Civil Warriors Greatest Hits: Form and Function (part one)

(this post first appeared, in modified form, on Civil Warriors on January 25, 2007)

I can well understand how some people who have done good research and produced meritorious scholarship are taken aback when they believe they’ve been dismissed all too quickly by an academic historian (and, no, I don’t think this is just a product of the offended’s imagination). It’s also true, however, that at times I have come under criticism from some people who have a very narrow focus (and sometimes an obsession) and where what I say has been dismissed as “politically correct” (that’s hilarious, for reasons I may discuss another time; I’m more worried about being historically correct) or that I’m some academic historian who hasn’t done the work, doesn’t understand something, I’m serving some secret agenda (for example, depriving George H. Thomas of his due), and, by Jove, I’m not half the researcher and historian they are (this is more likely from someone who’s never published a word or a peer-reviewed word).

Civil War history is a special field precisely because it welcomes so many visitors and practioners with so many interests. Thus, as some others have noted in this discussion here and elsewhere, one reason the “amateur/professional” division comes up is because there’s so much interaction among so many people with different credentials, talents, and interests. I don’t see the same sorts of debates among historians of the early republic, for example. Moreover, I believe that to be competent in the field of Civil War military history, one needs to maintain contact with all sorts of people, including NPS historians, archivists, researchers, and writers.

But I do think we might ponder what we say, because sometimes what we “observe” says more about us than about what is observed. Take the notion of sales and audience. Academic historians are not of one mind here, and the envy/snobbishness noticed by non-academic historians on the part of academic historians is also noticed by some academic historians who deal with their peers (not all of whom are of the same mind). Some academic historians are indeed envious of those academic historians who write well, see their books sell, and who have a public profile. I can speak from personal experience there: my first book was a History Book Club alternate and was reviewed in The New York Review of Books. Some of my colleagues were none too pleased: others were quite nice about it. But there was one colleague who got quite snippy and said that I published as much as I did because I worked in a field with ample outlets.

That reasoning astonished me. To this day I’m not sure why I should be forced to apologize for working in a field where there’s a ready audience. I pointed out that the observation had nothing to do with the quality of the work published (point of information: my department chair in the mid-1990s once declared in front of a department meeting that I would be astonished to know how few of my colleagues had read my work before voting on me for tenure. I figured she ought to know). Finally, I remarked that my colleague ought not to worry: I could write a book that wouldn’t sell, if that’s what it took to earn my spurs. Ironically, the manuscript I had in mind, which had once served as my master’s thesis, was The Political Education of Henry Adams, which turned into two C-SPAN appearances (although the sales were tepid, to put it kindly).

But the reverse is also true: sales are not the best indicator of quality. If they were, well, then. American Idol’s your cup of tea, and Deal or No Deal is perfection on the small screen. If one writes for sales, one might consider casting aside history altogether in favor of a novel about a dysfunctional family (or achieve both aims with a study of some command teams during the Civil War). The fact is that one writes different books for different purposes and for different audiences, and non-academic historians don’t really have to worry about the academics unless they want to become part of the conversation. Different audiences crave different books for different purposes. Academics do have to worry about how their work contributes to knowledge and understanding as a professional imperative, to be able to explain to people outside one’s field why what one does is important. We can write for a popular audience, but do so at the risk of earning envy, even scorn, from some peers (not all, perhaps not even many … don’t overgeneralize). And yet I believe that it’s essential that such historians also write for a broader public, a skill not emphasized in graduate training (indeed, the public role of the professional historian is virtually ignored in graduate training). In some cases, we succeed at both tasks at the same time: at other times, we diversify our research and writing agenda to serve different audiences and achieve different ends with different sorts of books. And, of course, there are those academics who eschew writing for a broader audience altogether, as well as those who write little if anything at all. When I took my first job as an ABD in a small liberal arts college, I instantly became the second-most published member of the department. And so it goes.

One can gain gratification and recognition from a book that does not enrich one financially. Take the Adams study. There’s a small and active world of Henry Adams scholarship, and, as I had intended, there was a larger world of the evolution of American politics and political criticism where I wanted to join the conversation, and I did. Nor would I expect The Reconstruction Presidents to enjoy as large an audience among non-academics that it did among academics, because – surprise – people aren’t as interested in Reconstruction as they are in the Civil War, although my expertise in Reconstruction politics allows me to comment on things such as impeachment, Scooter Libby, disputed elections, and the like, just as my knowledge of presidential politics contributed to my being the American commentator on Nippon TV for the third presidential debate in 2004. None of that has anything to do with whether the Gettysburg guide Mark and I did was any good, for example, and obviously that was directed to a different audience with different interests. But it shows that my life as an academic historian is a bit more complicated than writing about Ulysses S. Grant.

So I return to my initial premise: that what counts most is the quality of the work done, and not who does it. I think my training as a professional historian has shaped the questions I ask and how I ask them, but the earning of an advanced degree was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that end involved teaching as well as writing. Had history not become my vocation, it certainly would have continued as my avocation. I just followed my father’s advice to do something that I liked doing (with the caveat that I should be good at it), and the rest is …

… to be continued

3 thoughts on “Civil Warriors Greatest Hits: Form and Function (part one)

  1. Daniel Weinfeld March 16, 2011 / 8:50 am

    I’m interested in the role of the publisher. Obviously the goal of anyone who writes, whether to build credentials for tenure or to sell books to a wider audience, is to get published. What role do you see that publishers play in shaping what is written by academics? For example, are academics in fields with less popular appeal discouraged by Univeristy presses who are increasingly focused on their bottom line? I’m assuming that the Civil War is one of the few fields where academics have access to NY publishing houses. How does this opportunity shape writing in your field? What impact do you see going forward from the dramatic changes in publishing and the rise of ebooks?

    • Brooks D. Simpson March 22, 2011 / 11:04 pm

      The world of scholarly publishing is changing, and eventually those presses will publish in many forms. I think the monograph may become an endangered species as a result, at least in its present letterpress format, at least for those books with a print run of 1,000 or less (many of which are for research libraries). However, letterpress books will still be a part of the trade market and larger scholarly press market for a while.

      Trade/commercial publishing is a different animal, with advantages and disadvantages (as well as significant variations within). Generally speaking, that is not the best venue for an academic’s beginning efforts, because there are all sorts of questions about the vetting process at many of these presses.

      Ebooks promise to change some things, especially if someone develops an easy self-publishing approach, where the major effort is getting your foot in the door with a distributor.

  2. MarkD March 16, 2011 / 9:46 am

    Wow, I hadn’t heard of The Political Education of Henry Adams. Just ordered it from the library. Can’t wait to read it.

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