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Arts and Letters

Unpopular chic.

If a book is conceived with only historiography in mind — with academic disciplinary debates and research agendas dictating the focus and the form — it’s unlikely to succeed in the public realm. If it’s conceived without historiography in mind, it’s unlikely to succeed as scholarship. So, how do we develop what we might call a Goldilocks approach to historiography?” In a very intriguing two-part article for Slate, David Greenberg of Rutgers University makes the case for historians breaking out of the Ivory Tower.

My friends and colleagues here have heard me rant about this on many opportunities — For all the talk of transnationalism and blurring borders in the field right now, the border between academia and popular history remains rigorously guarded by historians who too often equate accessibility with poor scholarship and second-rate thinking. On many occasions, we’ve been told by visiting scholars — including some very big names — that, for better or worse, we’re fated to do “history-professor history” that will have “no effect” on how Americans see their past.

In short, I find this line of thinking very disquieting. Frankly, writing American history tomes that only a rarefied community of scholars will “get” seems to me a rather sad way to spend a life in the discipline. Whatsmore, it’s no accident that right-wing interpretations of the past, be they neo-con or free-market fundamentalism, for example, tend to gain a wider currency in today’s political climate than left-wing ones do. It’s partly because academics on the right seem to have less qualm about popularizing their ideas for a mass audience (and they’ve got more institutions to disseminate them, but that’s another story.)

I find something profoundly irritating about scholars who claim that “ordinary people” will never understand their ideas, and then go on to complain about the nation’s right-wing drift. While it may be hubris to think that any one scholar’s work will make all that much of a difference, it’s still a worthier goal, to my mind, than composing a work of great theoretical insight that’s completely inscrutable to all but those academic elites similarly ordained in the historical arts.


4 Responses to “Unpopular chic.”

  1. Similar tensions occur in science, of course (there are those who were snooty about Sagan, even), but my first reaction to your post is to think the potential damage is even greater when historians can’t find a way to convey truth in a compelling and understandable fashion.

    That there are those who believe the earth is 6,000 years old is bad enough; that there are those who believe all manner of nonsense about even very recent history I think is more likely to to result in the downfall of the Republic.

    I suppose they’re linked, though…

    Sigh. I’m depressed.

    Posted by Medley | May 19, 2005, 5:35 pm
  2. Are Garry Wills and Barbara Tuchman not well regarded in the academy?

    Posted by afigbee | May 20, 2005, 4:29 pm
  3. Afigbee, neither Tuchman nor Wells come up much. I can’t speak for everybody, of course, but my sense is that Wells’ book Nixon Agonistes, is pretty well-regarded, but subsequent works less so, particularly his forays into revolutionary history.

    As for Tuchman, I read The March of Folly and A Distant Mirror as an undergrad, but haven’t heard much of her in grad school. (That could be because we’re also notoriously parochial, so we’re more likely to read a book like David Kennedy’s Over Here than we are The Guns of August (or to know that JFK contemplated Guns during the Cuban Missile Crisis than to have actually read it.)

    When it comes to specific authors, though, it’s hard to generalize across the field…Tuchman and Wills may be the Cat’s Meow elsewhere (although I’m inclined to think that they’re likely not.)

    Posted by Kevin | May 21, 2005, 12:18 pm
  4. I was interested because it seemed to me that they spoke right to your point, they’re both really well known, they sell well and they both read easily. (Well, Tuchman reads easily. Wills lately reads like he’s been grading too many papers.)

    Tuchman’s Stilwell and the American Experience in China and Wills’ The Kennedy Imprisonment were formative experiences for me, but I really can’t get far in more academic works. So many historians seem to think its scholarly to labor on an air of cultivated disinterestedness so their book succeeds perfectly in disinteresting no matter how good the research behind it might have been.

    Ted Kennedy said something to the effect that anyone who wants to find out what his family actually are like should start with the Garry Wills book.

    Posted by afigbee | May 21, 2005, 8:12 pm

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