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.