If I had spent my life maintaining the 1962 editorial line of American Heritage magazine, if I had spent it writing blurbs for other people's dust jackets, if I had spent it educating class after class of Princeton history grads, if I had spent it drawing crowds to indifferent Civil War symposia, then I would be James McPherson and I would expect I could end my life in some dignity.
Perhaps my students would hail my contributions to history in book after book, article after article; perhaps colleagues I had helped would be compiling annotated editions of my works; perhaps readings would be organized of my articles; perhaps analyses would be published listing my breakthrough discoveries and insights; perhaps things would be named after me.
Instead, as James McPherson, I am left at the end of my life to myself compile a picture edition of my best selling work (not even a disciple around to do this and spare me the shame). As my colleagues dive into new research, I sign the imitation leather-bound deluxe picture books, hoping they earn back my advance.
Does McPherson deserve such a fate?
Sorry to say, I caught a review of his picture book yesterday and from the snippets served up there, it's hard to work up sympathy for the man. Here, the reviewer begins:
Side-by-side pictures ... reveal an important Civil War subplot simply because they're placed next to each other: "The tired, lugubrious countenance of Simon Cameron and the determined, confident mien of Edwin M. Stanton speak volumes about their respective performances as secretary of war. Lincoln replaced Cameron with Stanton in January 1862 because in ten months on the job Cameron had made a mess of things; in cleaning up the mess Stanton did not make himself popular with war contractors, but he got the job done."
The reviewer notes that "it's not just that the pictures are well chosen; they're also well captioned."
I would not say this picture is well captioned at all. First, McPherson is reviewing his own caption: the miens "speak volumes," he says. The reviewer, having been told how to interpret the photos parrots McPherson, telling us the photos "reveal an important Civil War subplot simply because they're placed next to each other."
McPherson's career has been based on telling us how to interpret everything connected with the Civil War. And he has not done that in an open way, by reviewing the controversy surrounding 10,000 individual matters; he simply issues his fiat. If you ever read Catton or Nevins, you have a sense of which way his fiats will run.
So in the simple matter of Cameron and Stanton, it's not just that Cameron made a mess (is his suit rumpled to signify this?) and Stanton cleaned it up. No, it's not this impossibly basic conclusion: the analysis is ascribed to Lincoln. McPherson has the self-confidence to tell us authoritatively why Lincoln removed Cameron and replaced him with Stanton. He conveys a conclusion as a fact without actually conveying any information, historical or otherwise. And that is his way.
Here is some information any of which clould have been crafted into a single caption for two photos of these secretaries of war:
* Simon Cameron assumed his position having lost his Pennsylvania power base in the 1860 elections, but continued to appoint his own men to federal positions to the outrage of the faction that beat him at the polls.
* Edwin Stanton worked for Cameron in the war department while working with Congressional Republicans to have Cameron removed. He succeeded.
* Cameron's proudest boast was that he raised, outfitted, equipped, and deployed more soldiers than Napoleon Bonaparte; the effort exhausted him.
* Cameron surrendered his post after publicly opposing the President's policy on arming slaves.
* Cameron and Lincoln remained friends and Cameron performed many useful services for the Union during the war.
* Cameron's failure to control military contracts would be followed by Stanton's failure to control cotton speculation behind military lines.
This is just top-of-the-head stuff, folks, but the raw material for a decent caption is widely known and available.
For more bathos, we return to the review:
Here's nifty piece of descriptive writing that accompanies an image of Abraham Lincoln: "This photograph was taken in Macomb, Illinois, a day before Lincoln's second debate with Douglas in Freeport. Lincoln could scarcely be considered handsome; he joked that he was the ugliest man he had ever known. The beard that he decided two years later to grow filled out his face but could not conceal his large ears."
If you don't want to end up writing "nifty" captions about Lincoln's ears sticking out, practice real history and really practice it.