Who Owns History?

I’m a PhD-holding history professor myself who will likely never write any book with sales approaching even quadruple figures, but I cringe when fellow guild-members like Louisiana State University professors Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg write things like the following, in Salon this past Sunday:

Frankly, we in the history business wish we could take out a restraining order on the big-budget popularizers of history (many of them trained in journalism) who pontificate with great flair and happily take credit over the airwaves for possessing great insight into the past. Journalists are good at journalism – we wouldn’t suggest sending off historians to be foreign correspondents. But journalists aren’t equipped to make sense of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Doris Kearns GoodwinThe jumping-off point for such a screed is Fareed Zakaria, who got himself into trouble for plagiarizing an April 2012 article in The New Yorker by historian Jill Lepore. But since Zakaria doesn’t really write much history, that’s just an excuse to commence an attack on two leading “popularizers of history”: Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose own troubles with plagiarism are rehashed and whose award-winning history of Abraham Lincoln and his former political opponents-turned-cabinet secretaries, Team of Rivals, is dismissed (the “new, breezily written, but still unoriginal (if plagiarism-free) book” for which “she was fed prestigious book prizes all over again”); and “The beloved David McCullough,” about whom they conclude, “…nothing he writes is given real credibility by any careful historian because history is grounded in evidence, and McCullough isn’t familiar with more than a smattering of the secondary literature on most subjects he tackles…. What makes him a historian? It’s his avuncular personality, not any mastery of the sources.”

It’s not that I don’t agree that plagiarism is a serious problem. Or that I think that anything by Goodwin and Halberstam should be showing up on graduate student reading lists anytime soon. But there are numerous problems with Burstein and Isenberg’s approach.

Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory already dissected some of them: (H/T John Fea)

  1. The failure to note famous cases of professional historians perpetrating intellectual dishonesty at least as serious as Goodwin’s plagiarism — including Michael Bellesiles, whose discredited book on the history of American gun culture certainly came to mind given the topic of the Zakaria and Lepore articles.
  2. The fact that David McCullough is actually well regarded by eminently “careful” academic historians like Gordon Wood.
  3. The sheer sloppiness of authors who “blur the distinction between popularity, plagiarism, and the difficulty of writing analytical history to the point where it’s not even clear to the reader what they are so upset about.”
  4. The general tone of the piece, elements of which Levin rightly characterizes as “dismissive and condescending” and “incredibly bitter.”

To this I would note some rhetorical tricks that add nothing to the argument but are clearly meant to provoke disdain for those targeted. Why, exactly, is it relevant that “Both Fareed Zakaria and Doris Kearns Goodwin were awarded degrees in government from Harvard, 25 years apart”? (Those degrees, incidentally, were doctorates.) Or that David McCullough is “formerly of Sports Illustrated”?

McCullough, John AdamsBecause it reinforces Isenberg and Burstein’s starting point: that such scribblers have no place among the “we in the history business” who really own the past. Political commentators? Journalists? Pshaw!

The attack on journalists-as-historians, in particular, is as poorly executed as it is ill-conceived. Levin, again spot on: “…the authors fail to muster anything approaching an argument that the majority of popular history books written by journalists are flawed.” The flaws of two popular historians seem like a shaky foundation on which to build such a sweeping critique as “…journalists aren’t equipped to make sense of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” (For that matter, even the examples given are covered with blanket condemnation unsupported by specific points of criticism. What exactly is unoriginal about Team of Rivals? In what sense is McCullough’s biography of John Adams less than credible? Why are both “easily digestible”?) And it’s all too easy to name counter-examples of journalist-historians who do research, talk to academic historians, and write original work. Let me just mention two who make a great deal of sense about the 19th century: Peter Hopkirk, whose recreation of the cold war between tsarist Russia and Victorian Britain in Central Asia, The Great Game, took on a fresh relevance ten years after its publication, when another English-speaking Great Power found itself fighting a shadowy war in Afghanistan; Adam Hochschild whose King Leopold’s Ghost brought the Belgian Congo to life and has had tremendous influence on those of us who study the history of human rights.

For a much more nuanced analysis of the “frontier” between history and journalism, consider this from someone who has straddled that boundary throughout his career, Timothy Garton Ash:

Timothy Garton Ash
Licensed by Creative Commons (Carl-Johan Sveningsson)

In journalism, to describe a piece as “rather academic”—meaning jargon heavy, boring,  unreadable—is the surest path to the spike. In academe, it’s a put-down to say that somebody’s work is “journalistic,” meaning superficial, racy, and generally not serious….

I think it’s important to understand that the reasons why so much is made of the differences between journalism and academic or professional history have at least as much to do with the practical exigencies, self-images, and neuroses of the two professions as they have with the real intellectual substance of the two crafts. Granted, the qualities of bad journalism and bad history are very different: sensationalist, intrusive, populist tosh with millions of readers on the one side; overspecialized, badly argued, ill-written doctorates with no readers on the other. But the virtues of good journalism and good history are very similar: exhaustive, scrupulous research; a sophisticated, critical approach to the sources; a strong sense of time and place; imaginative sympathy with all sides; logical argument; clear and vivid prose. Was Macaulay, in his essays for the Edinburgh Review, a historian or a journalist? Both, of course.

Yet, in modern Western societies, profession is a defining feature of personal identity, and the professions that are closest together take most pains to distinguish themselves. (The History of the Present, pp. xxi-xxii)

7 thoughts on “Who Owns History?

  1. …although I do recall that Fareed Zakaria WAS on the syllabus of one of my undergraduate courses 😉

    Anyway, I do wonder if there are some fields of academia where the scholars have a legitimate gripe, e.g. if academic physicists would be justified in complaining about popularisations of their rather-more-difficult-for-the-layman-to-grasp field.

  2. I’m a history major, I enjoy reading history, but sometimes I wish historians would take a few pointers from journalists. Many seem to think that a high quality history book means one that is dry and cluttered with tons of facts. Writers like McCullough don’t fill their books to the brim with facts because it isn’t necessary to make their point. Focusing on the point they’re trying to make is something many historians lose sight of amid the cascade of names, dates, statistics, etc.

  3. History is definitely not the only discipline where this happens. In literary studies, and (God help me) literary theory, the academic popularity of a work is inversely proportional to its readability. If something is incomprehensible, it must be good. I think this reinforces some basic human need to divide the world into “us” and “them,” since insiders speak their own languages. It makes me sad. Once upon a time, good scholarship, even in the sciences, was done by lively intelligences in collaboration, and sometimes — gasp — outside of academe.

    1. Thanks, Janet. I’m afraid this is often how it seems in history, though there are certainly exceptions: world-class academic historians who are (miraculously) equally good at writing for general audiences. Mark Noll comes to mind immediately…

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