Popular History – What’s the Problem?

18 12 2015

563274521907e.imageI last wrote about my recent foray into popular history works concerning the American Civil War here. I wrote then that I was cutting the author, T. J. Stiles, slack in relation to what I described as errors of fact not necessarily substantial to the study. If you read the comments or follow Bull Runnings on Facebook, you know that shortly thereafter I gave up the, umm, endeavor, because it became evident that the author was building a case regarding the personality traits of the subject based on what I considered to be shallow and antiquated characterizations of a parallel subject. In addition I felt that those characterizations of that parallel subject were based on scholarship that was far from exhaustive at best and, well, biased at worst. Long and the short of it – I gave up on that book, something I am loathe to do.

So I picked a new read, Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692. I’m finishing it up now. I like it. A lot. And that’s got me to thinking: why the different reaction? It’s not based on the authors’ skills as writers – both Stiles and Schiff have garnered awards, including Pulitzer Prizes. And it can’t be the quality of their research because I don’t know crap about the Salem Witch Trials, or for that matter 17th Century Massachusetts (which in many ways seems as confounding and contradictory as 19th Century Massachusetts and, let’s be real, 21st Century Massachusetts and everything in between). But therein I think lies the answer: I don’t know anything about Schiff’s subject. And so, I have to take her word. Not so Stiles.

Both Stiles and Schiff have written multiple books about historical figures and events. Both are wonderfully skilled writers. Why don’t they stick to one specific time period? Why? Because they don’t have to, that’s why. They’re that good. And if an author is that good, why limit him/herself? Which leads me to my ongoing complaint about the quality of Civil War literature, real Civil War literature, by authors whose main focus is that particular period of our history, often narrowed to a fine point within even that tight time frame (say Gettysburg, or Lincoln, or even Bull Run – though I try to read more broadly). For most of us, it’s all, by and large, tough to read. Even the super-rare, well crafted stuff. And why is that? Well, part of that probably lies in the opportunities available to really good writers like Stiles and Schiff to pick their targets and sell more copies of more generally appealing books. But another, big part has nothing to do with who writes these more focused books and everything to do with who reads them.

Us.

We know too damn much for our own good – at least, from a pleasure standpoint. We’re doomed to read these focused books as if it’s a job, analyzing every footnote. And we’re doubly doomed when it comes to popular histories that touch on our particular field of study, because we’re probably more familiar, to varying degrees, with the material and its nuances than any generalist author could ever hope to be. We have at least formed our opinions based on a lot of reading. Hopefully. And so, these works (like Civil War films) are typically enormously frustrating. For us.

It ain’t right, it ain’t wrong. It just is. (Dutchy in Ride With the Devil.)

It’s sad in a way, but we have to accept it. So I’m probably done with pop ACW. (I realize that some might argue that there are “specialist pop-historians” working in the genre, that is, who write shallowly on many ACW topics, but let’s leave that alone for now.) Conversely, I’ll probably not read more on Salem, or Carthage, or Montcalm & Wolfe, or Agincourt, or Gallipoli, to name a few, so as not to spoil what have been great one-off reads for me. Well, maybe more on Gallipoli. But that’s it. That is it. No more. I don’t think.


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10 responses

18 12 2015
Bob Huddleston

Remember when Samuel Eliot Morison wrote the same complaint. And he wrote focused and popular history. Too bad more ACW historians don’t follow his example.

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19 12 2015
Harry Smeltzer

Bob, I believe it is possible to write “readable” history that can stand up to the scrutiny of the “deep reader,” as Dimitri Rotov calls us. At least, I hope so.

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19 12 2015
Bob Huddleston

Harry, that was Morison’s point. BTW, no one has mentioned Bruce Catton who combined his journalist training of writing accurately with his considerable gifts as an author.

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19 12 2015
Richard

Good explanation – it comes back to “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” with some beholders more picky than others. I suppose this happens in other fields- some people might look at a painting snd think “that’s pretty” while a serious art critic finds flaws in various details in the work. “Just relax snd enjoy it” is easier said than done when it comes to something we take seriously. (Sorry for using so many clichés.)

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19 12 2015
Harry Smeltzer

Oh, I know it happens. Try watching “Patton” with a WWII geek!

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12 01 2016
Chris Evans

That’s very true about ‘Patton’ a movie I love and even though I know quite a bit about the subject matter.

I guess another move in that vein would be ‘Zulu’ watching it with a Zulu War or Rorke’s Drift expert. They would say “But most of the battle took place at night” to which I’d say okay now just watch and enjoy the movie. It (like Patton) is a tremendous movie that makes you want to learn more about the subject it depicts.

I think what you say about enjoying a work of history the less you know about the subject is very, very true.

Chris

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19 12 2015
John Foskett

Good points, Harry. I have difficulty reading any ACW material which strays from what we know to have happened. As an aside, thanks for the heads up on this book. I may pick it up. My distant ancestor Becky Nurse got hanged in Salem for being “familiar with spirits”. All they gave her as a memorial is a park bench. By the way, there’s a very interesting and likely connection between a grain fungus which is the source of LSD and what was going on in Salem in 1692.

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19 12 2015
Harry Smeltzer

Schiff doesn’t get onto the grain fungus ( shades of “Into the Wild”), but goes a long way in describing the mindsets of the Puritans. Rebecca Nurse and the Nurse family stand out.

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20 12 2015
John Foskett

You can tell a lot about a society by looking at its laws. I’ve seen the 1693 Bay Colony Statutes and they must have had extensive problems with (1) cursing the King (and Queen) and (2) buggery. In the latter instance, the perpetrator got the death penalty but the unfortunate “beast” got quartered and scattered to the 4 winds.

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27 12 2015
Phil Leigh

Your “Ride With the Devil” screenplay quote underscores why I sometimes welcome non-specialist authors into the Civil War genre — they can offer new insights.

“Ride With the Devil” is one example. Based on Daniel Woodrell’s “Woe To Live On,” the plot includes an African-American character (Daniel Holt) who fights with Missouri’s Rebels. Today’s “serious” Civil War historians would practically never write about such matters. In fact, many castigated Woodrell for his “unrealistic” Holt portrayal. But Holt’s character was an amalgam based upon at least three blacks known to have ridden with Quantrill.

Woodrell interpretation suggests that personal loyalties were sometimes more important than national or racial ones, although all three factors likely influenced a volunteer’s choice of sides. Moreover, the priority of each factor could change with the circumstances. After Holt’s boyhood (white) friend was killed, he put family and race at the top of his list and dropped out of the war.

Michael Shaara is a second unspecialized author who brought new insights. Even though “The Killer Angels” has a number of errors, the book undeniably changed perspectives about the battle of Gettysburg, even among “serious” historians. In fact, some present “serious” historians too readily accept Shaara’s interpretations as fact.

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