I was hoping for a quiet weekend in which to get some work done before MLB dealt with PED offenders, including one Mr. Alex Rodriguez, next week. No such luck …
Harry Smeltzer treated his audience today to a statement of his decision to review two books published by Savas Beatie: a discussion of John Bell Hood based on new materials and Frank Varney’s General Grant and the Writing of History, which explores how Grant’s accounts of various events misled readers and slighted various people, especially (at least in this volume) William S. Rosecrans. Now, Harry’s admitted that he hasn’t read the books yet, so he’s loathe to comment on their contents, but he’s already predicting how people will react to a review he hasn’t written of a book he hasn’t read. Varney’s book, Smeltzer tells us, “delves into the ever dangerous waters of U. S. Grant criticism. The mere mention of the book is likely to bring Grant fans out of the woodwork – I’ve seen them operate, and it ain’t pretty. They are such rabid gatekeepers (and I have no doubt they view themselves as such) that a perceived slight to anyone in the Grant solar system, let alone HUG himself, is likely to elicit a response of biblical proportions.”
This, of course, is exactly what controversy/confrontational blogging is all about: taking shots at people just for the hell of it and hoping that you’ll get a reaction (mission accomplished, Harry!). Talk about hit counts …
Let me advance a modest suggestion. It might be a good idea to read the book first. It might then be a good idea to write the review one announces that one intends to write. Then it might be a good idea to read the responses to the review, and to assess those responses much as you might assess the book itself … on their merits. To dismiss a criticism of the Varney book (or of a flawed review) by saying that the critic is a “Grant gatekeeper” does not advance the discussion (although it would be interesting if Smeltzer could find it within himself to identify these gatekeepers by name). Surely Smeltzer would not appreciate having his own objectivity questioned just because he happens to have a higher opinion of some Union generals than others might have.
Yet Smeltzer persists in this I’m objective/others are not (maybe I should say I’m disinterested/others are not, but too many people don’t know what disinterested means) argument: “I have no dog in either fight, regardless of my thoughts on those who do (have dogs in the fight – I’m too distracted to figure out how to write that sentence so that it doesn’t end in a preposition.) I’ll report back to you as best I can. But I have a sneaky feeling that my efforts will be deemed woefully inadequate by partisans of all stripes.” In short, he’s already dismissed criticism of a review he has yet to write about a book he has yet to read.
So much for “content” blogging.
I have Varney’s book (no, the publisher did not send me a copy), and I’ve skimmed it. As one might expect, I was curious as to what he said about my work (it is one of the most amusing aspects of my line of work that scholars often deny their humanity in such instances, which, when you think about it, is a sign of their humanity). Truth is, Varney deems my biography “admirable” (page 130) and had very little critical to say about it (those minor matters will be addressed at another time, when I believe I’ll be able to clarify a few things). Nor do I find the central premise of his book to be objectionable: that Grant’s writings advanced a case for his interests and reputation over that of other generals, including Rosecrans, and that some historians and biographers at times have been insufficiently critical or questioning of Grant’s accounts. Indeed, in an introduction to Grant’s Memoirs in 1996, I offered criticisms of that work as containing distortions and omissions; I’ve done so more recently in a piece about what Grant had to say about Shiloh and its aftermath. What this says about unnamed gatekeepers or unnamed dog owners I haven’t a clue.
Varney’s book should stand and fall based upon what he presents. So should the evaluations of those who comment on the book. Why anyone should claim otherwise is best left for them to explain (and they should also explain why they are above a fray that some folks wish to stir up).
Now, I could predict how I think Harry Smeltzer and certain other people will respond to these pointed observations, and in fact I could follow Smeltzer’s lead and launch a preemptive first strike by discounting their (as yet unseen) complaints as the product of this or that. But I won’t. Let’s just say that the more this sort of stuff goes on, the less the discussion will be about the actual contents of Varney’s book, and that, I would suggest, is a disservice to both the author and scholarship as a whole.
I have been an interested onlooker in the debate over the other volume under discussion. That discussion has also gone off the rails already into a discussion of vested interests with precious little reference to the content of the volume. Having not read the book, I had no reason to comment on it, and I was hoping for a more informed discussion based on the merits of the volume. I maintain hopes that I will yet encounter that discussion. But one sign that people like talking more about each other than about the work some of us do surfaced this morning in Kevin Levin’s blog, which I encountered after I read Harry Smeltzer’s post. I wish we had better things to do than to go down that road again. I most certainly do. The semester’s looming and I’m behind on other obligations.
No wonder they call August the dog days of summer.