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.

31 thoughts on “The Perils and Pitfalls of Popular History

  1. wgdavis October 3, 2012 / 11:05 am

    You write just fine, good narrative style and concise structure. Easy reading, even when covering some dry areas.

    • wgdavis October 3, 2012 / 11:06 am

      By the way, Teddy won the race at Nationals Park just now…first time in history! [But he was aided by a Philly Phanatic!]

  2. michael confoy October 3, 2012 / 12:52 pm

    Well i have ordered the Grant book. The question is not whether it presents “new facts” but how it tells its story. Does it make us understand Grant better than we did before? How he thought? How he interacted with his generals such as Sherman? If it does, then mission accomplished. If not, well then it is valid criticism.

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 3, 2012 / 1:01 pm

      The answers to your questions apparently depend on what the reader has read before. What you make make of whether what an author says is new depends on what’s new to you. So the criticism’s valid (or not) regardless of whether the mission is accomplished for you.

      • Mark October 3, 2012 / 2:04 pm

        There is the question of an author’s target audience, and how well the author says something meaningful to them, whatever personal value it may have for any given individual. Sometimes critiques are overly harsh because the critiquer considers himself a member of the target audience when he really isn’t.

        • Mark October 3, 2012 / 2:06 pm

          Or a critiquer considers himself to understand the target audience from the outside better than he really does and so misjudges a book’s value.

        • Brooks D. Simpson October 3, 2012 / 3:14 pm

          I doubt that in either case I’m a member of the target audience. Neither are most reviewers.

          • Mark October 3, 2012 / 10:51 pm

            I wasn’t commenting about you. That’s why my moment-after add-on about “most reviewers” and their “outside” judgement about a given audience. I was only trying to say that a reviewers judgement often succeeds or fails based on his judgement about the knowledge or needs of a target audience, whether inside it or out.

  3. Mark October 3, 2012 / 1:43 pm

    I really enjoyed reading “Tales of Brave Ulysses”. Brooks, I wonder what you think the essay should have included in such a short piece.

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 4, 2012 / 7:31 am

      The rehabilitation of Grant’s reputation over the last decade or so is an increasingly familiar story. Brands’s overview of that process (and of the comparison to Lee) has been noted before. Thus we have to ask why he wrote the piece, if not to set up his book. He doesn’t do a particularly good job of that, either.

  4. Bob Pollock October 3, 2012 / 2:34 pm


    At this time, since we don’t have your follow-up to “Triumph” yet, which biography of Grant do you recommend?

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 3, 2012 / 3:16 pm

      For a concise treatment, Bunting. For a single volume, Smith, despite my reservations about it. That’s why I’m interested in reading Brands and other promised single volume biographies. Perhaps Brands will not say anything new, but he might say it very well.

      • Noma October 3, 2012 / 3:31 pm

        I would value hearing about your reservations about Smith, if you would be willing to elaborate a little. Thanks!

        • Brooks D. Simpson October 4, 2012 / 7:32 am

          Dimitri Rotov documented a tendency in Smith’s prose to echo rather closely several of his predecessors. He’s not the only person to observe this.

          • John Foskett October 4, 2012 / 10:11 am

            As Dinitri has pointed out, Smith isn’t alone – either authors end up parrotting others’ words or they parrott their own. To be fair, if one author has said it succinctly and well, the next may end up making the point in less efficient/”elegant” fashion – that’s not a justification, but, instead, is merely evidence of why the repetitive biography has inherent problems.

          • Noma October 5, 2012 / 7:47 am

            Brooks, thanks for the info about Rotov’s critique.
            This is definitely something I did not know about.

            John, your comment that often “either authors end up parrotting others’ words or they parrott their own,” seems well taken.

            I guess this has always been a problem. It’s so easy to get all these old books on Grant these days, just by searching on Google books. And I seem to notice that many of the biographies written in the 1800’s seem to be a re-hash or re-working of Albert Dean Richardson’s “A Personal History of Ulysses S Grant” with no mention of Richardson at all.

            On the other hand, Smith’s book is saturated with footnotes, so it seems daunting for an author to figure out how to avoid the problems that Rotov points out.

            Is this a major challenge to Grant biographers in general?

      • Bob Pollock October 3, 2012 / 3:45 pm

        Thank you, you confirmed my own thoughts. Brands is scheduled to speak at the park Nov. 1 and Ron White, who is also working on Grant bio will be there this Saturday.

        • Brooks D. Simpson October 4, 2012 / 7:33 am

          See, between Ron White, Ron Chernow, and Brands, will there be anything new? Just curious.

  5. Brad October 3, 2012 / 2:43 pm

    Having never read the Perret book but noticing your comment about a “cautionary tale,” does placing the Brands book next to Perret’s book have a less than positive connotation.

    For what it’s worth, the Perret book (as set forth in Amazon) has positive blurbs from Eric Foner and John Simon, not that Foner is a Grant expert but I thought Simon was.

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 3, 2012 / 3:13 pm

      If one reads Foner’s full review, one gets a fuller sense of what he said. Publishers are notorious for snipping positive statements from lukewarm reviews and plastering them on the back of paperbacks. As for Simon’s blurb, I would expect no less, especially as Perret dedicated a subsequent book about Lincoln to Simon.

      Simon’s comment is a prepublication blurb, by the way, not a review.

    • Mark October 3, 2012 / 11:10 pm

      Perret’s book was either the first or one of the first biographies I read about Grant, and I liked it very much. I didn’t know at the time that many Grant scholars hated it. I should read it again some day to see how it strikes me now since I know about all the controversy now and I’d like to re-evaluate the evaluators. I know that there are factual errors now that I know more, but I still think that Perret hit his target well on natural questions about the subject. Some things about the way he characterized Grant still ring true with me after almost fifteen years. I think many who go very hard on Perret don’t realize a truth stated about as well as anywhere by Shakespeare in “Cymbeline” (III, iii) where Belarius lays out a theory on two ways of reading a text from observing how the king’s sons Polydore & Cadwal respond quite differently to the same story. This seems to be a truth long forgotten among many now.

      • Brooks D. Simpson October 4, 2012 / 6:05 am

        Perret’s entitled to his own opinions and interpretations, but he is not entitled to his own facts. That was a serious problem with the book. There are also substantive problems … such as the entire lack of coverage of Reconstruction during Grant’s second term … as in not a word.

        Sometimes it’s very easy to offer an absorbing interpretation so long as one is free to disregard some facts. So it’s not reacting to the same story … it’s crafting one of your own based on “facts” that no one else can find.

  6. Leonard Lanier October 3, 2012 / 6:38 pm

    While I admit Brands is a good writer, his book on the California Gold Rush-The Age of Gold-showed glimmers of a Catton-like writing style, he hasn’t written anything original in years. His biography of Jackson, just like Jon Meachem’s American Lion, was a warmed-over version of Robert Remini’s and Harry Watson’s seminal works on the man and his age. Better biographies of Grant already sit on the shelf at the local library.

  7. John Foskett October 4, 2012 / 7:17 am

    As a consumer, I see two different lines of inquiry here: (1) does the book bring forth previously unpublished (and significant) information or put out a new interpretation; and (2) does it tell the same old story in a better style. I’ll invest in (1). I’m not buying (2). At some point the author needs to justify why he/she is turning out the [ ]th biography of [ ]. I’d prefer that a good resesrcher/writer turn his/her talents to figures who have gotten far less treatment. But then that’s unlikely to generate sufficient dubloons. Bonds’ review suggests that Brands is firmly entrenched in (2) and i suspect that it is, because even the pre-publication hype said nothing about novelty. The other problem with the repetitive biography is one that Dimitri pounces on with regularity – the hurdle of recycling the same facts in one’s own, new words.

    • Brooks D. Simpson October 4, 2012 / 7:43 am

      Several years ago I had an exchange with Benson Bobrick about his biography of George H. Thomas. The biography was largely a rehash of pro-Thomas literature dating back to the nineteenth century. There was precious little primary source material consulted. When I pressed him as to what was new about his book, he couldn’t answer.

      • John Foskett October 4, 2012 / 8:17 am

        That book is a paradigm of the problem, IMHO. The only answer available to him may have been “the cover and acid-free paper”.

  8. MikeRogers October 4, 2012 / 1:55 pm

    I will admit that my favorite history books are written, for the most part, by non-historians (defining historian in the academic sense). Like you Brooks, all of the works by Bruce Catton are prime examples of how history can (should?) be written. I’ll also include in that list of “non-historians” Shelby Foote and Bernard DeVoto; although DeVoto is outside of the Civil War. As an interested citizen in American history, what attracts me is narrative and character. The story line, even if familiar, has to have some pace and the historical players should have some depth. Not pandering here, but Brooks – your Grant biography did those things.

  9. Brad October 4, 2012 / 7:39 pm

    Sort of in the same vain, I’m wondering what the view may be about the new Seward biography. It received a very favorable review by Michael Burlingame in the Wall Street Journal. I don’t believe — but I’m no expert — that there is a lot out there.

  10. taxsanity June 11, 2015 / 3:46 pm

    I grew up reading Bruce Catton’s books — maybe the first “popular historian” who wrote in a way “accessable” by scholars and regular folks.

    Then I learned what went on — or think I do — leading up to the Civil War. Bruce Catton was great on battles (I assume) he could tell you what soldiers on either side ate, the day before battle.

    He knew a lot about belt buckles, for some reason.

    But did he know much about what caused the Civil War?

    Apparently not. To oeversimplify, he blamed radical abolitionist.

    I could be wrong, I need to get Catton’s books on kindle, and search. But if he ever even mentioned the following things, included in the link, McPherson, Foner, Foote, and a 100 others would have to write much different books.

    Oh, and the Museum of Confederacy would never have opened, in the first place.

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