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.


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.

Sometimes I Wonder…

28 10 2015

…why I even bother.

Let’s get a couple of things out of the way. I know that not every single person researching the First Battle of Bull Run (or even, if you prefer, the First Battle of Manassas) is going to use this site. I know a lot of people do, but I’m certain there are some who do not. And even those who do may only use a part of it. But I also know that, while there are some major issues which I feel almost everyone who has written about the battle have misapprehended, there is at least one minor misconception I thought had been put to rest: the uniforms of the 11th New York, and specifically those worn on July 21, 1861.

I’m not going to rehash that here. You can find other stuff I’ve written on the topic by searching the tag 11th New York in the cloud at the bottom of the margin at right, but this post sums things up nicely, I think.

What brings me to remind you of this is a book I’m currently reading and recently previewed, Custer’s Trials, by T. J. Stiles. So far it’s been what I expected – very nice writing and some interesting takes in the way of storytelling based on facts already in evidence. Some instances of a lack of familiarity with military structure during the Civil War, both theoretical and practical. But one inconsequential passage set me off, and perhaps is more illustrative of the stuff that gets in the way of folks like us, who have perhaps read too much, enjoying non-fiction story telling. Here it goes:

The cavalry did not stand by the artillery. Instead, the 11th and 14th New York infantry regiments hustled up the hill – the 11th wearing the baggy red pants of Zouaves, patterned after Algerian troops serving in the French army and something of a craze in America in 1861.

Ugh. No footnote, of course.

I have kept and will continue to keep in mind that this is a book about George Armstrong Custer. A character study. It will get some things wrong, as the author is not a specialist. He will rely on some he considers to be specialists (one author of very popular books on the Peninsula Campaign and of the Union Army commander, for instance). And I may not be happy with the results as far as that goes. But I will be guided by the question of how an error affects the story being told about Custer, as opposed to falling into the “if he got that wrong, what else does he get wrong” trap. That’s just plain lazy.

Preview – Stiles, “Custer’s Trials”

22 10 2015

41jMb9LuJsL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_The nice people at Knopf (that’s k-nop-f) sent me a copy of Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T. J. Stiles. Mr. Stiles is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his book on Cornelius Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon, and also authored a biography of Jesse James. So, like Arthur Digby Sellers (author of the bulk of the TV series Branded), he’s not exactly a lightweight.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. If you’re a regular reader of this or other Civil War blogs, you’re probably beyond a comprehensive biography by a “non-specialist,” particularly yet another biography of one of the most biographied Americans ever. And you’re right to be leery.

I wager there are a few members of the Little Big Horn Associates who stop by here every now and again (after all, Autie was here at First Bull Run), and I don’t think most of them or you will find much to shock or surprise. It’s 460 pages of text, with 80 pages of notes and a surprisingly brief 8 page bibliography (but a good four pages of that is archives and newspapers.) But at this point, is some new discovery the real reason you’d pick up a Custer bio these days? Doubtful. Folks who have read thousands of pages just on the condition of Custer’s body, or certain parts of his body, when found aren’t going to be surprised by much in the way of documentary discovery.

Stiles states in his preface that his intent with Custer’s Trials is “to change the camera angle – to examine Custer’s life as it was lived, in order to better grasp…his larger meaning….escape the overshadowing preoccupation with his death.” Because his life “had a significance independent of his demise.” “I want to explain why his celebrity, and notoriety, spanned both the Civil War and his years on the frontier, resting on neither exclusively but incorporating both.”

So let me explain why I’ll read this one, despite the fact I’ve read others, and some studies of Little Big Horn, and even have a pretty focused book sitting right here in my maybe-I’ll-read stack, Archaeology, History, and Custer’s Last Battle. I’m going to read this because it promises something so very rare in Civil War literature: good story telling. Dude won a Pulitzer! What I’ve skimmed is elegant, that is, not painful to read, and it smacks neither of hagiography nor hatchetography (although that could change, I suppose.) I encourage all CW lit consumers to take breaks every now and again for books that are not painful, in fact, enjoyable to read. Think of it as a reward. You’ve earned it.