U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Describing Today’s Historical Ecosphere

We historians conventionally distinguish scholarly historical writing from popular historical writing.  The former is what those of us who write for this blog do professionally; the latter is what tends to appear on bestseller lists.  The very existence of popular historical writing distinguishes our field from many others in the humanities. These days, at least, there’s precious little popular literary criticism for example (though popular cultural criticism certainly exists). And though bookstores are brimming with popular philosophy books, they bear virtually no resemblance to the work of academic philosophers.  In contrast, not only are there innumerable works of popular history, most academic historians (or, at least, the Americanists among us) like to think that our work is potentially of interest to a broader, non-academic audience.  Occasionally a handful of scholarly works, usually in the areas of military or political history, find a large (or at least largish) audience outside the Ivory Tower.  I’m thinking, for example, of Jim McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom or Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm. Pulitzer Prizes in History often go to such works.

But more often, works of history that find their way to the best seller list are considerably less scholarly.  Take, for example, Hardball host Chris Matthews’ Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, currently #33 on the New York Times Hardcover Non-Fiction Best Sellers List and the subject of a take-down by the historian David Greenberg in TNR [h/t Erik Loomis at LGM].  Vanity projects by pundits about presidents past seem to have emerged as a genre unto themselves.  At least as described by Greenberg, Matthews book seems little more than a projection of his own two-dimensional political personality onto JFK.*  

But what I found most interesting about Matthews’ book was the list of people who have blurbed it.

As Greenberg notes, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero is marketed with praise from Douglas Brinkley, Walter Isaacson, Brian Williams, Peggy Noonan, and Doris Kearns Goodwin.  This is an interesting mix of people.  Noonan and Williams are fellow media personalities, who don’t have any particular historical credentials. But the other three figures inhabit an intermediate zone between scholarly and popular approaches to history: semi-serious historians whose reputations have been built as mainstream public intellectuals.  The only academic among the three is Brinkley, though I think his reputation as a scholar is even more slight than Isaacson’s or Goodwin’s (despite the accusations of plagiarism against the latter).  Along with the once ubiquitous Michael Beschloss, Brinkley and Goodwin for years formed a kind of triumvirate of semi-official historical opinion on relatively serious network newscasts.  Each is also more closely tied to the political and financial elite than your average historian (popular or scholarly):  Goodwin was an assistant to LBJ and married Richard Goodwin, a more senior assistant to both JFK and LBJ.  Brinkley is a member of the Century Club and the Council on Foreign Relations.  Beschloss is married to a former treasurer and chief investment officer of the World Bank who runs a Washington, DC-based hedge fund.  Isaacson emerged out of the media, starting his career as a journalist, rising to be CEO of CNN in 2001 and President and CEO of the Aspen Institute in 2003.

What I find fascinating about these figures is the very complicated role they play in today’s historical ecosphere. If you had to place their work on one side or the other of the popular / scholarly divide, they’d certainly be considered popular.  Yet their books–especially Goodwin’s and Isaacson’s–are taken seriously by serious people. They are certainly not in the same category of “historians” as, say, Glenn Beck or Chris Matthews. But they are often called upon to validate the seriousness and even the expertise of people like Matthews (if not Beck).  Indeed, Goodwin’s blurb for Matthew’s JFK book seems to leave David Greenberg somewhat flummoxed; he notes that she “surely cannot regard this as a meritorious book.”

What all of this suggests to me is that the old scholarly / popular divide is too crude to describe the ways in which history is produced and consumed in the U.S. today.  I’m not going to attempt a more precise taxonomy in this blogpost. But I think establishing one would help us make better sense of things like the Tea Party’s use of history, which have been recurring themes on this blog.

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* I needed to add somewhere the cover of Glenn Beck’s book on George Washington, since it so nicely captures the actual focus of many of these sorts of projects:

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek before Tina Brown got her clutches on it, won the Pulitzer for his biography of Andrew Jackson. He’s not in the same class as Matthews, but probably counts as a talking head/pundit, if only for his appearances on, you guessed it, Hardball. Clearly, some pundit lit is respectable enough to win America’s most prestigious literary prize. But if Matthews wins, we can surely consider it an even more egregious outrage than the Pulitzer board’s refusal to award the 1973 fiction prize to Gravity’s Rainbow.

  2. I believe that dying breed used to be known as the gentleman scholar but now exist in the nebulous space of the “public intellectual” (which is a tag in on your post, so perhaps that was already implied?).

    There are damn few who are good, but when they are they can be big discourse shifters in the public arena, far more so than us plain old academic historians. I’m thinking Schlesinger-esque peeps.

  3. One of the things I find most unsettling about the role of pundits as both public intellectuals and “historians” is that I find it devalues what I do for a living. Matthews has taken a lot of anecdotes and episodes (most well-known, some less so) and packages them around a John Kennedy he remembers or wants to remember. The books is saturated with references to Matthews personal connection to the people interviewed for the book or to the notion that somehow as a fellow Irish Catholic, Matthews has a unique understanding of Kennedy’s mind and personality.

    None of this is particularly problematic if you read the book for what it is, but when the general population takes it as history it becomes problematic. When students come to college and think that this is the sort of thing they will be reading or the kind of book they might want to cite in a paper I have to fight an uphill battle to explain what academic history is and what a primary source is.

    If I were to wander over to the Chemistry Department and ask if it would be okay if I ran a few experiments of my own everyone would think I was crazy, yet we have a Chemistry Professor here who dabbles in Genealogy and believes that he is doing what we in the History Department do.

    I have students who continue to tell me about things they see on the History Channel and assume that I would be interested because they think it must be history. When I point out that Ancients and Aliens is not only not history it is a complete failure of basic critical thinking and logic I often get the confused puppy look back.

    Last year I had a student come to me with a list of questions based on conversations he’d had with his father who is a die hard Glen Beck fan and spends entirely too much time quoting from Beck and his library of phony historians to a son who began to loose his intellectual bearings in the face of the onslaught of half-truths. The student and I went through his list and I reassured the student that we are not a socialist indoctrination camp and that the materials we assign are, in fact, academic history and not a smear campaign against America. He seemed convinced but his father never will be.

    All of this non-academic history shows me that people have a genuine interest in our subject but little interest in how we approach it, write it, or teach it. And eventually the cost-saving geniuses that run our institutions will try to replace History Departments with the amateurs from the best seller list and the History Channel.

  4. The following comment is from Jonathan Wilson (He’s having trouble with blogspot’s comment tool. If anyone else is having similar difficulties, send me an email.)

    From the post: “I think establishing [a taxonomy] would help us make better sense of things like the Tea Party’s use of history, which have been recurring themes on this blog.”

    This is an interesting proposal, Ben. Considering the relatively late development of the historical profession as we know it — and considering the quality of the bestsellers of the previous century or so of republican American historiography — I’d say the Tea Party’s use of history has to be considered authentic to an established historical enterprise (not that its stories are true, but that it is recognizable as history, however bad it may be). Arguably, most of the works of history that have survived the centuries are forms of patriotic propaganda.

    Meanwhile, I think the taxonomy also needs to have room for distinctly non-academic forms of scrupulous research, i.e., historical journalism. People like Rick Perlstein are, in some ways, holding themselves to a much higher standard of faithfulness to lived reality than most academic historians are.

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