Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Some Historical Perspective

Recently there has been a backlash over the popular history genre, highlighted by an article in Slate last week. The thrust of this argument is that the large scale blockbuster biographies and American history books (authored by such household names as McCullough, Ambrose, Chernow and Morris) 'dumb-down' the field of historical research and analysis. David Greenberg, the author of "That Barnes and Noble Dream" acknowledges some of the reasons for the McCulloughesque popularity among the American public. Superior storytelling ability, exciting and patriotic subject matter and a lack of deep (read: boring) insight. It is this same absence of rigorous analysis that has upset so many 'traditional' historians. For example, by adding sheen to the subject matter and playing up heroism while avoiding psychological analyses and in-depth discussion of the effects of cultural forces on individuals, the author is cheating the reader. To a point, yes. But this is also very much a case of sour grapes.

Having read most, if not all of the major works cited (largely unfavorably) by Greenberg, I can attest to the vapidity of several of these studies. "Truman," by Greenberg's main target, David McCullough, was an entertaining and informative story replete with historical drama. As a summary of a period of time and one of the more important lives in that era, it was incredible. After reading the book I had a far greater understanding of a subject I had earlier known little about. However, the book lacked significant depth and I closed the book knowing much about what the man did and little about what drove him other than what I had gleaned from the book jacket. The same can be said of "Theodore Rex" by Edmund Morris and, to a lesser degree, "Benjamin Franklin" by Walter Isaacson. However, two points must be made in opposition to this theory.

Firstly, there are a great number of books that have sold phenomenally well--some by the very authors listed above--that are very insightful. Two examples are Morris's "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt" and McCullough's "John Adams." In the case of "Adams," the strength of the book lies not in the tales of the formation of the nation nor in the day-by-day description of Adams' term as President. Instead, what sets it apart is the analysis of the letters that flow back and forth between Adams and his wife, Abigail. Through these letters the reader gains more of an understanding both of what influences the second President and how this changed the course of history. "Rise," the Pulitzer Prize winner and precursor to "Rex," chronicled the early life of T.R. While any author could have done wonders with the breadth of material offered by Roosevelt, Morris captured well the bravado that drove him and the weaknesses that limited him.

Second, Greenberg stops just short of comparing these books and their respective authors to the Grishams and Clancys of the fiction world. Now this is vapid. Furthermore, the goal of these books is twofold: 1) to make money; and 2) to capture complex ideas and histories in abridged form. While there should always be room for more advanced scholarship in the market, the function that these books serve as basic lessons for the general reading public is invaluable. In short, the McCullough's of the scholarly world more than make up for their lack of analytical heft with the service they provide to an increasingly aware public. I have a sneaking suspicion that most of the critics cited in Greenberg's article would trade their "intellectual superiority" for the stylistic ability of Ambrose.

**UPDATE**: A review of McCullough's latest, "1776" in the NY Times. Two appropriate quotes:

"Although the reader in search of a wide-ranging overview of the Revolution would be better off turning to any number of earlier books (from Trevelyan's classic "American Revolution" to more recent works like "The Glorious Cause" by Robert Middlekauff or Benson Bobrick's "Angel in the Whirlwind"), "1776" does succeed in its limited aims. Mr. McCullough uses his descriptive powers and tactile sense of drama to lend his story a pungent immediacy, and he does an ardent job of conveying the hardships and outright specter of devastation faced by George Washington and his troops as they took on the better trained, better equipped, better disciplined British forces." Washington, Mr. McCullough concludes, "was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, not an intellectual," and at several crucial moments "had made serious mistakes in judgment." But "experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience." Above all, he adds, "Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up.

"Similar assessments of Washington's achievement, of course, have been made many times before - most recently by Joseph J. Ellis in his 2004 book, "His Excellency." But if "1776" remains a highly familiar story, and an incomplete story at that, it nonetheless remains a gripping read: readable, even thrilling popular history, and a graphic reminder of the parlous circumstances that attended the birth of this nation."

Seems that despite the largely positive review by the Times, this book would provide more ammo--and angst--to Greenberg.


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