My Final Four: Historians Whose Writing Influenced Me

At the end of the year people like to offer lists.  Some of these lists involve ranking “the best” books of the year.  Others take the opportunity to list “the best” books for a certain field.  I’m not inclined to follow suit, for a very simple reason: too many people confuse “the best” with “my favorite.”  Now, there.s nothing wrong with listing what books you really liked, and telling us why.  But labeling those books “the best” can get a bit problematic.  In at least one ‘the best” list I saw a book that was simply terrible.  What’s a blogger supposed to do?  Explain why the book is terrible and imply something about the list maker’s judgment or intelligence?  I’d rather not go there.

However, I have no problem listing four historians whose work has influenced me in my evolution into a historian.  Not all of these authors are Civil War historians.  I never met any of these people except through their work.  Nor can I say that I always embrace their interpretations.  Nevertheless, They’ve been influential in ways worth mentioning.

I first came across Bruce Catton’s books when I was a boy.  I read his three-volume history of the war, his single-volume account of the Union’s Civil War, and his two volumes on Grant as a Civil War general (he took up where Lloyd Lewis had left off).  Within a few more years I had also read the Army of the Potomac trilogy, although what made that something of a challenge was finding Mr. Lincoln’s Army.  Catton was committed to history as literature, to telling a story on paper as he might well tell it while leaning back on a rocking chair, and yet he struck me as always something re than that.  Take a look at the footnotes in the Grant biography, where he takes apart the evidence (or lack thereof) behind many stories connected with Grant’s life (although I found him to be a little too defensive of his subject).  Catton wrote not just of the battlefield and not just of the generals, officers, and men, but also had something to say about the broader meanings of the war and how war changed things.  He’s much more thoughtful than many professional historians gave him credit for being, and you’ll see if you read This Hallowed Ground that he was in fact interested in drawing connections between homefront and battlefront than were many of his contemporaries.  Although I know that Shelby Foote has his fans, on the whole I find Catton to be a far superior historian.  Foote offers a military narrative of the war, one that is curiously old-fashioned.  His narrative seems obvious to the changes wrought by the war, especially emancipation (you might look at his token treatment of blacks in the Union armies).  No one had to remind Catton about the impact of the war upon slavery and how it served to emancipate some four million people, many of who fought to help secure both that freedom and Union victory.  Those of us who read Bruce Catton already knew about things other historians would claim to discuss for the first time in the 1980s.

I came across two more historians during my time at Exeter.  I loved reading Richard Hofstadter, having come to him through The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It.  Hofstadter was smart, even when he was wrong, and he offered an argument that one had to take seriously.  Over time, I’ve become more fascinated by his style and the intellectual level of his discussion even as I have come to question a good deal of what he had to say.  If Hofstadter was argumentative, A. J. P. Taylor could be downright perverse, with a wicked sense of humor.  Like Hofstadter, Taylor saw history as a form of social commentary, and he had a propensity for challenging the conventional wisdom.  That’s a useful trait to have as a historian, although I’m aware that some people make it the driving theme in their careers.

Finally, I discovered David Potter while in college.  I found Potter to be logical when he, too questioned common assumptions about the coming of the Civil War.  He was willing to dig deep into the sources to show that what we thought was true wasn’t necessarily so.  He was able to write in turn the master work, the solid monograph, and the perceptive essay, something not all historians can do.  Potter’s essay on how historians use the concept of nationalism remains a classic, and he clearly argued that differences in themselves do not promote disagreement and conflict, so that simply to highlight sectional differences fails as an explanation of the coming of the American Civil War.

In each case, two things stand out: these historians understood the literary craftsmanship needed to produce compelling narratives, and each of them offered arguments within those narratives.  Of these four scholars, only Catton could be defined as a historian of the American Civil War, although Potter wrote extensively on the coming of the war.  But all four have had some influence on how I approach my craft.  It would be interesting to see which historians other people would cite as influences on their approach to history.

3 thoughts on “My Final Four: Historians Whose Writing Influenced Me

  1. James F. Epperson December 28, 2010 / 4:45 am

    As I’m sure you are aware, I totally agree with your thoughts on Catton, especially re Catton vs. Foote. And, like you, I had trouble finding “Mr. Lincoln’s Army.” In fact, I read that trilogy in reverse order. My grandfather had “Stillness,” and I found it in a box in our attic during high school. The other two I found at the original Borders.

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