U.S. Intellectual History Blog

So Long, Edge of the American West!; or, The Life and Death of Blogs

It’s with some sadness that the online historical community notes the (temporary?) passing of The Edge of the American West, the Cliopatria-award-winning group blog that began in UC Davis’s History Department in 2007 and exapnded into other places and fields over the last three years.  Although EotAW has always featured content that was not about history, and has long included non-historians among its writers, at its heart it was a history blog, and one that suggested much about the possibilities of this medium for our discipline.*

EotAW did many things well, but it probably had its greatest impact with a long series of posts, mainly authored by founding member Eric Rauchway, tagged “New Deal denialist truth squadding.”  Beginning with a November 6, 1998 post entitled “Stop Lying About Roosevelt’s Record,” which got mentioned and linked by Paul Krugman,  EotAW has contributed in significant ways to the pushback against the many lies that have been published in recent years about the New Deal.   While there’s been a fair amount of (deserved) public handwringing about the nonsense that Glenn Beck has tried to fob off as history, far too much serious attention has been given to the equally false, but superficially more respectable, “history” offered by Amity Shlaes. Though Shlaes is no more qualified as an historian than Mr. Beck, she has a better pedigree (a BA–in English–from Yale; a sinecure in “economic history” at the Council on Foreign Relations) and a more sophisticated audience, so the recycled rightwing lies that she peddles about the New Deal are treated more seriously by the media than Beck’s similarly sourced garbage.  EotAW’s rebuttals of Shlaes, her enablers, and allies took full advantage of the blogging medium, drawing on better and more recent scholarship than is usually seen in traditional media, while simultaneously eschewing the politeness and assumption of good faith that those media tend to grant people like Shlaes.

EotAW has also been very good at many other things that tend to typify good, academic blogging: scholarly informed commentary on the events of the day and reflections on their own professional experiences and academia in general (rather than load this post with links to examples of all of this, I’ll just suggest that those unfamiliar with EotAW root around the site for yourselves).  Like most good blogs it was often funny.  And it had great comment threads.  Indeed, like the most successful blogs, it was defined as much as anything by its commentariat.  Great blogs build virtual communities, and EotAW was no exception.

Rauchway and his fellow EotAW founder Ari Kelman (who started his career as a colleague of mine in the University of Oklahoma’s Honors College) were among the participants in a 2009 OAH panel entitled “Blogging History: Explorations in a New Medium.” Both emphasized that they started their blog in order to reach a broader audience.  I think it’s fair to say now (and, indeed, back in early 2009) that they succeeded.  At the time, I noted on this blog that the OAH panel, while effectively presenting a variety of ways in which historians could use blogs, offered little that was surprising.  After wishing that the panel had been more lively, I concluded:

perhaps that’s the price of blogging’s success. I imagine a panel entitled “The Scholarly Paper: Explorations in a Medium” that had a series of presentations by first-rate historians about the different kinds of papers that one might publish would also provide little that was unexpected.

Although it’s still a very new medium by historical standards, blogs are, I think it’s fair to say, here to stay, though their role in our profession is still evolving.  They will, to a greater or lesser extent, be part of all of our professional lives going forward. And, as future US intellectual historians start to study the early 21st century, they will offer a vital record of (important parts of) American thought at the turn of the millennium.

One of the things that we are still learning about blogs is their life cycles.  Individual blogs obviously come and go with the author’s personal commitment–to the blog and to the rest of his or her life. But group blogs potentially have a longer life.  Some successful group blogs–Obsidian Wings and Pandagon are good examples–have gone through dramatic changes in personnel over the years, but have somehow maintained their voice, purpose and community.  Others have slowly added personnel, building the kind of critical mass that allows individuals to post more or less frequently without really affecting the core of the team or the “feel” of the blog.  Crooked Timber and Lawyers, Guns, and Money both fall into this category.

But blogging is a young enough medium that we don’t really have a sense of how long a blog can live.  Will we, by the end of this century, see the blogging equivalents of The Atlantic Monthly, with uninterrupted publishing histories extending back generations?  Or will the life of blogs reflect the supposed shortness of our attention spans?  Only time will tell.

But even in our limited experiences of blogging, I think we can say that, if its hiatus is permanent, EotAW was with us very briefly. Plenty of other successful group blogs have eventually run out of steam–BitchPhD, which had a lot of personal links to EotAW closed up shop this October, or example. But their runs have generally been longer than EotAW’s three years; BitchPhD began in 2004.

We will of course be hearing plenty in the future from Kelman, Rauchway, and the other EotAW bloggers in the more traditional media of our profession. But here’s hoping that none of them give up on their very successful efforts to reach broader audiences with good history.
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* I am proud to say that I did some guest blogging, mainly on film history, for EotAW in its early days.  If these pieces were auditions, however, I must have failed them 😉

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Rauchway’s New Deal blogging was indeed good. For the rest, though, EotAW left me with a poorer opinion of academic historians in general than I had before I started reading it. Too much stuff like this, where they would basically circle the wagons rather than admit to error.

  2. I’m going to miss that blog—especially the posts by Eric and Dana. Dana always touched on something that hit home with me. But like Ben, I also admired the New Deal truthsquadding series.

    I had no idea, Ben, that you had blogged there before us. Fun stuff.

    And I agree with your indirect assertion that USIH needs to have more fun. 😉 – TL

  3. ‘Too much stuff like this, where they would basically circle the wagons rather than admit to error.’

    Judging by the link, you think they need to admit that supporting gays serving opening in the military was an error?

  4. And I agree with your indirect assertion that USIH needs to have more fun. 😉

    LOL!

    When I wrote that, like most good blogs, EotAW was frequently funny, I hadn’t intended as a reflection on this blog, but sometime before I hit “post” I realized that it could be read that way.

    Let me go on record, then, more directly suggesting that there’s always room for humor in the blogosphere, even in serious academic blogs like this!

  5. I think that it’s kind of important for historians to get attributions right, rea. Read the comments, if you care. Calling the linked screed “semi-official” is exactly the kind of thing that if I found it in a history book would cause me to sigh, toss the book, and dig up primary sources if I really cared about the topic.

  6. I agree that calling that source “semi-official” was inaccurate, but I also think that that fact reflects more about blogging than about the standards of professional historians in general.The snarky title of a blog post is not the same thing as a textbook.

    I do think that this sort of thing raises interesting questions about the standards that any professional should be held to when operating outside of his or her professional capacity. In this case, in what sense was David Silbey, whose own work focuses on early 20th-century warfare, speaking as an historian? Though I accept your criticism of the “semi-official” characterization, I have a hard time seeing this as reflecting poorly on Silbey’s historical practice, let alone on the historical profession in general.

  7. My ears are burning.

    I did explain my rationale for using “semi-official” in the comment thread. I could have used “A way that serving officers get their message out without committing to anything publicly” but it’s a bit longer.

    In any case, that thread is kind of a microcosm of one of the issues I have with blogging (and Internet discourse in general): the presumptive anger of the discussion. I understood that Rich (and other commenters) had an issue with the label. So, I explained it in the comment thread (here).

    You might well disagree with that explanation but the response from Rich not only disagrees but actively goes to insulting (“But you really wouldn’t see anything wrong with this attribution if it came from, say, a first-year history major?”) in his response. He doesn’t engage with the explanation, he just defaults immediately to reaching a conclusion about competence (The similar and parallel reaction is to assume a hidden agenda).

    That default response becomes wearying after a while, and it becomes hard to post expecting such comments. And that was on Edge, where 99% of the commenters were lovely. The temptation is to blog without comments, but that seems to defeat one of the great advantages of these here intertubes.

  8. Howdy, silbey!

    Sorry to talk behind your back. And glad to have you here (even under these odd circumstances).

    You’re right that internet comment threads bring a lot of chaff with wheat, but IMO the wheat is worth it. I certainly envy EotAW’s comment threads, even when–like active comment threads the blogosphere over–they would occasionally get belligerent / irrational.

    Having been attacked by commenters myself on occasion, I know that it feels no fun at all. But I also know that from being a third-party to countless such disputes, responding calmly and reasonably to unfair or over-the-top criticisms usually wins the blogger friends. I certainly think that the EotAW’s bloggers dealt well with unruly commenters.

    Thanks, too, for linking to your comment explaining “semi-official,” which does make more sense than I was giving it credit for above. But I still think that the title of such a post is not the same thing as a post on history, let alone professional historical work product.

    At any rate, I wish we had such an active and generally excellent commentariat over here (where it’s still a bit too quiet for my tastes) as you did on EotAW. And I hope that if and when we get one we hold on to it and handle it as well as y’all did over there.

  9. But I still think that the title of such a post is not the same thing as a post on history, let alone professional historical work product.

    I don’t disagree. It’s a post about current events and should be flagged and treated as such.

  10. That episode is a microcosm in more than one way. The blog post wasn’t written by “serving officers [to] get their message out without committing to anything publicly”. It was written by a Reserve Marine Lieutenant Colonel, with his name available if you dug into the posting site, and plastered with notices that the site let a variety of people post and didn’t screen their posts. David Silbey, in that comment thread, mentions all the important officers associated with the organization and site, but the idea that this frankly nutty guy was a stalking horse for them was unsupported, to say the least. If you agree that this attribution is in error, it’s not a casual error, but a strongly held one, and it still hasn’t been corrected.

    And I mentioned circling the wagons too. It’s very easy to set up the frame that the posters are knowledgeable historians — in this case, however, posting on current events, so not held to professional standards — and the people who disagree strongly are unruly, angry commenters.

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