Despite what his publishers and press agents say about him, despite the screaming hype from reviewers and blurb writers, despite the superlatives heaped on him by Civil War glossies, James McPherson is open about the fact that if he ever was a scholar, he certainly has not acted one in many, many years. First consider his definition of scholarship and the worth of scholarship:
There is a tendency to look down on popular history in academia. The word "popularization" is a word that can be almost a kiss of death for young faculty members trying to get ahead, trying to gain tenure. There is more emphasis placed on archival research, on innovative methodology, on new breakthrough interpretations, on methodology in academia, and increasing specialization. There is increasing focus on fields like environmental history and women's history and social history and cliometrics, which is a sort of quantitative economic history with a specialized language. All of this makes what a lot of academic historians write either unintelligible or uninteresting to a broad lay audience. But it is what earns promotions, what earns tenure, what earns grants.
This is a definition that seems hostile to the core idea of scholarship, research and publishing, and mixes in a lot of academic activity that may or may not be scholarship. So what about his Princeton University tenure? How could he have gotten it with an attitude hostile to scholarship?
Early in my career, I wrote more specialized works and worked my way up the academic ladder. Once having achieved a certain amount of security and status within the academic community, it is [became] possible for me to reach out without necessarily jeopardizing my career within the community.
In his own words, after achieving tenure, McPherson stopped the scholarship and started the outreach to "lay" audiences. He became an historical writer.
The question he was responding to is important: "I would like your thoughts on how you've been able to straddle that line and both please your colleagues in history and strike a note of interest with the reading public."
He gave half an answer, leaving out how he pleases his colleagues. He does not please his colleagues. The tendency to look down on popular history remains strong in the academy. If he behaved early in his career as he behaves now, it would have been "a kiss of death," to use his own words. He would not be a professor and his handlers would not be able to use his tenure at Princeton as "evidence" of scholar status.
McPherson is as antagonistic to scholarship as was Nevins ("dry as dust history" in his immortal phrase). He knows what he is doing. He knows that it is not scholarship.
Now the time is long past for his hypemasters to learn this. And for his readers to stop patting themselves on the back for digesting great scholarship. Argue if you wish that this man is a great historical writer. Do not pretend he is a scholar. Learn what scholarship is and does.
The McPherson case is now closed.