Historians Criticizing Historians

Last Thursday, I flew to Los Angeles to be interviewed for a forthcoming show on the history of the presidency and the presidents.  The person who booked my flight must be from the East Coast, because the interview was in Universal City, but the airport was LAX … so the cab rides cost more than the plane ticket.  Moreover, for some reason I was put on an early morning plane, although my taping did not begin until 1 PM.  My return flight was delayed, and so I did not get home until about 10:30 PM.  Yes, it was a long day.

Fortunately I had brought a book with me … Gary Gallagher’s The Union War.  I’ve read vague words of phrase about this book on some blogs, but very little that was specific; I also was aware that Eric Foner had reviewed it in the New York Times, and had taken Gary to task on several counts.  I recalled that Eric’s prize-winning study, The Fiery Trial, had also come under criticism from Allen Guelzo when it came out, and reading that review made me feel a bit uncomfortable (although I’m sure that in light of the prizes Eric’s study garnered, he isn’t feeling too bad).  After all, I know all three men, and both Eric and Gary have been more than kind to me over the course of my career.  So I was a bit at a lost to understand exactly what had happened, and I turned to Gary’s book to make up my own mind about his argument and the criticism it had sparked.

Those two issues turned out to be separate and distinct, if nevertheless related, issues.  For The Union War is as much a mediation on the writing of history as it is on the historical topic it discusses.  Gallagher calls into question (a) the degree to which some historians have privileged emancipation over reunion in their interpretations (b) the tendency of some historians to ignore the role of the Union army in bringing freedom to the enslaved (c) the tendency of some historians to (over)emphasize either the existence of antislavery sentiment or its growth during the conflict (d) the tendency of some other historians to downplay or mischaracterize the importance attached to black Union service (as in persistent rumblings that the absence of black regiments from the Grand Review of May 1865 was deliberate (e) the methodology (or lack thereof) used by some historians to characterize soldier attitudes (Gallagher suggests that there’s a lot of cherry-picking of quotes, and that one could provide evidence of some sort for a multitude of perspectives, some in direct opposition to each other).  At times this primer in professional practice overshadows the central argument of The Union War, which in effect becomes two books: one about the role of the concept of “union” in the Union war effort, and one about historians, interpretations, and methodology.  In turn, Foner’s review takes aim at Gallagher’s statements about historical scholarship while raising a few reservations of his own.

Foner is not the only historian who has noted that Gallagher spent a great deal of time discussing the work of others.  James McPherson raises the same point in passing in his essay review of several books, including Gallagher’s volume.  “Perhaps [Gallagher] spends a little too much time criticizing those historians—and even occasionally sets up a straw man to attack—but he does make his point with force and clarity,” says McPherson, although McPherson endorses Gallagher’s argument about the importance of Union even as he takes issue with Gallagher’s stance on emancipation (read the review).  Given that Jim can be more pointed, however, I don’t find his review of Gallagher harsh, even if he takes issue with some of the arguments presented.

Now, one needs to know a few things about the world I inhabit as a professional historian.  Everyone who prepares a review can rest assured that at least one person will read the review: the author.  So there’s no chance that someone can chat freely behind someone else’s back.  There’s also a very good chance that author and reviewer will cross paths (usually multiple times) in the years to come.  Thus, it makes for good practice not to say anything in a review that one would not say to an author’s face.  It’s also good practice to assume that other people will read your review and take what they will from it.  Thus, there’s a level of accountability here that, frankly, is absent when buffs, the general public, and so on chat away about historians on internet discussion groups or blogs (it’s far easier to discover the latter than the former).  In many cases, the people who are most critical of historians (and who are at pains to offer all sorts of speculations as to motive and seem inspired with the notion that they are at their most witty when they are at their most insulting) would not dare say the same things to the scholar in question in front of an audience.  Of course, perhaps that’s why so many of them don’t even dare post under their own names.  Moreover, I always find it amusing when those people are critical of such pointed exchanges (as in “I expected better from a scholar”), unaware that such a comment is self-denigrating … that their boorish behavior is okay because they aren’t scholars.  At the extreme, such people remind me of the rowdy drunken fans yelling abusive comments at players during a sporting event.  A few of them probably also steal foul balls from children.  🙂

But what is one to make of historians criticizing historians for criticizing historians?  Here I think part of the problem is the choice of forum as well as the presentation.  Generally speaking, historians in reviews and historiographical essays are more critical of each other than they are when framing their own books.  Although I’ve had critical things to say about several historians in reviews and some journal articles, I tend to set those comments aside when it comes to book chapters or books (although I recently diverged from that practice in a chapter to be included in a book of essays on the battle of Chattanooga that looks at how contemporaries and historians have treated the November 25 assault on Missionary Ridge).  I don’t tend to speculate about motives, sticking instead to the scholarship in front of me.

Not everyone shares that position.  Take Geoffrey Perret, who went after William S. McFeely both in his 1997 Grant biography and in a C-SPAN Booknotes interview (start at 15:04, then go to 49:15).  You can decide for yourself whether it was a good idea to do this (although I was critical of McFeely long before Perret was, Perret’s criticism seems to me to be essentially unfair and misleading, to say the least). Perret and I exchanged less than favorable reviews of our respective books (and see Eric Foner on Perret’s book): I had to chuckle when I came across Perret’s review:  in attempting to dismiss my work by saying, “Professor Simpson relates the stories others have told many times — the unwilling and unhappy West Point cadet, the young lieutenant tested in the Mexican War, the abrupt resignation from the Army in 1852,” he seems to have forgotten that Grant resigned in 1854.  When invited by the book review editor to respond to the review, I declined.  It wasn’t worth the trouble, and the result would simply involve me in splashing mud.  I note that while Bill McFeely and I have exchanged pleasant notes, Perret and I failed to exchange a single word when we were thrown together for several days at Gettysburg College in 2001.

What does this all prove?  Well, first, that historians are human too.  As someone who has a reputation for being frank with my criticism, I accept that others in turn may be less sparing of me than might otherwise be the case.  That motivates me to make sure that I do the best I can, and it also means that I can be far more critical of my lapses, in part because I’ve given someone the opportunity to take a swing.

Second, it reminds us that historians will be held accountable, in public as well as private, professionally as well as personally, for what they say about each other’s work, something that cannot be said of other critics who surface on various internet forums.  For example, I’m sure this post will soon make the rounds among my colleagues.

Third, I believe it remains better practice in books to deal with the arguments presented than the people who present them.  Historiography is better left to journal articles and reviews.  My own opinion is that in a book it is better to relegate a discussion about extant scholarship to an appendix or footnotes, leaving one to make the argument in the text.  This runs counter to professional training, in which historiography is sometimes practiced at the expense of history, and students are taught not to talk about what happened, but what historians have said about what happened.  Indeed, I came away from the essay on Missionary Ridge, which explores issues of memory, history, and interpretation, feeling somewhat uneasy, because in the end the essay was as much about what people said happened as what happened.  It was an interesting exercise in deconstruction, but I’m not sure I’ll repeat it in the near future.

What do you think?


8 thoughts on “Historians Criticizing Historians

  1. Ray O'Hara July 3, 2011 / 5:51 pm

    Hmmm, a long post with a lot of links. which I’m wading through. It certainly generates thought and opinion in my brain, and I wonder if I can express them coherently in writing as I and more verbal than literary in expressing myself. so please excuse any disjointedness on my part.

    The first point in McP’s review that caught my eye.
    “”In the process, however, he overstates the case against emancipation as an avowed purpose of the war for the Union. The very first sentence of the book states his thesis: “The loyal American citizenry fought a war for Union that also killed slavery.”'{GG passage quoted by McP}

    “Also” is the key word here; it implies that the death of slavery was a mere byproduct of the war.”

    I’m with GG here,in Harvard’s Memorial Hall the legend on the Wall of Honor says “The War to Restore the Union” and if Lincoln had tried to sell it as a war of Abolition at the outset I do believe many ‘Yankees’ would have stayed home. There seems too much info that the initial Northern response was about reunion, a situation which I think Lincoln recognized by not adding abolition to the Northern war aims until the war over a year old and everybody was irrevocably committed to fighting and it was obvious to even the most ambivalent Yankee that the only hope for long term peace was abolition. Lincoln with his House Divided speech had anticipated it but it took awhile for many in the North to understand that point.

    McP then follows the above quote with this
    “Intention did not drive the process” by which the presence of Union soldiers in the South liberated slaves, Gallagher maintains.

    “”Troops commanded by officers who cared nothing about black people…proved as destructive to slavery as those led by ardent advocates of emancipation
    No matter how prejudiced their own attitudes, Union soldiers functioned as cogs in a grand military mechanism that inexorably ground down slavery.”” {GG passage quoted by McP}

    Intentionality may have had more to do with the abolition of slavery than Gallagher is willing to grant. The invasion of slave states by the British army in the American Revolution liberated a good many slaves, but it did not end slavery because the British government had no intention of doing so. But from the beginning of the Civil War there were abolitionists and Republicans who believed that this war against a slaveholders’ rebellion must end slavery,”

    McP seems to be arguing against a point GG didn’t make, at least not in the quotes McP chose to use in his review ,I have to read GG’s book to see his full idea.
    Northern troops without and abolistionist bone in their body clearly helped in the destruction of Slavery because slaves were an important part of the CSA infrastructure and infrastructure is always an obvious military target, The Butler policy on Contrabands which McP describes as the tip of the Abolition wedge had to make sense to even the anti-abolitionist Yankee.

    And McP bringing up that many “Abolitionists and Republicans” were from the outset driven by anti-slavery sentiment doesn’t in any way dispute or disprove GGs quoted passage. Not everybody in the loyal states was either an abolitionist or Republican and so stating their views is a bit of a non-sequitor on McP’s part.

    McP really isn’t reviewing the books he mentions it is very superficial in that regard, he uses them as a strawman{GG’s book} and a stalking horse {Goldfield, on whom McP uses the dreaded R-word on & Rable} to push his own views on the subjects the books raise.

  2. TF Smith July 4, 2011 / 9:25 am

    Valid historiographical discussions (and disputes) presumably belong in the professional journals, which are (supposed to be) refereed and professional; general interest media reviews should be (presumably) more along the lines of “what is the cost/benefit/time/enjoyment analysis” for Joe or Jane Average Reader.

    The readers of “Journals of Ideas” (TM) are, I would guess, a little different than general interest media, but the issue there always seems to be presentism and modern politics; how many times has Thucydides been dragged into some 20th or 21st century adventure?

    Polemics are just that, of course.

  3. Brooks D. Simpson July 4, 2011 / 5:00 pm

    In another blog, this observation was offered:

    p.s. If you read the review, you’ll notice he picks an absurd quarrel with Gary “Stop-the-Madness” Gallagher. Regular readers of this blog will remember that Gallagher, an editor at UNC Press, promised to let McPherson write a history of Civil War navies. That promise was broken, the book being written by Craig Symonds. Bad feelings?

    Here’s a little game for folks to play: why is the logic of this claim flawed? What critical piece of evidence did this blogger overlook, although it should have been staring him right in his face when he composed the comment?

    • Stephen Graham July 4, 2011 / 10:06 pm

      That none of Symonds’ books on the Civil War navies are from UNC Press?

  4. Sean Dail July 4, 2011 / 8:21 pm


    Could you perhaps be alluding to the fact that Craig Symonds’ books was published by Oxford University Press, and not UNC Press?


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