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Form and Function, Objectives and Audience: A Continuing Conversation

I’m pleased by the thoughtful responses to my contribution to the discussion about different categories of historians. I can well understand how some people who have done good research and produced meritorious scholarship are taken aback when they believe they’ve been dismissed all too quickly by an academic historian (and, no, I don’t think this is just a product of the offended’s imagination). It’s also true, however, that at times I have come under criticism from some people who have a very narrow focus (and sometimes an obsession) and where what I say has been dismissed as “politically correct” (that’s hilarious, for reasons I may discuss another time; I’m more worried about being historically correct) or that I’m some academic historian who hasn’t done the work, doesn’t understand something, I’m serving some secret agenda (for example, depriving George H. Thomas of his due), and, by Jove, I’m not half the researcher and historian they are (this is more likely from someone who’s never published a word or a peer-reviewed word).

Civil War history is a special field precisely because it welcomes so many visitors and practioners with so many interests. Thus, as some others have noted in this discussion here and elsewhere, one reason the “amateur/professional” division comes up is because there’s so much interaction among so many people with different credentials, talents, and interests. I don’t see the same sorts of debates among historians of the early republic, for example. Moreover, I believe that to be competent in the field of Civil War military history, one needs to maintain contact with all sorts of people, including NPS historians, archivists, researchers, and writers.

But I do think we might ponder what we say, because sometimes what we “observe” says more about us than about what is observed. Take the notion of sales and audience. Academic historians are not of one mind here, and the envy/snobbishness noticed by non-academic historians on the part of academic historians is also noticed by some academic historians who deal with their peers (not all of whom are of the same mind). Some academic historians are indeed envious of those academic historians who write well, see their books sell, and who have a public profile. I can speak from personal experience there: my first book was a History Book Club alternate and was reviewed in The New York Review of Books. Some of my colleagues were none too pleased: others were quite nice about it. But there was one colleague who got quite snippy and said that I published as much as I did because I worked in a field with ample outlets.

That reasoning astonished me. To this day I’m not sure why I should be forced to apologize for working in a field where there’s a ready audience. I pointed out that the observation had nothing to do with the quality of the work published (point of information: my department chair in the mid-1990s once declared in front of a department meeting that I would be astonished to know how few of my colleagues had read my work before voting on me for tenure. I figured she ought to know). Finally, I remarked that my colleague ought not to worry: I could write a book that wouldn’t sell, if that’s what it took to earn my spurs. Ironically, the manuscript I had in mind, which had once served as my master’s thesis, was The Political Education of Henry Adams, which turned into two C-SPAN appearances (although the sales were tepid, to put it kindly).

But the reverse is also true: sales are not the best indicator of quality. If they were, well, then. American Idol’s your cup of tea, and Deal or No Deal is perfection on the small screen. If one writes for sales, one might consider casting aside history altogether in favor of a novel about a dysfunctional family (or achieve both aims with a study of some command teams during the Civil War). The fact is that one writes different books for different purposes and for different audiences, and non-academic historians don’t really have to worry about the academics unless they want to become part of the conversation. Different audiences crave different books for different purposes. Academics do have to worry about how their work contributes to knowledge and understanding as a professional imperative, to be able to explain to people outside one’s field why what one does is important. We can write for a popular audience, but do so at the risk of earning envy, even scorn, from some peers (not all, perhaps not even many … don’t overgeneralize). And yet I believe that it’s essential that such historians also write for a broader public, a skill not emphasized in graduate training (indeed, the public role of the professional historian is virtually ignored in graduate training). In some cases, we succeed at both tasks at the same time: at other times, we diversify our research and writing agenda to serve different audiences and achieve different ends with different sorts of books. And, of course, there are those academics who eschew writing for a broader audience altogether, as well as those who write little if anything at all. When I took my first job as an ABD in a small liberal arts college, I instantly became the second-most published member of the department. And so it goes.

One can gain gratification and recognition from a book that does not enrich one financially. Take the Adams study. There’s a small and active world of Henry Adams scholarship, and, as I had intended, there was a larger world of the evolution of American politics and political criticism where I wanted to join the conversation, and I did. Nor would I expect The Reconstruction Presidents to enjoy as large an audience among non-academics that it did among academics, because – surprise – people aren’t as interested in Reconstruction as they are in the Civil War, although my expertise in Reconstruction politics allows me to comment on things such as impeachment, Scooter Libby, disputed elections, and the like, just as my knowledge of presidential politics contributed to my being the American commentator on Nippon TV for the third presidential debate in 2004. None of that has anything to do with whether the Gettysburg guide Mark and I did was any good, for example, and obviously that was directed to a different audience with different interests. But it shows that my life as an academic historian is a bit more complicated than writing about Ulysses S. Grant.

So I return to my initial premise: that what counts most is the quality of the work done, and not who does it. I think my training as a professional historian has shaped the questions I ask and how I ask them, but the earning of an advanced degree was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that end involved teaching as well as writing. Had history not become my vocation, it certainly would have continued as my avocation. I just followed my father’s advice to do something that I liked doing (with the caveat that I should be good at it … otherwise I might have been playing in the NHL All-Star Game last night), and the rest is …

… to be continued

Comments (2) to “Form and Function, Objectives and Audience: A Continuing Conversation”

  1. I’ve followed Brooks’s two posts with great interest, not because I was one of the “amateurs” mentioned in the first post, but because this whole discussion (at least from the Internet perspective) goes back to the mid 90’s when groups like alt.war.civil.usa really took off.

    I can say from my perspective I would never consider myself a professional historian of any ilk; I don’t even like the title of “amateur” either. I’ve written, given it my best effort, and my book sits on the shelves of the Vicksburg NMP.

    That I had the opportunity to edit the Pemberton manuscript, write about it, and have it published is something I am very greatful for. That professionals like Brooks, Ed Bearss, Terry Winschel and others took an interest and helped me is another thing I am very greatful for.

    That said, I cannot see what difference it makes whether the Pemberton manuscript was worked on by a professional or non-professional.

    And to comment on part of the theme of this post by Brooks, any “professional” that has an issue with the owners of this blog having a ready audience interested in their works made a choice when they chose their field of concentration. Life isn’t always fair, and as my wife says, “we all make choices.”


  2. Well said, Dave.

    Your Pemberton work was an important contribution to scholarship and you did an excellent job with it. We have a number of copies here at the Combined Arms Research Library from when the School for Advanced Military Studies used to do a Vicksburg staff ride. Now, instead, they do a “Virtual OIF” Staff Ride in front of computers, which makes as much sense to me as virtual sky-diving, but no one asks me when these sorts of decisions are made. If sales for your book pop up suddenly in the future, you will know that someone finally did get around to asking me and actually listening to what I had to say!

    And yes, in reply to an earlier post of yours, I do have a fond memory of your being an exemplary host when I spoke to the Cincinatti CWRT many, many moons ago.