History as literature

Every time I step into a major bookstore I can find copies of Foote’s Civil War trilogy, the early work of David McCullough, an abridgement of Freeman’s biographies of Lee and Washington, and a book or two by Barbara Tuchman.  All these books have been around for decades, and in terms of scholarship they’ve all been superseded (to one degree or another) by more recent studies.  Yet not only do they remain in print, they continue to cast a long shadow.

This is pretty remarkable when you consider that most history books, even those that are models of research and analysis, are mere blips on the radar of the national consciousness.  How many works of historical scholarship continue to garner impressive sales and legions of new readers five decades after they’re first published?  A very, very few.

It seems to me that the reason books by Freeman, Tuchman, and Foote stay on the shelves is the fact they’ve transcended history and become genuine pieces of literature.  People read them not merely to acquire the information in them, but for the experience of reading them.  They want to immerse themselves in the language and follow the same journey that other readers have experienced; they read them for the same motives that might prompt them to pick up Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby

I’m not arguing that these books are historically superior to more rigorous, scholarly studies.  In fact, I’d advise anyone looking for an accurate assessment of Lee to turn to the work of Emory Thomas rather than Freeman, and I could recommend any number of books on the American Revolution above Tuchman’s The First Salute.  But I do think that, in this age of the academic fad and over-specialization, the endurance of classics like these should at least give us us pause, and make us consider what these writers-turned-historians knew how to do that we don’t.

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Filed under Historiography, History and Memory

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