James McPherson, mentioned yesterday, is probably the best example of the consensus that Allan Nevins built starting in the 1940s. The most famous recipient of Nevins' patronage was Bruce Catton, and of course many more people are familiar with Catton's views than Nevins' or McPherson's, though they are essentially the same.
It is the Nevins/Catton/McPherson view of Civil War history that dominates ACW storytelling even today. The mechanism for that dominance is worth a few words.
Nevins, like Catton, began his working life as a journalist, a story-driven, detail-excluding transformer of mundane information into drama. He discovered history after his basic attitude to information had already been formed by deadline writing and the need to sell newspapers to the broadest audiences possible. Nevins was irritated by scholarship-driven history - he called it "dry-as-dust history," and when the preeminent historical organization of the first half of the century failed to back his idea for a popular history magazine, Nevins started The Society of American Historians in 1939 and used it as a platform from which to later launch American Heritage.
Though Nevins became a professor at a respectable university - Columbia, which now has an Allan Nevins chair - he never adopted the respectability of the profession as his own. He preferred publicty. And so, the The Society of American Historians differentiated itself with its literary interests and its drive for broad public readership. A book recently sponsored by the Society carries this: "From its inception, the Society has sought ways to bring good historical writing to the largest possible audience."
Good writing, large audiences. Not scholarship, necessarily. Pop historian Edmund Morris said he was a writer first and an historian second. This was more tersely stated by Stephen Ambrose who said, "I tell stories!" when asked about his duty to sources. I don't know if these are/were Society members, but they embody the problem the Society engendered.
"I tell stories!"
To understand the conflict between an ethos of strorytelling and of history, we need go no farther than the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct issued by the American Historical Association, a different organization:
"Scholars must be not only competent in research and analysis but also cognizant of issues of professional conduct. Integrity is one of these issues. It requires an awareness of one's own bias and a readiness to follow sound method and analysis wherever they may lead. It demands disclosure of all significant qualifications of one's arguments."
The reigning Civil War consensus is not based on "disclosure of all significant qualifications of one's arguments" or "an awareness of one's own bias and a readiness to follow sound method and analysis wherever they may lead." These would burden stories with boring digressions.
To a talespinner, the work of "history" not only needs a "story line" to keep it moving, it needs a specific "editorial line" to justify its narrative choices. This editorial line is the "master narrative" Edward Cline discusses in his Rhetorica blog.
Membership in the Society has been by by invitation only and is limited to 250 authors. Nevins, then, founded a club of influential, published historical writers, just large enough to guarantee a certain level of consensus.
Members promoted each other's works in reviews and blurbs; they gave each other well-publicized prizes; and they published in American Heritage, enormously popular at the time of the Civil War Centennial. AH presented a defined editorial line to deliver one coherent "voice" across many articles and issues, a coherence that invited reader loyalty.
For acquisition editors of the major publishing houses of that time, the Nevins view defined Civil War reality; a book proposal deviating from that would be out of synch with the broad ACW reading public's understanding of events; it would be a commercial risk that invited unfriendly criticism from the best known experts in the field. An article submitted to AH that embarassed a Society member would not be welcome. A book published by a scholar operating outside the editorial line would not be favorably reviewed by this Society of friends.
This is actually where we are today, decades later: at the head of a mass outpouring of consensus work, festooned with the Society members' own prizes awarded to each other. This is the "reality" of recent Civil war history. The editor of Grant's papers, John Y. Simon, expressed the situation most bitterly when he said that the Civil War reader was a little child who wanted the same bedtime story told exactly the same way every night.
To extend Simon's metaphor, Nevins and his colleagues reared that child.
Bruce Catton, assiduously sponsored by Nevins, was an editor of AH at one point, and Stephen Sears was his protege. They actually shared a Pulitzer early in Sears' career. Sears has done less well than McPherson in preserving the Nevins/Catton consensus, however. He has a taste for generating controversy. He adds a twist of lime to what would otherwise be a very familiar drink.
McPherson, started teaching at Princeton in 1962 during the height of Nevins influence (control?) and Catton's popularity. McPherson's loyalty to the teachings of the period have brought him into collision with new sources that overturn old interpretations but he soldiers on. Much more on this in future posts.
The society Nevins founded is still around. Its 250 members still give each other awards and issue press releases about their achievments; there is even a Bruce Catton Prize. McPherson is a principal of the organization; only the disgraced Doris Kearns Goodwin may be the better known member. But nowadays, the Society's rolls includes far fewer ACW historians than ever before, which, with the failing of American Heritage, is another threat to the maintenance of the broad consensus Allan Nevins built, as we shall see.
(p.s. This is an opinion piece, not a history of Nevins or his Society. I've allowed myself the storyteller's liberties and am loving it...)