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.
* 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: