Category Archives: Historiography

Thomas DiLorenzo takes issue with somebody. . .but who, exactly?

That’s the question I ponder at a new piece I’ve written for the Abraham Lincoln Institute blog.  See what you think, and feel free to add your comments over at that site.

I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to pitch in over at the Institute blog, both as a contributor and editor.  Let me take this opportunity to ask that you make it one of your regular online stops if you’re a history blog reader, and to add it to your blogroll if you’re a history blog writer.  In the near future we’ll be posting some interviews with Lincoln scholars and other material of interest, so check it out.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Historiography, History and Memory, History on the Web

John Ferling has a new book coming out

…later this month, about the movement for independence.  Here’s some info from the publisher.

I like Ferling’s work; I think his assessments are usually balanced and carefully thought-out.  His Almost a Miracle is probably the best one-volume history of the Revolutionary War out there.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

Just how bad is the state of popular Civil War writing?

Pretty bad, according to Dimitri Rotov:

The mass-market nonfiction reader is a kind of crackhead in search of fiction-quality narratives. The “kick” in nonfiction that reads better than a novel is that “it’s like, real man.”

We need sociologists to study these people. Instead we get Civil War authors who serve their segment of this market with elaborately contrived master narratives, books gushing with “novelistic” anecdotes ripped out of their natural context (of diaries and letters), and stripped down “stories” featuring “characters” who amuse and entertain. The crackhouse that is Civil War history has its corner in the larger slum of nonfiction publishing, with suburbanites cruising through to score their stuff on the way to the beach. Party on dudes.

I always enjoy reading Rotov’s thoughts on historiography, even though I have a great deal of respect for some of the authors he often singles out for criticism. Regardless of questions over which specific books are bad and which aren’t, he’s got a point here.  There is undeniably a lot of shallow, superficial tripe getting cranked out in the name of popularized Civil War history.

Next time you have a minute, browse through some reader reviews of popular historical books at Amazon.com and note how many customers gush over works that made them feel like they were reading a novel, or caught them up in the story, or made them forget that they were reading a history book, and so on.  If you can’t enjoy a history book unless you forget that it is, in fact, a history book, then why exactly did you buy it and start reading it in the first place?

Apparently we’ve become so addicted to diversion that we have to treat ourselves like kids, absorbing little nuggets of information surreptitiously in the same way that a toddler will eat vitamins only when Mom slips them into some chocolate pudding.  In this case, though, it’s ourselves we’re trying to fool: “It was so entertaining, I forgot I was reading a history book!”  When thou readest history, let not thy left brain know what thy right brain doeth.

Indeed, when we compare the number of shallow and commercially driven Civil War books to the number of genuinely original studies, the results might look a little dismaying.  The widespread interest in the war means that lots of commercially driven junk gets published because there are people who are willing to buy it.  You don’t get this level of commercial interest when it comes to, say, the Progressive Era or seventeenth-century English colonies, where more analytic or academic books are the norm, simply because there isn’t as much of a market for popular books in those fields.

Still, I think it’s easy to overstate the problem.  Leave aside for a moment the ratio of mediocre Civil War books to very good Civil War books.  Instead, compare the number of solid Civil War books getting published to the number of solid books being published in other historical fields of study, and I think the former discipline comes out looking pretty robust.

In fact, as someone whose special interests lie mainly in earlier periods of history, I don’t think Civil War readers know how comparatively well off they are. I’ve lamented before how surprising the lacunae in early American historiography can be; we have major historical actors without modern biographies, fundamental questions unanswered, and critical events unexamined.  You may not be entirely pleased with the available literature on a given Civil War topic, but chances are there is at least a literature in place, so that the student or scholar has some sort of foundation on which to build.

In any case, if you dislike commercialized historical writing, the best remedy is to avoid buying it.  Publishers will keep cranking out infotainment as long as there’s a market for it.

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Filed under Civil War, Historiography

Looking for a substantial research project?

Then consider writing a biography of an early national figure, particularly one from Tennessee.  Mark Cheatham is probably correct in guessing that “many graduate students who might be interested in writing biographies as dissertations are discouraged by their advisors.”

It’s a shame, because there are plenty of prominent early leaders about whom we just don’t know enough.  Both Gordon Belt and myself have lamented the lack of a good biography of John Sevier.  A few hagiographic treatments came out over a century ago, but as far as I can determine, the only scholarly attempt at a life of Sevier was Carl Driver’s, published back in the thirties.

William Blount’s life story would also make for a fascinating read.  A study of his conspiratorial dealings came out not too long ago, but as a member of the Constitutional Convention and governor of the Southwest Territory, Blount deserves a cradle-to-grave account, too.

In part, this dearth of early Tennessee biographies is symptomatic of a more general shortage of scholarship on the Volunteer State’s frontier period.  The good news is that those relatively few recent studies on early Tennessee history have been very good—such as John Finger’s overview of the Volunteer State’s early daysKevin Barksdale’s book on the Lost State of Franklin, and Cynthia Cumfer’s examination of early Tennessee’s three races.

But it’s also symptomatic of the surprising gaps that exist in the field of early American biography.  These gaps become readily apparent when you look at Rev War biography.  One thing that’s always struck me is the lack of a recent, full-scale life of Nathanael Greene, the remarkable general who took command in the South in late 1780 and turned that theater of war on its head, after having served under Washington in the major campaigns in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.  Few men played a more critical role in the war.

Henry Knox, Washington’s resourceful artillery chief, also needs a full-scale, scholarly biography.  Don Higginbotham wrote a very good life of Daniel Morgan, but another look at the Old Wagoneer wouldn’t hurt, either.  Philip Schuyler and Horatio Gates could also stand intensive biographies.

Let me point out that all these men were general officers, and yet we have more abundant published work on some Civil War colonels than on these guys.  Biographies of British commanders are just as hard to come by, perhaps more so.  In a sense, Rev War historiography has leapfrogged over the old military history and gone straight to the new.

Grad students and young scholars in search of dissertation or book topics need not worry about running out of material.  There are enough dead white guys in search of their Boswells to keep us all busy for a while.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, Tennessee History

Founders with green thumbs

Here’s an aspect of the Revolutionary era that I’d never considered, and I’m not aware that anybody else has, either.  Looks kind of interesting.

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Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

Hess on Lincoln Memorial University and Bergeron on Andrew Johnson

Let me direct your attention to two of this year’s books from the University of Tennessee Press, both of which I’ve eagerly awaited for some time.

First up is Lincoln Memorial University and the Shaping of Appalachia by Earl Hess, which will place the early history of LMU within the context of what was happening in Appalachia during the crucial late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and of the Lincoln apotheosis that peaked around the time of the centennial of his birth.

As regulars of the blog know, LMU is my alma mater, and Dr. Hess is one of the people most responsible for setting me on a path toward a career in history.  Most readers know him for his acclaimed Civil War studies.

Another book to anticipate is Andrew Johnson’s Civil War and Reconstruction by Paul Bergeron, who spent more than a decade editing and publishing Johnson’s papers and is probably the country’s foremost authority on him.  This book promises a more nuanced and balanced appraisal of Johnson than what many histories provide, and may lead to a thorough reassessment of his place in American politics.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Historiography, Tennessee History

Great men on the couch

Despite my fondness for history, I don’t read many biographies.  One of the reasons is that there are some tendencies of modern biographers that I find irritating.

The childhoods of men like Washington and Lincoln are obviously not as well documented as their public lives.  The data consists of a disjointed collection of anecdotes and reminiscences, strung together loosely by dates culled from family Bibles and baptismal records. Biographers often strain too hard to make something meaningful of this small pile of ingredients, seizing on minor incidents as harbingers of lifelong behavioral patterns.  (“This determination to find his lost puppy was the first indication of the tenacity that would, decades later, serve him so well on the battlefield.”)  If a subject’s early years are sparsely documented, then just be upfront about it.  There’s no need to fill in the gaps with foreshadowing.

Almost as common is a tendency to engage in superficial psychoanalysis, digging into the subject’s early experiences and relationships to identify the sources of later personality traits.  Hence Lincoln’s disdain for his father helped to fuel his ambition, or Washington’s domineering mother engendered a reactionary desire for control and independence.

Historians are not psychoanalysts.  We’re trained to interpret records within the context of the past, not unlock the inner workings of the human mind.  In fact, you can just as often explain seemingly aberrant characteristics using good old historical context, without resorting to psychological speculation.  Sure, Washington liked control and independence, but what eighteenth-century Virginia gentleman, raised in a hierarchical society in which status came from obligations owed by others and from ownership of slaves, didn’t want to be the master of his own fate?  Even when psychologists themselves try to use their discipline to figure out what makes historical figures tick, the results are sometimes less than impressive. (Recall the gay Lincoln fiasco of not long ago.)

It’s perfectly legitimate to incorporate the insights of psychology when writing biography, but if historians are going to do so, they should tread with care, remembering that they’re venturing into foreign territory.

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Filed under Historiography