Book sales and new thinking: the colossus

[If you are joining us late, we are tracing the decline of a school of thought that used mass market sales to leverage itself into a position of doctrinal dominance.]

Allan Nevins and Bruce Catton were journalists who turned to history writing, introducing newswriter values to this field: keep the story moving; don't get caught up in digressions; structure your tale with heroes, villains, setbacks and triumphs; and, above all, maintain a consistent editorial line.

Nevins was a tyro, first founding an historical society to propogate his view of what history should be (lambasting "dry as dust" scholarship) then founding a successful magazine, American Heritage, which built up his association and employed its members. Nevins was able to leverage the commercial success of his books, magazines, and his associates into a genre-wide Civil War "policy" that shaped, and still shapes, how the war is presented to the public. His editorial line on the Civil War came to be synonymous with commercial success; dissenters could suffer rough handling at the hands of reviewers from the Nevins camp, and certainly publishing houses would look at any new ideas that could not pass the Nevins test with deep suspicion.

Nevins' great collaborator, Bruce Catton, after establishing himself as a war interpreter in the Nevins line, became a kind of enforcer of this view of events once he took over the reins of American Heritage; Stephen Sears was a junior staffer who assisted Catton at that magazine.

As this Nevins-engineered consensus developed across the field of Civil War studies, James McPherson, a political/social historian new to the Civil War gained a commission from Oxford University Press to aggregate all the current "best thinking" on the subject (e.g. Williams', Nevins' and Catton's thinking); he would write a book covering the ACW era as part of a larger American history series. (This assignment, like McPherson's Princeton job, was arranged by his former Johns Hopkins professor, C. Vann Woodward, a scholar suspicious of Nevins popularizing tendencies but comfortable with McPherson's). McPherson's book was Battle Cry of Freedom, a work-for-hire effort that encased the dominant historical sensibilities of the 1950s and '60s and that has never been seriously revised.

The eight volumes of Nevins' own opus Ordeal of the Union began appearing in 1940, creating an commercial space in which Kenneth Williams, T. Harry Williams, and Catton's efforts could thrive. The last edition of this set appeared in 1992 in paperbacks issued by Simon & Schuster. Ingram reports it as being out of stock indefinitely. There are no small press editions of this work that I know of. Nevins' book War for the Union is also out of print.

As nearly as I can tell, there are no Civil War titles in print by Nevins whatsoever. However, his Pocket History of the United States is still in print and last year sold about 1,250 copies (206, Ingram). This figure is low and not commercially viable for a mass market paperback publisher (Pocket Books); it seems to be the last literary vestige of a towering publishing career.

It strikes a reader of my generation as remarkable that there is no longer any market for Allan Nevins' own ACW writing. And this weakness (repudiation?) shows in the sales of many of his followers.

Tomorrow: Bruce Catton.

(If you had trouble with any industry terms or concepts in this post, please read this. To understand the point of this exercise, read this.)