The Perils and Pitfalls of Popular History

As a boy I was always attracted to American history. Among the aspirations I had were two which remain to me to this very day: to write a book like Bruce Catton and to write a book about Theodore Roosevelt. My parents had showered me with copies of Catton’s work as a boy, and I loved the way he could tell a story that made a point. At the same time, my grandmother told me of how she met TR in South America in 1913, describing how TR spoke, and she took me to TR’s Sagamore Hill (the first of many visits), where, once upon a time, you could meander through the halls of the house on your own, taking it all in.

As I grew older, I pondered how to go about these realizing these dreams. In both cases I came to the same conclusion. While I would have loved to have written A Stillness at Appomattox or Grant Takes Command or several of Catton’s other works (even his stab at historical fiction for children, Banners at Shenandoah), the fact was that Catton had already written them. Yes, I could learn from Catton and use what I had learned as I did my own work, but it was important to understand the difference between learning from someone else, emulating them, and mimicking them. My work would have to be my own and bear my own stamp, for better and for worse.

I came to a similar conclusion about TR. Simply put, while I loved reading books about the man, I would not write about him until I had found something new, distinctive, and interesting to say about him. It would be easy to scribble another all-too-familiar rendering of his life, which was inherently dramatic and thus lends itself to tale telling. Over the years, I’ve thought about my TR problem, so to speak, and at last I am getting to where I need to be to write about him, in large part because the book I now want to write about him is what I want to write (as opposed to what other people might want me to write) and that it says something interesting about him.

In both cases I set forth an operating principle that I had to have something new to say (or at least a new way to say it) before I wrote about something. Yes, I would be more than aware of the work of others; I would think long and hard about what they had to say; I would understand how historical scholarship is a collaborative effort pursued individually by people engaged in conversation, give-and-take, and the sharing and testing of ideas and interpretations;but in the end what I wrote would be mine.

What brings this to mind is not, as some of you may fear, the recent rant by Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg about popular history that focused upon the writers of such work. Instead, during the last week I’ve read two reviews of books that address, one way or another, Ulysses S. Grant. They are Russell Bonds’s review of H. W. Brands‘s new biography of Grant, The Man Who Saved the Union, and Brian Jordan’s review of David Alan Johnson‘s study of the 1864 campaign, Decided on the Battlefield.  When I first heard of each of these books under review, I was intrigued, in part because I’ve written (and am writing) about Grant and because I’ve been pondering a project on the political and military campaigns of 1864. I have yet to see Brands’s book, although I have read an essay by him on Grant that I found interesting as much for what it did not say as for what it said, and I posted a presentation by him on this blog. I came across Johnson’s book on the shelf of a local Half Price Books, and after skimming it and checking the notes, I placed it back on the shelf, convinced that here was one book I could pass up for purchase. Jordan’s review confirms the wisdom of that impression; Bonds’s assessment of Brands’s book leaves me convinced that eventually Brands’s volume will rest on my bookshelf next to Geoffrey Perret’s 1997 biography of Grant.

Both reviewers emphasize an important point: they find that neither author has anything new or original to say about their subject. Indeed, it appears that both books (and their authors) seem determined to skip over the work of others as if an act of ignorance (real or pretended) precedes a claim to originality. Just as telling, however, is the fact that Bonds, a non-academic, is evaluating the work of an academic, Brands, while Jordan, an academic, is evaluating the work of a non-academic, Johnson. This sets the world described by Burstein and Isenberg on edge: it reminds us that we should evaluate historical scholarship by what’s written, not by who’s writing it.  It is, after all, the work itself that should count.

I expect Brands’s Grant biography will be celebrated and commended in many popular journals and newspapers. I say that because my own experience suggests that a skilled author who knows how to position his book and say the right things finds those assertions echoed in many of those initial reviews, where some reviewers tend to take the author’s assertions at face value. Rare (and better) is the review that puts those assertions to the test. As for the impression it will leave on Grant scholarship and the contribution it will make … that remains to be seen, although the fate of Perret’s Grant biography some fifteen years later might serve as a cautionary tale. I look forward to reading it.

News About John Tyler

The tenth president of the United States, John Tyler, was also the first president to assume the office upon the death of his predecessor. He later sat in the Confederate Congress. Most of you know this. However, I bet few of you knew this.

Somewhere, some day, this information will turn up on an exam, with the student proudly citing the internet as a source. You think this doesn’t happen? See here.