Several readers of this blog have drawn my attention to yet another rant about me from an unhappy fellow blogger.
Brooks Simpson is a paragon for an underlying fault among many academic historians identified by Harvard’s Gordon Wood that might explain why Simpson thinks publishers have been “duped” into issuing my books and articles:
… many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.
First … although Gordon S. Wood received his PhD from Harvard, he taught at Brown University until his retirement. Gordon and I met way back in 1986 during a convention in Knoxville, Tennessee, and ate at a Pizza Hut. As I was but a graduate student at the time, I doubt he remembers the meal: I did because the first book I read as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia was his The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969). Those of you familiar with the book will recognize why I would remember that assignment.
Second, I said that the blogger in question “is a very funny person posing as a student of the American Civil War. He’s duped other people and publishers into believing the same thing.” You would think that someone pretending to be a qualified historian would render a quote and its meaning correctly, but then in this case that’s much too much to ask.
Having established the level of competence of my critic, let’s now look at the major charge: that I’m “obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history.”
Ah, yes. A biographer of famous and powerful dead white men in presidential, political, and military history is obsessed with inequality and white privilege. We await the citing of actual examples from my work … oh, that’s right … only a real scholar would support an accusation with evidence, and, once again, that might be too much to expect in this particular case.
I have also been accused with being obsessed with race, class, and gender. Clearly an interest in those subjects, in the eyes of my critic, would simply mark me as engaging in “incestuous conversations.”
Now, you’ll point out that Gordon Wood used those words, and I concur. What we’ve seen in recent years is that certain bloggers, including those who whine and yammer about political correctness, evil Yankees, and so on, have taken to citing Wood’s essays bemoaning the course of American historical writing, which in turn are reactions to his later work (see this essay for a useful overview). Apparently merely quoting Wood serves as sufficient analysis in their challenged minds.
I need not repeat what I’ve already written about these themes: you are directed to what I thought would be my comments delivered at the March 2013 conference on “The Future of Civil War History” hosted by the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. If anyone wants to debate or discuss those comments, they can do so here … or from their own blogs (instead of issuing foolish challenges to “debate” a subject of the blogger’s own choosing … the whole idea of blogs is that one can have these discussions and debates right here, available to everyone, even if some people don’t get that). Essentially, I believe that you can’t offer more than a rather narrow understanding of the American Civil War if you don’t incorporate the themes of race, class, and gender into your work as part of historical understanding. That’s not a sign of “political correctness,” a claim which in this context smacks of intellectual triteness. If your interest is in narrowly-focused battle and campaign studies that simply drop officers and men onto a battlefield and narrate the resulting fight as if it’s an online version of a HALO firefight, why, you are welcome to it.
Real historians know that the story of war is more than that. Let’s move this conversation into a different venue, that of professional sports. Now, I’m sure you could write a wonderfully detailed description of the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and the Yankees featuring a home run by Bucky Bleepin’ Dent, but a far better book (or a book on the 2003/2004 ALCS clashes) would talk about the impact of money on the construction of each team’s rosters, the stories of how the Red Sox were jinxed, how teams represented in some fashion the fanbase that supported them, the increasing impact of media, notions of ownership, and so on. In other words, a truly rich and memorable account of those contests would take readers to many places, not simply Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium, and would touch on many subjects.
The same can indeed be said about writing a study of the Gettysburg campaign. You would get a lot more out of it if you wrote about how race, class, and gender (as well as politics, ethnicity, and so on) were woven into that campaign. These perspectives would come naturally to a gifted writer who had thought long and hard about these matters.
But not everyone feels this way … including, it appears, my critic:
Before 1998 official information provided by the Civil War National Park Battlefields like Gettysburg were specific to the historical events on the battlefields and the military campaigns connected with them. The Park Service avoided statements about the causes of the war for two reasons. First, they were unnecessary to the study of the military events. Second, they were subject to conflicting interpretations, best left to visitors to decide for themselves…. The Park Service was wise to originally focus on the historical military events at the National Battlefield Parks. It should have declined to add editorials about the causes of the war, which are inevitably subject to “interpretive spin.”
Let’s begin by suggesting the remarkable ignorance that this statement displays about Getteysburg National Military Park, especially its mission statement, which speaks about interpreting the battle and the Gettysburg Address “within the context of American history.” It’s rather difficult to make any sense of the Gettysburg Address without understanding something about the causes of the war, including the debate over slavery, and what had happened to that point of the war, especially in regards to slavery. But, contrary to the narrative offered by my critic, who seems wonderfully ignorant about the evolution of the park and its mission, it was in 1990 that Congress defined the mission of the park as follows:
. . . In administering the park, the Secretary [of the Interior] shall take such action as is necessary and appropriate to interpret, for the benefit of visitors to the park and the general public, the Battle of Gettysburg in the larger context of the Civil War and American history, including the causes and consequences of the Civil War and including the eﬂects of the war on all the American People.
That 1990 came eight years before 1998 escapes the fine mind of my critic, who wants to blame a single person, Dwight T. Pitcaithley (whose name my critic spells in multiple ways), for what has happened at GNMP.
In short, the twisted rendering of historical fact and interpretation by my critic results in utter nonsense masquerading as informed narrative, although I suspect that in saying this I’ll be accused of “political correctness” in following some unstated agenda … at least, that’s what some people will say.
Now that we’ve established that my critic’s familiarity with the basic rules of evidence and chronology suggest a fundamental lack of competence, we can move on to discuss whether we might obtain a better understanding of what happened on various Civil War battlefields if we integrate race, class, gender, ethnicity, and overarching political aims in our interpretation of those battles and battlefields. I would think this to be painfully obvious, but then some people (including, one ventures, serveral recent critics) seem blind to the painfully obvious. Let’s just mention a few items in passing …
Isn’t it better to visit Harpers Ferry if you have some idea of why it became important in 1859?
We talk about the Irish Brigade and the German immigrants in the XIth Corps. Might an understanding of ethnicity help us there?
Robert E. Lee noted the need to offer the home front some relief in 1863 by invading the North, an idea that might well have been reinforced by the Richmond Bread Riots. Might we need to know more about the home front and how women experienced the war as a way to understand military decisions better? What about Lee’s orders on how to treat civilians? What about the role of women when it came to desertion?
How can you explain why Abraham Brian was not at his rented farm on Cemetery Ridge in July 1863 if you don’t know about the activities of the Army of Northern Virginia in capturing blacks?
What do you make of conscription and the notion that it had become a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight? Class, anyone?
Gee, folks, why was Antietam important, period?
Why did generals continue to choose to command from the front, even though that exposed them to deadly enemy fire? Might it have had something to do with morale, inspiring the men, and responding to expectations of manly masculine behavior that defined courage in certain ways?
Yes, I know, I’ve left out many possible questions. It’s a few items, remember?
Some people must not even think of asking these questions if they think that to raise them demonstrates an interest in race, gender, class, ethnicity, and overriding political aims (to name but a few concerns), marking them as “politically correct” or too interested in “inequality and white privilege.” Talk about fear and insecurity. I believe differently. One gains a far richer, more thoughtful, more insightful, and fuller understanding of what generals and soldiers did–and why–if they just open up their minds and imagination to the complexities involved in being historically accurate.
And if you don’t believe that, I feel sorry for you.
(Mind you, the blogger in question also declares that “the attack on Confederate heritage is often an attempt at cultural genocide.” Really.)