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.
* 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 😉