The Professional Historian and Popular History

I was a writer before I was an historian, and a “pop historian” long before I became an academic historian. I started publishing in magazines like Civil War Times Illustrated when I was twenty. I enjoyed it. I researched and wrote it as well as I knew how, and I naively supposed that people in the groves of academe would respect what I had done.

lee-issue-1985 (2)To a considerable degree they did. When I applied to graduate school the writing sample I provided was a 25,000-word special issue on the life of Robert E. Lee. While no one mistook this for a scholarly article, it did convey to the graduate studies committee such useful bits of information as the fact that I could write effectively, that I had sufficient organizational skills and follow-through to complete a manuscript of that length, and that I had a certain amount of savvy in that I’d learned the ropes of publishing.

Even so, I was lucky, because there’s an undercurrent of disdain for popular history within the academy and if my application had landed in a different department I would have been far better off turning in the usual undergraduate research paper.

Just now I used the word “undercurrent.” It might have been more apt to use a word like “cloud” or “fog,” because as with many of the less savory aspects of academic culture, you can rarely point to a faculty member who will explicitly and openly denigrate history written for the non-specialist. And yet the undercurrent/cloud/fog exists, and every graduate student with an ounce of perception learns it very early in her career.

For instance, in 1994 a quartet of graduate students at Indiana University used precisely the term “undercurrent of disdain” when giving their perception of the profession’s view of history written for non-specialists:

Despite avowals to the contrary by a profession whose democratizing impulses led to “people’s history,” our professional culture still contains an undercurrent of disdain for works written by amateurs or for public audiences. There is a hierarchy implicit in our definition of ourselves as professional historians, and it is, not surprisingly, reinforced in our professional training. As graduate students, we hear this in the classroom, where popular works may be credited as “good narratives” but ultimately derided as lacking “sufficient rigor.” We absorb it through hallway conversations and professional newsletters, where we find our colleagues more readily acknowledging one another’s presence on prestigious conference panels than their infrequent addresses to county historical societies or rare columns in the local newspaper. We rehearse it by learning to write historiographical essays in a style that favors subtle distinction and academic jargon at the expense of accessibility. We read it in the book review sections of scholarly journals, where academic reviewers of popular works so often feel compelled to add the curious disclaimer–“this work is meant for nonspecialists”–as a gesture of forgiveness for some perceived lack.

— Chad Berry; Patrick Ettinger; Dot McCullough; Meg Meneghel, History from the Bottom Up: On Reproducing Professional Culture in Graduate Education, Journal of American History Vol. 81, No. 3, The Practice of American History: A Special Issue. (Dec., 1994), pp. 1137-1146. You will need J-STOR to access this article online.)

Despite the baleful way that the academy regards “popular history,” however, I have met many historians who do in fact write in order to engage with a general readership. My colleagues in military history do so as a matter of course, because the level of popular interest in our subject area is so great they would have to actively loathe and despise non-academics to avoid it.

I suppose, however, that a prudent graduate student might object that one should take up popular history only after achieving the safety of tenure. Maybe so. But I remember a discussion in a graduate course I took during my first year as a PhD student. The subject of popular history came up, and the professor and grad students batted it around briefly in exactly the way you might imagine from reading the block quotation above. Finally a student next to me said, with an eagerness balanced by a certain professional smoothness, that he had a real interest in writing for a general readership and after he got tenure someday he would like to try it.

The student never got to try it. He never got tenure. He never even got his degree. He died less than a year later.

5 thoughts on “The Professional Historian and Popular History

  1. Good points, Mark.

    I’m part way through my PhD, but as a mature student, I am happily also publishing ‘popular history’ articles. Whilst they will seem less academically rigorous to the academic reader, that is largely because the editors do not want lots of footnotes. However, my recent pieces stood upon my ongoing research with each piece introducing new data or a fresh interpretation of primary material. I know that my supervisor thinks I am being diverted away from my research, but, firstly, I reach an audience in the thousands rather than in the tens, and secondly, it pays – thereby subsidising attendance at conferences, book purchases etc. It seems like a no-brainer to me.



  2. In the early ‘nineties, Richard Snow, then editor of American Heritage magazine, asked me to serve as a contributing editor for the magazine. This meant occasionally vetting some of the fifty manuscripts that arrived at the magazine every day, and writing pieces on subjects of my own choosing as well as taking on those Snow felt I was suited to write.
    I had no hesitation doing any of this. I did not then, nor have I since, thought of the study of history as the special preserve of a select few professionals. History belongs to everyone, is not the exclusive property of those in the guild, and its doors are open—or should be–to any author who wants to try a hand at it.
    Professional historians who write for the general reader need not fear their work will somehow disable them from writing for a professional audience. No doubt many of us have heard our colleagues complain of how a piece of public writing is sloppy, methodologically flawed, or tainted by unwarranted generalizations that would never stand up in a piece done in accord with the canons of professional practice. And while we can point to many instances in which these complains are well founded, still others can be found that show their author having taken just as many pains in research and writing as those found in professional journals. When I submitted manuscripts to American Heritage, I also included footnotes even though they were not required, first to impose the same discipline on my work as when writing for professional journals, but also to make the job of the magazine’s “fact-checkers” that much easier. Some of the pieces I wrote took just as much research than those I did for professional journals, and the writing was often more demanding. I learned early on that there were always attentive, well informed readers out there who would not hesitate to call you out if you made a mistake.
    I am convinced that writing for a public audience has made me a better historian than I would have been otherwise, but there is another attraction to this sort of writing, and that has to do with the vastly greater number of readers one reaches. If one is convinced, as I am, that a knowledge of history enriches everyone’s lives, we historians are obliged to repay the privilege of belonging to our profession by using every venue or medium we can to advance public understanding of our past and what it means for us today and for our future.

  3. Wide of the mark is one way to describe overly rich odes to public history.

    Certainly there is a place for public history when it is written with proper care and diligence, and that place is an important one because it extends knowledge to a much, much wider audience than academic works. But there is a dark side too. Take for example those who hurriedly write poorly researched, often erroneous military history books aimed at the lucrative, nay insatiable, demand found among segments of the general public. Their aim is notoriety, and the lining their own pockets. These writers and their products are the dark side of public history to which academics more often than not turn a blind eye and deaf ear. Worse still, these sorry histories attract numerous readers who often take their contents as historical gospel. The late Charles Whiting is undoubtedly the poster child for bad military history, although it seems he has no shortage of successors. Harry Yeide is one who comes to mind. His “First to the Rhine” is riddled with errors of fact, yet it sold among the populace as a definitive work on the US Army 6th Army Group in WWII without a single word of comment from true scholars. To his credit, Robert Citino recently eviscerated Yeide (JMH April 13) for his laughable, “Fighting Patton: George S. Patton Jr. Through the Eyes of his Enemies,” but few scholars take the time, or make the effort, to shed the light of truth on such historical travesties. Despite his effort, Citino’s review is forever behind a paywall, and will never be read by those public consumers who dote on Yeide’s work.

    Academic historians, particularly the military variety, are steadily losing ground to the historical “booksellers,” who cater to public tastes and carefully eschew substance. Unfortunately scholars have generally abandoned the field, and without much of struggle. When writing the praises of public history, scholars owe it to themselves, their chosen profession, and mostly to the general public, equal time to the subject’s dark side.

    Perhaps it is time for the Society for Military History to begin an online outreach program.

    Best Regards,

    Jim Lankford

  4. Some popular history is quite good. Martin Middlebrook comes to mind, along with Corelli Barnett. Thomas B. Costain was no slouch. Dame Antonia Fraser. Their works open the door into serious history for many of us.

  5. I am always amazed at the infighting that still exists in this discipline! Each path has its place in my opinion, the finger pointing game only makes the whole area of study look weak and out of sorts.

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