With all the digressions here it may be worth saying that this blog is about the failure of Civil War history as history and of Civil War history publishing as history publishing. Its central issues are "why" are we supplied with histories so inferior and "how" can this happen decade after decade.
A couple of times in the past, I have relied on comments by Jeff Sharaa to explain our plight as specialized readers. Sharaa says:
* He and his late father have had to structure their novels for "most" of their readers who have little Civil War knowledge.
* "I don't write 'Civil War stories.' I write stories about characters in the Civil War. There's a distinction. These books are stories of people. The people tell the stories, through their experiences, through their point of view."
All this is background to the main point:
* "An enormous number of people have said to me that they had little interest in history in school and never read much about the Civil War. Now, through my father's book and the film "Gettysburg," and perhaps from Gods and Generals, they are caught up in the story, in the lives of these characters. These books, and the film, are not just history as we often think of it..."
As this readership, in its millions, washes into the field of Civil War history, the field suffers and the informed reader suffers. The masses who roll into the marketplace are story-driven, personality-driven readers with a taste for certain literary styles and forms and very little historic sensibility. One prime beneficiary of this kind of readership has been the consistently awful James McPherson. McPherson refers to the Sharaa dynamic publicly:
I recently gave a tour of the Gettysburg battlefield to a group of small-company CEOs and their spouses. As usual in such tour groups, more of them had read Michael Shaara’s novel, The Killer Angels, than any other book about Gettysburg.
This gets us a long way into the "why" of Civil War publishing. For the "how" bit we can rely on the comment by John Y. Simon, editor of Grant's papers, that the Civil War reading public is like a little child who wants to hear the same story every night told in exactly the same way. Let me buttress this seemingly harsh comment with remarks recently made by the British novelist/playwright Michael Frayn in a recent interview:
Let me say for a start that I don't think it is a very good idea to write different sorts of things. If I were to give serious practical advice to a young writer about how to succeed I would say: "Write the same book, or the same play, over and over again, just very slightly different, so that people get used to it. It takes some time, but if you do it often enough, finally people will get the hang of it, and get familiar with it, and they'll like it. Then you go on producing a consistent product and you'll have a market for it.
This is a formula for commercial success.
And so we have a paradigm for what is wrong in this ACW history field: Great rolling waves of newbies spending lots of money on novelistic presentations of essentially the same book recapitualted endlessly.
"... you go on producing a consistent product and you'll have a market for it." As history readers, we rarely escape this all-pervasive "market-friendly" history.