Thursday, July 4, 2013

Popular Histories of the American Revolution and Recent Scholarship

Eric Herschthal is absolutely correct.  Most of the new popular histories of the American Revolution ignore existing scholarship.  I am not sure if this is a good or a bad thing, but for Herschthal, a graduate student at Columbia University, it is definitely a bad thing.  Here is a taste of his piece at Slate:

Every Independence Day the book industry offers new titles about the American Revolution, promising original thoughts and fresh relevance. This year is no different, with some of the nation’s most lauded historians releasing major new titles making bold claims of insight. Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph Ellis just came out with Revolutionary Summer, which focuses on the few months in 1776 when the 13 colonies declared independence. It comes on the heels of Penn professor Richard Beeman’s Our Lives, Our Fortunes, Our Sacred Honor, which also follows the road to 1776. And the National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill, already a best-seller, zooms in on the 1775 battle that transformed the conflict from a series of skirmishes into a full-blown war.

These are carefully written books that are sensitive to contemporary attitudes. (Perhaps occasionally too sensitive.) But you’d be mistaken in thinking that they provide a new perspective on the Revolution, because none of them seriously consider much of the latest research being done by historians across the country—which has a lot of new and relevant things to say. If you bought a popular book on science, one that came with a similar sheen of intellectual prestige, and learned that it essentially ignored years’ worth of scholarship, you’d demand your money back. Why should history be any different? 

Herschthal wonders why these popular books glorify political and military leadership and do not address questions of race, slavery, and globalization.  These are all very good questions, but as long as people want to read about politics, war, and leadership the kind of books written by Beeman, Ellis, and Philbrick will be popular.  Lay readers of American history will always gravitate to a past that is useable. 

Is it possible to write a best-selling popular history of the American Revolution that incorporates recent scholarship?  Would the ordinary history buff want to read such a book? 

I think the answer to both of these question is "yes," but we have much work to do.