Popular History

Let me admit up front that I don’t like David Greenberg. Mr. “History Lesson” at Slate. I don’t like his snide condescending attitude. I don’t like the way he acts like he is some sort of arbitrator of accurate history in his columns when in fact he simply regurgitates the liberal party line and slams conservatives as evil, bigoted, cranks whenever he gets the chance. I don’t like the way his uses history as a weapon in the cultural/political battles (for the record I don’t like the way a lot of conservatives do the same thing).

So my bias is up front. Not surprisingly I was annoyed with Greenberg’s two part series on popular history (start here). But I didn’t feel up to talking about it. Let it go, Kevin I told myself. But I am emboldened to speak up because Ed at Return of the Reluctant has raised the issue. Those of you who read both blogs are surely aware that Ed and I do not see politics or culture the same way. Blue State/Red State, Left/Right, you name it we seem to be on different wavelengths. We both love books, however, and that is worth something. (Plus, Ed is funny and that goes a long way with me.)

Ed captures Greenberg well, however, and communicates many of the same doubts I had:

Greenberg’s assault is largely composed of ad hominen tactics and arguments without support. Without citing any specific examples (the stuff that one would expect from a professor), he has declared popular history “vapid mythmaking that uninformed critics ratify as ‘magisterial’ or ‘definitive.'” But if the alternative to popular historians along the lines of Stephen Ambrose or Will Durant is a populist reading public that is not concerned or curious about history, I have to wonder why popular history is such a bad thing . . .

Ed also accurately describes Greenberg’s tone:

One sizable problem with Greenberg’s argument is that it is laced with a strange contempt.

Ed has a different take on some of the more substantive issues of popular history so be sure to read the rest of his analysis but, as a former history grad student who loves popular history, allow me to throw my two cents in.

Here is the gist of what Greenberg is arguing:

The key to attracting more readers without sacrificing rigor lies in the ways that historians define their topics. If a book is conceived with only historiography in mind—with academic disciplinary debates and research agendas dictating the focus and the form—it’s unlikely to succeed in the public realm. If it’s conceived without historiography in mind, it’s unlikely to succeed as scholarship.

A few points in response:

– The average popular history reader just might not be interested in the same things as Greenberg. He acts as if something called “rigor” or scholarship is lacking in popular history. This might be true but unfortunately, as Ed notes, he offers no examples.

Instead, I would venture what many readers are looking for is simply a good story and a chance to learn something. As a result, archival and primary source research are not high on their list. What they want is the story of the past told in an interesting way. They want to learn about fascinating characters and events, but they don’t have the time or interest for detailed academic debate. This doesn’t mean they don’t want to wrestle with issues, but only that they don’t want to get bogged down in minutia.

– Condensing the secondary literature into a coherent story is valuable. Given the low level of historical knowledge in society as a whole, a fresh perspective or “critical reflection” isn’t necessarily the highest priority. I would settle for a basic understanding of key figures and events. Greenberg snidely insults Richard Brookhiser, and causes my opinion of him to sink further while at the same time undermining his larger point. Brookhiser’s work is far from the research monolith style, but he deals with important issues and addresses historigrpahical questions in a style that is both elegant and informative. After having read Brookhiser’s work one comes away with a better understanding of America, even if you don’t agree with his perspective or conclusions (or share the author’s politics).

– Writers who make history more interesting and more accessible are valuable. They disabuse the public of the notion that history is boring and dry; only about dates and cold facts. Greenberg seems caught up in the progressive intellectuals trap that holds that only that which challenges the conventional wisdom or that requires “critical thinking” is somehow worthy. What he forgets is that the kind of engagement he is looking for is beyond the capability or interest of many readers. They don’t have the time to dig into the issues and debates of academic specialists and many aren’t interested in dense arguments. They are too busy and too tired after work to choose historical scholarship as a hobby.

And Greenberg’s use of the word scholarship in this case is a slight of hand. One doesn’t have to address the historigrpahical arguments of various scholars to tell the story of the past. One can present what one judges to be an accurate portrait of a historical figure or event based on a study of the secondary material and not be short changing the reader. Reader’s of David McCullugh’s books come away with a better understanding of President Truman or John Adams. Who cares if they don’t know all the ins and outs of scholarly debate on these two men.

Relatedly, I think this concluding paragraph from Greenberg is unfair:

The British-based historian David Lowenthal (technically a “geographer”) has written about the differences between history and what the British call “heritage”: the commemorations of the past found in museums, folklore, pop culture, and the like. When we celebrate the Fourth of July, tour a battlefield, or enjoy presidential trivia, we’re not trying to probe the problems of the past—to think hard about whether the Constitution betrayed or affirmed the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, or about the origins of the Civil War. We’re looking to reaffirm our national or ethnic identity, to venerate our ancestors, to inspire wonder, or to instill patriotism or a sense of group solidarity. This is what people are looking to do when they read books by David McCullough.

Yes, there are plenty of books out there that might fit in this camp, but to lump McCullough’s work into the heritage camp is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. One can learn history and celebrate heritage. One can be entertained by a good story and still learn from it. Once can study the past without trying to “probe the problems” or “think hard” about this or that controversial issue. I know because I do it all the time. And the history of pedagogy is more along these lines than those that Greenberg lays out.

Mr. Greenberg needs to take off his progressive intellectual glasses for a moment and realize that average Americans might not share his perspective on these things. And he could use to turn down his snobby condescending attitude a notch as well.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. Greenfield & The Popular History Question

    Without even bothering to read the book in question (David McCullough’s 1776), professor David Greenberg has declared war on popular history in a two part argument on Slate. Specifically, Greenberg suggests that McCullough’s “surfeit of scene-setting a…

  2. A very nice post (as is Ed’s). However, you say “I would venture what many readers are looking for is simply a good story and a chance to learn something.” Unfortunately, these two things often don’t go together. Too often a “good story” smooths out the rough edges of history and prevents us from learning anything other than what can be squeezed into a rousing narrative. History doesn’t finally consist of “stories” because human lives don’t unfold as stories.

  3. A good popular history can tell a story without becoming historical fiction; and telling history as a story is essential makes it much, much easier for the reader to build the conceptual framework on which more sophisticated reading depends.

    For example, what point is there in reading an argument over what did or didn’t happen at the battle of Hattin if you don’t know that the battle of Hattin was a major defeat for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and and you don’t know that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was established by the Crusaders, and you don’t know why the Crusaders were in the Middle East to begin with, and you don’t know anything about the rise of Islam or Christianity, or the later history of the Roman/Byzantine Empire, etc., etc.

    Popular history helps you start building that skeleton, and gives you badly needed context. The little details may be inaccurate or “insufficiently nuanced”, but you’re not reading it for the little details; you’re reading it for the big ones.

  4. I read that piece too and thought it had the sound of someone who is jealous of the success of McCullough and others. I also noticed his slam of the forthcoming McCullough book on Washington and wondered if he had even read it yet. Generally not a very convincing article, glad a few others had the same reaction.

  5. I read that piece too and thought it had the sound of someone who is jealous of the success of McCullough and others. I also noticed his slam of the forthcoming McCullough book on Washington and wondered if he had even read it yet. Generally not a very convincing article, glad a few others had the same reaction.

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