Burstein and Isenberg Stir the Pot

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg used the occasion of the controversy over Fareed Zakaria’s plagiarism to declare that journalists make the worst historians.  In a heated, pointed essay, the authors went after Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough, sideswiping Bill O’Reilly and Ron Chernow along the way.  These people were poor researchers who feasted on the work of others (sometimes plagiarizing along the way), prized colorful prose over original scholarship, and were simply opportunists who welcomed praise from a public that they did not deserve.  Or so we are told.

The essay received a lot of attention, as one might have expected.  Some of the commentary simply reviewed the traditional bifurcation of historical scholarship into academic and non-academic camps; some complained that the essay itself reflected the authors’ personal bitterness, although what they were bitter about remained undefined.  Another blogger simply rebutted the piece (terming it “imbecilic”); even a mention of the essay elicited a lengthy series of substantive comments.

Perhaps the most pointed (and best circulated) response was offered by Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory:  

You know, once in a while those charges of elitism directed at academics holds and here is a wonderful example. They seem to have no grasp as to what the general public wants in a good history book. I suspect that most people who read a lot of history are looking for good stories that help to make sense of the world around them and give meaning to their lives.

But that’s not all, for Kevin added:

The real problem here is that both Burstein and Isenberg want to be high-profile historians. Just check out their personal websites.

I confess that at first I did not know what to make of the article, let alone the fact that my Facebook feed filled up with references to it within hours of its appearance.  After all, I knew Nancy Isenberg from graduate school.  We shared an office with several other people, all of whom were NHL hockey fans (there was a Rangers fan; a Bruins fan; Nancy was a Flyers fan; and I was an Islanders fan.  Given that this was the early 1980s, only one of us was happy, for four straight years.  But I digress [happily]).  Most of the initial response seemed to approve of the message (whatever it was).  Upon reading the article, however, I confess I was taken aback, the same can be said for how I responded to the reactions to the article, several of which seemed as passionate and emotional as the original essay.

Part of the reason for my surprise, I concluded, was that Burstein and Isenberg swerved from point to point (and clearly the brakes were of no use, although perhaps it was a case of floor it all the way).  Zakaria’s plagiarism of historian Jill Lepore’s work was in itself inexcusable, a result of sloppiness and laziness: moreover, Zakaria often comes across as smug and conceited, and this slip reassured folks who thought he was somewhat superficial and shallow.  That said, he’s taken his lumps; moreover, his transgressions simply served as a point of departure for Burstein and Isenberg, who were apparently after bigger game (no one really thinks of Zakaria as a historian: he inhabits that area somewhere between a journalist and a public intellectual).  Goodwin and McCullough, on the other hand, had written popular biographies and had become celebrities, especially on television as talking heads.  Burstein and Isenberg recalled Goodwin’s plagiarism scandal and denigrated McCullough’s work, pointing out their supposed dependence upon research assistants, and argued that their work was not worthy because it was not original.

This seemed to me far away from Zakaria’s story.  What were the authors trying to say?  Were they really that upset at Goodwin and McCullough?  Why?  Because they were on television?  Because their books sold and sold and sold?  Because they were heavily dependent on the work of others, and employed researchers?  Gee, doesn’t that sound like the late Stephen Ambrose … who was a professionally-trained historian who received his PhD from the same place Nancy Isenberg and I received our doctorates … the University of Wisconsin?  Don’t even start on Ambrose the plagiarist who reportedly fabricated interviews with Eisenhower.  Hey, James McPherson’s on television.  His books sell.  Isn’t he a professionally-trained academic historian?  And what about Bruce Catton?  Was he a lousy historian?  After all, he was a journalist.  His books sold.  He employed researchers.  And if one thinks that plagiarism, both of text and ideas, is limited to journalists-turned-historians … think again.

I’m waiting for Dimitri Rotov to weigh in at any moment.

Yes, Bill O’Reilly’s book on the Lincoln assassination has been roundly mocked and deplored, but that’s because it’s a bad book.   And yes, Ron Chernow’s prose ran purple in the passage quoted, although a less charitable interpretation might be that this may be a case of biographers of Jefferson, Madison, and Burr expressing a little resentment at the recognition accorded this particular biographer of Washington and Hamilton.  Who knows?

No wonder some people came away with the impression that Burstein and Isenberg were bitter.  I happen to think that something else is at work here: a resentment as well as an expression of outrage at what the public and pundits value as good history and good historians.  As I read it, the complaint is that readers and reviewers tend to set aside original research and interpretations in favor of a mostly familiar story well told.  I’m not so sure the divide is so clearly defined; I’m also not sure that there isn’t a place for works of synthesis that bring to the public the work of others, properly credited.  But if Burstein and Isenberg are so unhappy that original scholarship does not get the public acclaim they believe it so richly deserves, one might also observe that the vast majority of academic historians make little effort to reach a broad public audience and forfeit their opportunity to become public intellectuals.  Indeed, many academic historians are downright envious of those among their colleagues who get even the slightest bit of public attention or appear on C-SPAN (trust me on this).

One way for any writer to reach a broader public is to write something that they might be interested in reading and to write in such a way as to facilitate that process. Yes, I can understand the resentment toward the select number of historians regarded as celebrities, but not all of them are journalists by trade, and some who are (David Maraniss and Edmund Morris come to mind, as do Richard Reeves and William Manchester) produce biographical works that are just fine in my opinion.  After all, biography is one way for a historian to reach that broader public; indeed, it may be the way that most readers learn about the founding generation … and guess which pair of historians have written several biographical studies? Why, the answer is Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg.  Yet ask academic historians what they think of biographers … we’ll be in for another controversy.

Once more, the problem is that the best way to talk about historical scholarship is to look at the work that is done instead of worrying so much about the person who is doing it.

And no, I have no idea what any of this has to do with Fareed Zakaria. Who’s next? Anderson Cooper? Chris Matthews (now there’s someone who might want to stop pretending to be a historian)? Andrew Napolitano (another worthy target for criticism)? Skip Bayless? Bad history is bad history, period. But academic historians who whine about the popularity of non-academic historians simply need to step up their game and ask themselves why they envy what others have.

3 thoughts on “Burstein and Isenberg Stir the Pot

  1. Jeff Reed August 22, 2012 / 4:52 am

    Nice post, Brooks. Reminds me of the “Uses and Abuses of History” unit from, well, way too long ago. In addition to journalists, we need to put Supreme Court Justices and politicians into the list of exemplars of those who usually need to improve their historical references. But as with many things these days, the louder and more strident usually get approving attention regardless of accuracy of their statements or quality of research, Perhaps the problem arises not so much from being associated with any one profession or field of training as from simply beng human? Liars, cheaters and bullies may, indeed, never grow up, regardless of their career paths.

  2. Ned b August 22, 2012 / 5:37 am

    Very well stated. I found their article interesting yet unsettling, however I could not articulate why. You have provided elucidation.

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