matters, not the people who tell it. One may speculate why someone does this or that, but I don’t see how that gets us anywhere. Same with the books under discussion as well as Smeltzer’s post.

      I just think it would be better to see a review and spark a discussion rather than to alert everyone that one is going to do a review and predict how unnamed people will respond to an unwritten review of an unread book. That, frankly, strikes me as bizarre. And yet, when I decline to map out how I think this discussion will play out, I get Jimmy Price asking me to name names. That will simply lead to more mudslinging, especially as I’ve named one (Harry Smeltzer) and directly confronted another on Twitter (Craig Swain ducked, then offered a limp version of his tweet by referring to the 13th definition offered by an on-line dictionary).

      All of this suggests that some people, especially those who claim they deplore controversy and confrontation, aren’t so adverse to it. They simply can’t bring themselves to be forthright about it. As I’ve named some names, I’ll let it sit there. But I’d love to see someone defend Smeltzer’s approach. I’d rather read his review.

    • McMurry’s bio of Hood, as I understand it, did some rehabilitation, as did Castel’s treatment of the Atlanta Campaign. Like Mr. Evans, I get tired of posing these stories as “General X vs. General Y.” (Sounds like a line I might have used in my math professor days.) I am very down on Robert K. Krick because I was on a tour with him and heard him say he had found a letter that would “really stick it to Longstreet.” That’s just wrong.

      • I agree. I have found it tiring about Krick has had this obsession with hating Longstreet.

        On other positive views of Hood in the literature I would recommend the essay by Stephen Davis in the early Savas essay book on the Atlanta Campaign and Alfred Burne’s book from 1938 ‘Lee, Grant and Sherman: A Study in Leadership in the 1864-65 Campaign’ that was reissued by the University of Kansas in 2000 with notes by Albert Castel. He has much critical things to say about all of the Generals involved in those both campaigns of the Western and Eastern theater. It is quite thought provoking even if a reader doesn’t always agree with Burne.

        Chris

        • I like the Burne book, even when I disagree with it.

          I guess the real question is whether these books will simply fall into pro- and anti-camps (and be treated accordingly) or whether folks will be able to accept the good, question the dubious, and reject the bad. Although Jim Epperson and you have identified yourselves as “gatekeepers” (I wonder what that term means, given how I’ve seen it applied when it comes to CW scholarship), I think it would be interesting if Harry Smeltzer named the people he had in mind when he wrote his post. Otherwise we have the amusing case of a blogger speculating about how unnamed people with react to an unwritten review of an unread book.

          • Just as a minor dissent, I meant to identify myself as someone *Harry* would characterize as a “gatekeeper.” I do not think the term is accurate, although it would help to know exactly what Harry means by it. I think I know what Harry thinks he means, based on some discussions we have had in the past, but IMO he would be wrong.

            Thanks for the tip about the Burne book. I’ll look for it.

            • Well, one would think it’s a good idea to define one’s terms and be clear about what one says. Then again, someone who originally tweeted “Harry takes on both the Grant and Hood bios!” eventually claimed that all he meant was “Harry picks out two biographies.” Yup. They aren’t even biographies, but don’t let that fact deter anyone.

      • All it takes is one reading of Krick’s essay on Longstreet in one of the Gallagher essay books on Gettysburg to see how much Krick really hates Longstreet.

        • People kept telling me that he was doing it for effect and he wasn’t really that rabid about it, but I stopped buying that a long time ago. I think his essay in Gallagher’s essay book on the Second Day at Gettysburg is just bizarre. I don’t think he grasps that it’s not exactly complimentary to Lee to suggest that his senior corps commander was a psychotic who sent thousands of men to avoidable death to spite Lee, since Lee kept that officer in that position for the duration of the war.

          I like Longstreet myself but I don’t use liking Longstreet as an litmus test for any one, especially historians, so long as their criticism is fair and reasoned. One time, after reading something particularly over the top that Krick had written, I remember thinking, what could James Longstreet possibly have done to hurt RKK. Longstreet died before he was born.

          I admire and have had wonderful tours with his son, Bobby (Robert E. Lee Krick, I’m not kidding), who is a great historian in his own right. Bobby Krick even spoke at the second seminar that the Longstreet Memorial Fund held. Seminars 1 and 3 were in Gettysburg but 2 was in Richmond and co-sponsored by the MOC.

          • Interesting post.

            On the DVD ‘The Unknown Civil War Series: Gettysburg’ there is a roundtable discussion with Krick, Gallagher, Robertson, etc on Confederate Generals that was taped at the Confederate White House in the late ’90s. One of the Generals reviewed is Longstreet and you get to see Krick go after him but not as rabid as usual. Krick in the program seems to save his venom for Beauregard and Joseph Johnston.

            Robertson makes the interesting assertion in the program that Longstreet didn’t even write his memoirs which I really hadn’t heard before to be honest. Gallagher says that Shaara only read Longstreet’s memoirs in preparing ‘The Killer Angels’. He must have been talking just about Longstreet’s part because Shaara had to have read Chamberlain’s works and Pullen’s book to do the 20th Maine and Freeman for Lee.

            It is a interesting 50 minute program. I recommend seeking it out.

            Chris

            • Longstreet used the services of P.J. Moran as an editor and a typist, according to Jeff Wert’s biography. Wert says Moran, while an editor at the Atlanta “Constitution” was a former Union officer who had commanded Black troops and that, at some points, Moran edited for content. I’m not sure what point Robertson was trying to make.

              I really don’t know how Gallagher can be so certain on Shaara’s sources. I just looked at an article and comments on the writing of “The Killer Angels” and they’re discussing Jeff Shaara’s recollection of what was in his father’s library. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/28/making-killer-angels/ One comment raised the issue of Glenn Tucker’s work on Longstreet and that Jeff had remembered seeing Tucker’s book on Hancock but didn’t recollect seeing the Longstreet book. I’ve read “The Killer Angels” and both Tucker books dealing with Longstreet and I really believe they were sources, not just a florid 19th century memoir (I must confess I’ve never been able to wade through it cover to cover. Maybe that will be my next project.)

              • Thanks for all the info.

                When I saw the program for the first time I didn’t like Robertson’s tone about the authorship of Longstreet’s book. It was almost like he felt Longstreet wasn’t capable of writing a decent book like he did. Maybe I’m reading it wrong.

                Chris

                • Gee, the concept of an elderly man, with only one working arm and his non-dominant arm at that, who never pretended to be a professional writer seeking help in writing his memoirs . .

  3. I’m still waiting to hear what Rosecrans did that was good. Certainly not being a beaten dog at Chickamagua and Chattanooga is of positive note.

    By the way Dr. Simpson, the new “Elements of Style” now says that in English that there are appropriate times you can end a sentence in a preposition. I can’t tell you how long I spent in grad school figuring out how to rewrite sentences to avoid ending in prepositions for no good reason in many cases it seems.

    • I’d give Rosecrans some credit for his battle at Corinth, holding the line at Stones River (barely), the Tullahoma campaign which did feature some nifty maneuvers to push Bragg out of Middle Tennessee, and taking Chattanooga (which quickly led to his defeat at Chickamauga).

      Running afoul of Grant though in Northern Mississippi was not a good idea though for further career advancement.

      Chris

  4. “The mere mention of the book is likely to bring Grant fans out of the woodwork – I’ve seen them operate, and it ain’t pretty. They are such rabid gatekeepers (and I have no doubt they view themselves as such) that a perceived slight to anyone in the Grant solar system, let alone HUG himself, is likely to elicit a response of biblical proportions.”

    So in other words Smeltzer feels that Grant is the new Lee?

    • You’ll have to ask him. But it is a wonderful way to launch a preemptive first strike against (unnnamed) critics (of an unwritten review) … you just say that nothing you write will please most people because of what they already believe.

      Most of us read a book, write a review, and then await feedback. Harry’s found a way to short-circuit that. Once you understand the potential in his system, you simply pick up a book without opening it, move ahead to what you think readers will think of your as yet unwritten review, and then post about that. Why, you could write on hundreds of books a year without reading a single one of them using this strategy … and it’s simply taking the “commenting on a book one hasn’t read” strategy to its logical conclusion.

      It’s brilliant. It redefines content blogging to mean the absence of all content. :)

  5. Well look at the bright side. If the predictions turn out to be true he may be in demand by law enforcement to find missing people, at least in the unlikely event that the pay would bring better money than the combined fees that prospective authors would pay to be able to elicit the desired reactions from their readers.

  6. Having had time to actuallly read Harry’s entry, it’s not clear to me who or what categories of folks he’s referring to. But that’s the problem with not naming names. As a case in point, there is the Underappreciated Man Crowd, a/k/a the people who ride to the sound of the guns when anything mentioning George H. Thomas is published. These folks post and write vigorously at the mere hint of a “best generals” article, etc., etc. One can place a virtually guaranteed wager on that activity before it occurs. I doubt, however, that anyone making that wager would include Einholf or Wills in the group, for example. Hence the need for names and if Harry wants his point to be taken seriously he ought to have done that. . I do think that he makes a valid point regarding focused skimming – but that’s different from merely reading the advertising blurb, identifying the book’s author, and jumping to conclusions. In the case of the Hood book by Hood, I will confess, of course, to my own skepticism based on the author’s (distant) relationship to the General and on the fact that fairly often “revisionists” seem to favor dropping 30,000 tons of bombs on the target rather than resorting to a surgical strike. My own skim of the Hood book indicates that some of that may be going on – emphasizing “may”. It’s one thing to argue that some historians have blindly adopted unproven negatives about the General. It’s quite another to suggest that Hood’s attacks around Atlanta and at that little town in Tennessee were were actually well-planned operations thwarted by incompetent subordinates.

    • I think far too much is being made of the author’s relationship to his subject. That doesn’t bother me at all. It may explain why he feels the way he does, but it had nothing to do with evaluating the quality of the argument he sets forth.

      What raises eyebrows, however, is this advertising claim: “Without any personal papers to contradict them, many historians and writers portrayed 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.’ What most readers don’t know is that nearly all of these authors misused sources, ignored contrary evidence, and/or suppressed facts sympathetic to Hood.”

      One might suggest that given the fact that these are newly-discovered documents, we can’t fault historians for now considering what they did not know exists. As for the rest, one would be on better ground simply to dismantle an argument rather than speculate on someone’s motives. That’s the irony: an author who resists speculation on his motives can’t indulge themselves in the same sort of speculation without opening himself up to the same claim that what’s going on here is an angry relative flailing away with mixed results. That may not be fair, but it’s understandable. Better to focus on the scholarship and the story and refrain from such speculation: we’ll all be the better for it.

      • I agree with these points. Frankly, based on my skimming I don’t care for the tone which flavors the assertions made in the book about Sword’s work but, as noted, I haven’t yet read it in depth. My point about the author’s relationship is that it merely raises a caution flag for me, since motivation can indeed influence the reliability of arguments and the extent of the objective research and analysis which was done. To be honest, a major reason for my buying the Hood book was the discovery of the missing papers in time for some limited incorporation. Judging from the footnotes, there is a fair amount of usage given the proximity of the discovery to press time. One point by Harry which is on the mark relates to the decision which a consumer of these books must make to buy or not to buy. The Amazon advance look feature is something akin to the ability to walk into a bookstore and peruse the book for 15 minutes or so while examining excerpts, endnotes, and bibliography but that feature is often MIA for a specific book.

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