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On Edmund Morgan and the Possibilities for Reviving a More Popular History

July 9, 2013, 10:28 am

DoyenMorganPortraitAs you will see, the passing of a distinguished colleague brought ever more radical thoughts to mind this morning as I settled in to my writing.

Hat tip to Edmund Morgan. Do graduate students still read Morgan for their comps if they are not Early Americanists? I am of an age where we did, so it is with a heavy heart and a grateful wave that Tenured Radical bids goodbye to a distinguished writer and teacher who passed away yesterday at the age of 97. Morgan taught at Yale when I was an undergrad there, standing out as a teacher even among a history faculty famous for their capacity to make the past come alive in the lecture room. His biography of Benjamin Franklin is a model of lively, engaged historical writing — something to which Morgan committed his life — and his literary style is well worth studying for those starting out in this difficult profession. He also outlived Franklin by thirteen years, no mean accomplishment, even in the 21st century.

For a good interview with, and more cute pics of, Edmund Morgan, go to History News Network.

People I have written about who I have outlived. John Dillinger, Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, Fred Barker. Pick your field carefully, graduate students.

OK, now to get serious again:

On historians reaching a broader audience. Distinguished minds are pondering the question: whither the humanities? I say: maybe the public doesn’t really give a rat’s ass about the humanities because it is so very clear that we don’t give a rat’s ass about them.

I was peeling through the latest issue of the Journal of American History yesterday and made an interesting discovery in the book review section. Books from commercial presses usually have a very direct title, sometimes — but not always — followed up by a subtitle that answers an unasked question. The subtitle, as I understand it, is intended to jiggle the observers brain and persuade the potential reader to ask the question and buy the book. For example:

  • Benjamin Franklin by Edmund Morgan. The title says: Benjamin Franklin is such a dude you don’t have to say anything else! It’s like driving down the street and seeing a sign that says: McDonalds. No subtitle necessary!
  • Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies, by William D. Romanowski. This book, which I pulled from the JAH review section, caused me to ask the question: what kinds of conflicts about censorship occurred within twentieth century religious communities? As an outsider to the history of religion, I had never thought about this. As a scholar of popular culture, I should think about it. So I bought it.

I’m not going to give you real examples of book titles that fizzle lest I be misunderstood as criticizing the book, or the author, as lacking in some way. But the title style favored by university presses and their authors contrasts sharply with that favored by the commercial publisher. It generally features some kind of catchy phrase intended to foreground the authors argument. It is then followed by a subtitle that instructs the reader as to the field, periodization, subject and school of thought. For example:

  • Who Was The Masked Man? Popular Culture, Anti-Indian Sentiment  and the Making of the Modern West by Hy. O. Silver.
  • I Never Slept With That Woman: Scandal, Politics and the Media in Late Twentieth Century America by C. Gar Cannister.

Note the structure here: the title itself requires some prior engagement with the texts from which the historian will be working. Hence, everything about the titles not only calls to professional  historians, not the casual reader. Worse, the subtitle describes the book’s appeal, not to the engaged reader, but to hiring and tenure committees, an even smaller subset of historians, for whom those categories have meaning.

Now, you will say to me: “This is the way the world is! Young historians must secure their careers before they do harebrained things like writing books that intelligent non-academics want to read” But I say it is not the way the world is – it is the world that the profession of history has made all by itself in the past several decades as we have moved ever upward into the thin air of taking care of number one first. It is a world in which a first book, or books, required for tenure are written for an audience of 1500 specialists or fewer. A young scholar who reaches out to a popular audience is seen as intellectually suspect rather than as epitomizing good historical writing, as it was in the days of Morgan, Perry Miller, Richard Hofstadter, et. al.

It’s rare that you see Tenured Radical elevating this generation of historians, so take heed: I think I’m on to something about what we can do, each of us, to reach out to a broader public that loves history. Re-title your books accordingly.

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