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The banality of book reviews.

November 23, 2009, 2:53 pm

Does this (here and here) happen often? Does the Times often review the same book twice? I can’t think of another instance like this, I have to admit, but I don’t pay much attention to the Sunday Book Review anymore, so I can’t say for certain.

Regardless, in this case, if you don’t feel like clicking on links, the book in question is Sir John Keegan’s The American Civil War: A Military History. Which book, I should say, I haven’t read and won’t be reading. And not just because the second review linked above, authored by the normally genial James McPherson, savages Keegan’s efforts as terribly sloppy, but also because, coincidentally, just last week Eric and I taught Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler in our graduate seminar.

As I starting reading the Evans, I kept thinking about McPherson’s review and about the responsibilities historians have when it comes time to consider deeply flawed work produced by people they admire. It seems to me that reviews often are nowhere near as harsh — with “harsh” here meaning analytically rather than personally acute — as they should be. I’ve typically assumed this arises out of misplaced professional courtesy, a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I attitude, or because everyone knows everyone else in their sub-field, meaning they worry that their professional networks will collapse if they take off the gloves in a review.

Anyway, much of Evans’s book is about historians who, after notorious Holocaust denier David Irving dragged Deborah Lipstadt into court for having called him a liar (you can find more of the case’s backstory, not to mention lots of useful documents, here), were forced to take off the gloves and assess, in public and for the record, how their colleagues went about doing history: both their methods and the final products they produced. It’s a fascinating and somewhat distressing story.

And like I said, when reading the Evans I had just finished McPherson’s review of Keegan, which is uncommonly critical — if still respectful of all that Sir John has accomplished in the field of military history. So what, I wondered, had caused McPherson to train his guns on Keegan? Because McPherson, though he’s defined the field of Civil War studies and won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts, isn’t known as a scholar who defends his turf or lashes out in print. By contrast, he’s renowned for his intellectual generosity and his personal decency; he’s a man who manages to be at once folksy and decorous. And while that might describe the tone of his review of Keegan, the substance is brutal, citing, chapter and verse, major errors of fact.

Then, on page 240 of the American edition of Evans’s book, I found this odd tidbit:

If it was depressing that a historian of Erickson’s [author's note: Professor John Erickson] standing could leap into print without having actually considered the details of the trial and the judgment, then it was, if anything, more depressing that two other historians of the older generation, Sir John Keegan and Professor David Cameron Watt, actually testified on Irving’s behalf in court.

Wait, what? Keegan testified on Irving’s behalf? Well, okay. So what did he say?

Like many who seek to shock, he [author's note the second: remember this is Keegan on Irving] may not really believe what he says and probably feels astounded when taken seriously. He has, in short, many of the qualities of the most creative historians. He is certainly never dull. Prof. Lipstadt, by contrast, seems as dull as only the self-righteously politically correct can be. Few other historians had ever heard of her before this case. Most will not want to hear from her again. Mr. Irving, if he will only learn from this case, has much that is interesting to tell us.

As Evans later notes, it’s important to remember that Keegan is not himself a Nazi sympathizer. But he is, apparently, a proud member of an old boy’s club that has more room on its rolls for Holocaust deniers than for women who expose them. Or at least that’s the most charitable reading I can offer of Keegan’s views.

In the end, I have no idea if McPherson knew about this episode. But I’m guessing that he did. And I have no idea if that knowledge about Sir John’s past liberated McPherson from the shackles of polite scholarly discourse. But I’m guessing that it did. Now, I suppose, if only more historians would defend Holocaust deniers, the Sunday Book Review could become a lot more interesting and informative.

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