Some final thoughts on blurbs and logrolling. A reader writes: "One should neither blurb nor review the work of one's own student; the logrolling is all too evident, and blurbs should be accepted for what they are: endorsements by people who are disposed in favor of the author. At times I've refused to blurb, and that's created an uproar; I've also blurbed a book when I did not agree with all the author had said ... because I thought the arguments were worthy of a hearing."

Those are certainly policies that will serve readers well.
Louis Menand says "The Civil War discredited the assumptions of the generation before it. The postwar reaction was against certitude and philosophical infallibility. There was a sense that the country had been too sure of itself." I wonder if he is reading reactions to two world wars backwards into post-ACW America.
Have you heard about the Alabama Confederate who resigned his commission during the war to become a Southern "champion of Negro rights"? It's buried in this interesting account of Alabama A&M's founding.
Cold Mountain got Homered, now all of Dixie gets Euripided.
John W. De Forest | Melodramatically considered, real life is frequently a failure. - Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty
NEWS | HGTV contributes to Soldier's Home renovation * Arkansas tries to document its Underground Railroad * "Ohioans in the Civil War" exhibit opens


One should make distinctions in logrolling. There is the friend helping friend. There is one school of thought helping itself and its allies. And there is reciprocity among colleagues and even strangers. These are harmless enough, even charming in the right context. What is noxious is where "material interests" co-exist with published praise.

Let's take the note that ends many reviews. Currently one might read, "Jane Doe is a professor at Winslow University. She lives in Scottsdale with her two poodles Ike and Mike."

How about, "Jane Doe is a professor at Winslow University. She receives speaking fees from symposia organized by the author here reviewed and has appeared in an anthology edited by him, from which she currently receives royalty checks. She is being considered for a literary prize by a committee on which this author sits."

Much better.

And when the publisher approaches a periodical for permission to use a reviewer's quote on a dustjacket, there might be conditions attached: (1) You may not remove the reviewer's name from the quote. You may not say, "'Great!' - Washington Post." You must say, "'Great!' - Jane Doe, Washington Post." (2) If the reviewer is not on staff, if it was a piece contributed by someone, you must say, "'Great!' - Jane Doe, special to the Washington Post."

That would cut a lot of the nonsense out. Of course if publishers want to mislead, it's going to be hard to stop them. Consider the OUP and McPherson, an example given yesterday. Consider this bit from the end of promotional text from the University of Massachusetts Press:

Mary Drake McFeely is an independent scholar. She is author of Lady Inspector: The Campaign for a Better Workplace, 1893–1921.

That's the whole thing. May I suggest a revision? A step towards common decency?

Mary Drake McFeely is an independent scholar. She is author of Lady Inspector: The Campaign for a Better Workplace, 1893–1921 and other books. She is also the wife of author William S. McFeely and the mother of W. Drake McFeely, the president of W. W. Norton & Company.

We all understand anyone with a successful spouse or child will want space for their own reputations. But she's in publishing and they are in publishing, so we want a little more light here than U Mass seems willing to give us.

Which brings us back to yesterday's blog. How about a sticker for William McFeely's new Grant book, the one brought out by Norton in November 2003:

Funding for this project authorized by W. Drake McFeely, President of W. W. Norton & Company.

Would Barnes and Noble apply a label like that? Would book page editors even notice? Oh, we do have problems in Civil War publishing.

(Thanks to the reader who pointed out this Norton connection. It does make mere logrolling pale in comparison.)
There is a very interesting and important article by Timothy Reese at this site and it has major implications for the chronology surrounding the Lost Order and McClellan's response. One significant point is scholarship's obstinate misdating/mistiming of McClellan's telegram to Lincoln disclosing the find.

Bonus: you get a taste of Reese's unique Crampton's Gap analysis in this piece. Go look.
John W. De Forest | Thin, pale and almost sallow, with pinched features surmounted by a high and roomy forehead, tall, slender, narrow-chested and fragile in form, shy, silent, and pure as the timidest of girls, he was an example of what can be done with youthful blood, muscle, mind and feeling by the studious severities of a puritan university. - Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty
NEWS | Trust issues endangered battlefield list * Related: Donelson on endangered list* Related: New Bern battlefield among nation's 10 most endangered * Minnesota stance on flag inflames Civil War buffs


News organizations can be fastidious about disclosing conflicts of interest.

I recall a piece in which a newspaper reporter quoted someone in a community association; the editors inserted a kind of "warning" after the quote noting that this person was actually – gasp – a part-time copy editor on their night shift. Potential conflict of interest identified!

When it comes to the book review pages, however, the newspapers are usually running brothels, with nasty conflicts of interest at the larger sheets. New York's expired mag Spy used to have a lot of fun with this corruption in a column called "Logrolling in Our Time." There would be pairs of quotes without comment. For instance,

"Jane Smith has written the Lincoln biography that will stand for a generation." – Joe Doakes, Newsweek

"Joe Doakes surprises and delights us once again with his mastery of antebellum history." – Jane Smith, Washington Post

And so it would go, month after month, column inch after column inch … "Logrolling in Our Time." Needless to say, you could put a strong column together today just by reading the blurbs on the dust jackets in the Civil War section of your bookstore.

I think we all carefully read these blurbs to vett the complements; to the extent we ourselves know the connections between blurber and author, we can use our meager knowledge discount the praise. It is therefore an act of hostility by the publisher against the reader (greater or lesser – you select the degree) when the blurb is made opaque by removing the name. Thus,

"Jane Smith has written the Lincoln biography that will stand for a generation." – Newsweek

It's not user friendly and it lowers deep out of view the sight of one hand washing the other.

I just noticed (this week) that Oxford University Press approaches the blurb quotation style two ways. This is highly unusual because editors strive for consistency in such things. One OUP style is in the usual form: Jane Smith, Washington Post. Almost all their history writers get this manner of blurb. See here and again here. The other way is in the duplicitous style: just "The Washington Post." Thus, "The Washington Post" editorial board gave the complement, not your buddy who free-lanced a kiss-up piece for the Washington Post book page.

Only one writer seems to get that second style of blurb at OUP, a supremely well-connected fellow named James McPherson. See for yourself.

I'm not sure what to make of this myself. I am dead sure what Spy would have made of it.
John W. De Forest | "Miss Ravenel, have you any messages for New Orleans" said the Colonel. "I begin to think that we shall go just there. It will be such a rich pocket for General Butler's fingers." - Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty
NEWS | Fight over SC Civil War battlefield heats up * Killer Angels adaptation does Gettysburg with only nine actors * Va. officials join fray over Gettysburg flag return * Slave's victory in court found in documents * Newly restored statue honors Union vets


Grant biographer - and Pulitzer winner - William McFeely has issued a picture book, a la McPherson, through the trade publishing house Norton offering about 160 pages for $32.50 list. (Here's the link to Amazon, but please, just look, don't buy.) The only step lower than this is to include a Cracker Jack prize free with every picture book.

This being such a brazenly commercial proposition, I don't want to spend time on the obvious side of it. What interests me is the Civil War reading public's response to such a naked commercial appeal.

For our purposes "public" will mean Amazon reviewers. Each of these is from a different person. On one level, they are scathing:

* "I'm really not sure why this was published. The collection of photos (which, one would think, is the main point of the book) is pretty uninteresting, and the essays only prove that McFeely hasn't learned any more about Grant since he wrote that overrated bio over twenty years ago."

* "... the words are the only thing to recommend the book. The photos are non-existent! I don't know what the publishers were thinking. I have seen all the photos in here a million times."

* "This is touted as an album of Ulysses Grant photographs. It is marketed as such and sold with this inherent promise. It is with stunned surprise to report that there are exactly twelve photographs of Grant within this book. Yes, I counted them: twelve actual photos."

* "I would've liked more pictures instead of drawings."

I think this list represents everyone who posted an opinion about the book. I'm amazed that these people could disregard the commercial signals surrounding this work, buy the book at a premium price, then complain about not enough interesting photos.

Is this the coffee-table end of the ACW bookbuying public? I don't think so. I think this is part of that great mass audience that drives the Pulitzers. I think McPherson and McFeely understand something we don't, that you can get rid of 90% of the text in an ACW history and still capture enormous sales.

Civil War readers scare me to death.
A reader has kindly alerted me to the publication last year of Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! - South Carolina and the Confederate Flag by the University of South Carolina Press. This blog often carries news items on flag and heritage fights; this is the first book-length treatment of a flag controversy that I know of. Said to be "a balanced, scholarly, and provocative work" so have a look.
John W. De Forest | "I have just thought why all the gentlemen one meets at the South are so civil. It is because the uncivil ones are shot as fast as they are discovered." - Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty
NEWS | Bullock museum unfurls the historic flags of Texas * Historical society works to preserve record of contrabands * Chickamauga play written for heritage tourists * Cleburne statue takes its final form * New book examines black soldiers from Utica


The old thinking on U.S. Grant, we know too well: Grant is a stolid, centered, military professional who eschews politics to form a close working relationship with the Administration.

Having mentioned Simon on Friday, I should recap all the new thinking on Grant. This is cartoonish, but will have to do:

Brooks Simpson - Grant was a political animal.

William McFeely - Grant was neurotic and unstable.

John Simon - Grant was at odds with Lincoln and Stanton.

Jean Smith - Grant was as good a president as he was a general.

The clearest delineation of Simpson's thesis is in a less recent work, which is linked above. Smith's book appeared last year and had lots of good military details that are seldom mentioned, such as Halleck's repeated efforts to supersede Grant with almost anybody else. McFeely has just laid an egg (in November 2003), which we'll examine this week.

To get a comprehensively revisionist view of Grant, the reader has to digest all four authors. There are worse chores.
John W. De Forest | "Oh! oh! expostulated the Colonel with a cough. "If we are to try all our old gentlemen as traitors, we shall have our hands full. That's something like hanging homely old women for witches. By the way, how are the Allstons?" - Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty
NEWS | Teenager makes Civil War film * Volunteers help clean NC Civil War site * 2,500 students gather for Civil War re-enactment * Civil War letters paint bleak picture for blacks * Zellweger takes prize for Cold Mountain


So John Y. Simon finally won something. "Hey, I edited 26 volumes of Grant's papers and all I got was this Gettysburg College t-shirt."

Well, more than a t-shirt, he got $20,000 from Gabor Borritt's friend, the civic minded New York businessman Lew Lehrman, conveyed through a vehicle misnamed the Lincoln Prize. (And he didn't really wisecrack about the t-shirt. That was blogger-style fun.)

Simon holds somewhere within himself a critique of Civil War publishing. We know because he lets out these remarks, these insights that hint how well onto this rum business he is. The problem is hunting down his work and then sifting his words for the really good stuff. His best known comment appeared parenthetically in a New York Times book review written by someone else quoting him. As a metaphor for the widespread puerility and repitition in Civil War publishing, Simon had noted that Civil War readers are like young children who want to hear the same bedtime story every night told in exactly the same way. The reviewer used Simon's quote against an author and the angry letters followed.

Children and their bedtime stories. That's a fairly brilliant way to express the predicament of Civil War publishing. It may not have been entirely fair to go after the readers, but they are driving the market and, as we saw two weeks ago, Jeff Shaara has defined that mass Civil War audience for us very well. As he says, they are a group entirely innocent of history whose interest has been temporarily piqued by a movie, TV show or some other ephemeral mass entertainment.

I had seen Simon's "children" remark a long time after reading his essay on Grant and Lincoln in Gabor Borritt's old anthology Lincoln's Generals. It was an essay that anchored the collection and impressed me, flying as it did, in the face of the collective wisdom of Williams, Williams, Nevins, Catton, McPherson and their legions of copycats.

It rejected much of the myth of Lincoln finding a general. It painted, succinctly in a summary review, a deeply troubled relationship in which (this is my characterization), Lincoln persisted in his bad early war behavior to the discomfort and embarassment of the man who was expected to win the later war for him.

Thus, there is, through Simon, an alternative storyline for 1864, one that has Grant go into the relationship conscious of his vulnerability, sensitive to the fact that he might be "McClellanized" (in his own brilliant coinage, recorded by General John Schofield). There is pathos in watching Grant set up different kinds of plans, intitiatives and command structures to sidestep McClellanization by the Administration. Almost fruitless, these schemes.

And to make matters worse for Grant, there is that curious time in the war when feeler after feeler is extended to McClellan to return to the high command, beginning at a point before the 1864 spring campaign is launched and extending through summer.

Had Mac responded positively to any of the Adminsitration's overtures, Grant would have been well and truly McClellanized by Lincoln in every possible sense of the word.

I should let Simon summarize for himself: "[Lincoln] held the reins and taught Grant what was permitted and what was forbidden." Later in life, Grant papered over their vast differences. "...Grant succumbed to the sentimentality of the age. He created the impression that mutual harmony and respect had existed from their first meeting and persisted until Lincoln's death. In reality, however, Grant and Lincoln forged an effective partnership in a turmoil of clashing authority."

This turmoil of clashing authority points the way to great future possibilities in Civil War publishing. But change comes slowly here, and it may be another lifetime before Simon - or anyone working Simon's themes - scores a prize for work like this.

As they used to say about our GI paychecks: "Hey Simon ... don't spend all of that dough in one place." It's going to have to last quite awhile.
Another quick note on yesterday's topic of human lifespans and our nearness in time. I saw this item in a Colorado newspaper last night:

In Thinking of America: Songs of the Civil War" features tenor Robert Trentham and such songs as "Battle Hymn," "Dixie's Land," "Steal Away," and "When Johnnie Comes Marching Home."

They're just the songs you'd expect, aren't they? Because they've been periodized, frozen in a moment carefully crafted for our consumption. Consider this alternative evening: Wagner Premiers of the Civil War.

Seems impossible, doesn't it? All because of the packaged way we consume history.

I started researching Wagner's US premiers after learning Sheridan's horse Rienzi shared her name with Wagner's first opera (and the name of a popular historic figure). It's fascinating to see how much Wagner there was in the American marketplace during the Civil War. You can do this yourself. Google beckons; look at the dates and the locations. These were not dinner theatre engagements, nor were they limited to the eastern seaboard.

"Goober Peas" indeed.
NEWS | Eli Whitney site, destroyed by Sherman, faces commercial development * Civil War cannons returned to Allentown * Reward increased for return of Civil War guns in MO


At times it seems we are close, very close, to the events and people not only of the Civil War, but of the earliest period in this country's history. Not necessarily through blood, politics, cultural backwash, or personal connections, but through the trans-historical human lifespan. We are closer in time than appearances might allow.

We would know this better if we history readers didn't suffer a time distorion effect brought on by our reading. Call it "periodization." We become period-conscious, unlike those friends and neighbors who read less history.

For example, scouring some archives last year, I was a little bit surprised and confused to read the letters columns in various newspapers after General George B. McClellan (USA) died and his obituaries ran (1885). You see, some letters to the editor were by Mexican War vets remembering McClellan in the Mexican War and it was very confusing for a history reader like me to think that Mexican War veterans could cross the divide from one period to the next (Civil War) and then to yet another (Gilded Age). And at the end of that crossing, they remembered McClellan exclusively in his Mexican War context.

Disorienting. But Mexican War veterans were living well into the 20th Century.

The feeling of awe at how close we are in time struck me again last night in reviewing a note on the career of the Rebel George Rutledge McClellan. The note appeared in A Fighter from Way Back: The Mexican War Diary of Lt. Daniel Harvey Hill, 4th Artillery, USA. (Hill mentioned the obscure George R. in his diaries but not the more famous George B.)

I thought of the time spent with my mother's father, a gold mine of first-hand history. When he was six, before the 20th century began dealing him its history cards directly, he experienced it vicariously through newspaper reading. He even began a scrapbook of news clippings featuring those Russo-Japanese incidents that led to war. That reading and clipping started in 1904, the year George R. McClellan died.

So, my grandfather and George R. were connected in time. Col. McClellan had figured in the removal of the Cherokees in 1838; he fought in the Mexican War (as a USV); and he was even a cavalry commander in the Civil War (CSA). His death overlapped my grandfather's birth by six years. This instrument of Jackson, Polk, and Davis was hardly one person away from someone I was quite close to. Someone who could have clipped his obit for a child's scrapbook.

The feeling you get from these associations is odd, very special, and a limited byproduct of history reading. It might even be fair compensation for the time distortion we suffer through periodization.
And then there are those who are close to Civil War events and personalities courtesy of reincarnation.
NEWS | Gettysburg Cyclorama undergoes surgery * Arkansas battle flag reception set * Local historian calls attention to unknown ACW barracks


There was a short thread on Stephen Crane in one of the Usenet discussion groups with folks weighing in on how much they enjoyed Red Badge of Courage. The undercurrent was very much of a piece with "contemporary ACW novel" and "best ACW novel."

Both views are wrong. Crane and I were schoolmates, not that our time overlapped, so I get no joy in pulling him from his pedestal. But Red Badge of Courage was written 20 years after the war from imagination. And it lacks the whole social dimension of the war.

John DeForest completed Miss Ravenel's Conversion in 1865. He drew on his combat experiences along the Mississippi interleaving them with a keen sense of people and social situations. Where Red Badge of Courage is spare, Ravenel is lush and detailed. The comaprison is somewhat like Tolstoy and Remarque.

I have been reading Ravenel again, which is filled with little surprises and delights, such as when (Southern) Lilly Ravenel asks (Yankee) Edward Colburne, "Why will you all be so square?" (They appear to be discussing New England architecture.)

Likewise the author notes at one point "New Boston is not a lively or sociable place. The principal reason for this is that it is inhabited chiefly by New Englanders."

The combat is, as William Dean Howells once noted, "realism" before American literature had a name for "realism." The stockade assault scene is superb; everything about it is unexpected and at the same time utterly plausible.

DeForest was a great American novelist who has been forgotten. He was, unfairly I think, consigned to the second rank of writers. Give Crane a rest and seek out the Johns Hopkins hardback or the Penguin paperback of this classic. It's the one DeForest book most large bookstores will carry.
We've been ignoring the re-enactors for quite awhile. Here's a little news, anyway.
NEWS | Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War organize Midwest re-enactment * Arizona re-enactors laud desert as authentic backdrop * Illinois park service okays re-enactment


Good luck to Dr. Thomas P. Lowry. His 1998 Stackpole release, Tarnished Angels: The Courts-martial of Fifty Union Colonels and Lieutenant Colonels seems to have been rereleased last year by the University of Nebraska Press under the title of Curmudgeons, Drunkards, and Outright Fools: The Courts-Martial of Civil War Union Colonels.

The University of Nebraska Press has done many good things in Civil War publishing, not the least of which was issuing the late Rowena Reed’s Combined Operations in the Civil War.

But here’s a gripe about the cover of Lowry’s new book.

The design is a Terry Gilliam-like (Monty Pythonesque) clipout of a line drawing of a standing Union officer reoriented from vertical to horizontal with a whiskey glass cut and pasted onto his chest. The fellow appears to be lying down and passed out. The image is cropped and the facial features are not entirely visible.

But this is a famous engraving of General George B. McClellan; if you could see it unaltered, it would be the one in which he holds his gloves in the small of his back and his binoculars against his right leg. McClellan was the general who court martialed the “Curmudgeons, Drunkards, and Outright Fools” and he spent a great deal of personal political capital doing so, since these men tended to be appointed by Republican governors. He outraged various political patrons to provide for the safety and security of the army.

And now it is McClellan who is the fool, drunk and prostrate, thanks to a careless design. They even smudged over his shoulder straps to replace his general's stars with an indistinct eagle.

In a field where the historians hardly know what they are doing, it seems harsh to criticize a design. But the cover of the Lowry book is about a much bigger problem than jacket design, one that could be summarized in a phrase: "Just tell the story, don't sweat the details." It's the ruling ethos in our little corner of the publishing industry. And in this case, we see the worst-case outcome; the actual, common-sense meaning of an historical event is fully reversed. Because the details were not sweated.
NEWS | Buckner's letters to Grant discovered * Stewfest to brew funds for Neuse II * Enthusiast saves ACW reunion scrapbook


As this is the federal version of Lincoln's birthday, it's not too late for a few thoughts on good Lincoln books.

Harry Jaffa published Crisis of a House Divided in 1958, and it wa reissued in 1999 in this edition.

Note the comments of Lincoln prizewinner Mark Neely: "Crisis of the House Divided has shaped the thought of a generation of Abraham Lincoln and Civil War scholars." Not that Jaffa might win a prize for such a thing...

In House Divided, Jaffa dignified the thoughts of Stephen Douglas by systematizing them into a representative worldview, and then used the Lincoln-Douglas debates to elaborate Lincoln's principled opposition to this. Jaffa sees Lincoln as a great exponent of what we now call Natural Rights theory.

He developed this theme further in a long-awaited follow to House Divided that appeared a couple of years ago: A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War. In New Birth, Calhoun (a deeper thinker than Douglas, to be sure) is represented as the paradigm of a Kantian historicism against which Lincoln was struggling intellectually. If this sounds far-fetched, Lincoln's law partner used to read Kant to Lincoln on slow days at the office and Calhoun had digested Hegel before self-consciously identifying with Hegel's "other student" Kant.

When you look at the Jaffa pages on Amazon and read the reader reviews, references to marked up copies, underlined passages, dense chapters followed by brilliant payoffs promise pure joy.

On to Michael Burlingame.

I mentioned that the diaries of John Hay, as previously released, have been poor resources representing minimal efforts. Inside Lincoln's White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay by Michael Burlingame, John R. Ettlinger (editors) remedy this by restoring Hay's excisions and deeply annotating the diaries themselves. This is actually the diaries edition that needs to be consulted when writing Lincoln books.

By the same token, Burlingame has rescued from total invisibility, the anonymous newspaper writings of Lincoln's secretaries. These represent op-ed pieces and insider tattling that map to White House policies and war developments. Terribly important, they were assembled by detective work (sometimes called "scholarship"). See Dispatches from Lincoln's White House: The Anonymous Civil War Journalism of Presidential Secretary William O. Stoddard and Lincoln's Journalist: John Hay's Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864.

Burlingame also arranged to publish John Hay's interviews with people who knew Lincoln. Might new observations of Lincoln be useful? Published for the first time? One would thinks so, so consider reading An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay's Interviews and Essays.

In trying to fathom why Burlingame is not honored more or better known, I assume it is because of a book called The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln. As devoted as Burlingame has been to Lincoln studies and to the person of Abraham Lincoln, there are places you are not allowed to go without suffering some sort of sanction.

From the Library Journal:

He traces the origin of Lincoln's furious temper, cruel streak, aversion to women, hatred of slavery, and stormy relationship with his temperamental wife. [...] At the same time, he challenges the work of Lincoln's traditional biographer, James G. Randall. Utilizing the papers of Lincoln's law partner, William H. Herndon, and contemporary newspaper accounts, the author gives us an aggregate picture of a troubled man.

I like Randall and trust him more than i trust Burlingame. But you have to follow the material. And that's one difference between Burlingame and the cuurent generation of prizewinners and prizegivers.
The 2004 Lincoln Prize was awarded on behalf of Gabor Borritt on Feb. 12. This year, for a change of pace, the author of a work about Lincoln was named.

But only half honored. He had to share the prize with the editor of Grant's papers.

There is not a lot of information about Richard J. Carwardine on the Net. Borritt blurbed the jacket of his book Lincoln when it came out, bestowing, as it were, an advance on the prize. And when another advance reader says Lincoln has "all the qualities that make for a good read," it worries me.

John Y. Simon received the lesser portion of the prize ($20,000 of $50,000 bestowed). His yeoman's work on Grant's papers should not need to be honored by a Lincoln committee, especially after 26 volumes have appeared (starting in 1967).

Gone without a trace: the ballyhood $50,000 eprize for web-based Civil War era content. When announced in 2002, it sounded like a setup for awarding money to the Valley of the Shadow project.
NEWS | Ship to be named for 1st black captain of vessel in U.S. service * Propeller of Monitor is restored * Pierce enthusiasts organize


I had planned to write up some of the great Lincoln books that have appeared in the last five years, not realizing that the Borritt Prize for Lincoln Scholarship would be awarded yesterday. Postponement: I'll comment on the work of the prizewinners next week and present my list then as a counterpoint. Have a great weekend.
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.
The annual Borritt Prize has been awarded and we'll spend some time analyzing the awards on Monday.
NEWS | Civil War Historians Honored With $50000 Lincoln Prize * Committee OKs Fort Heiman preservation bill * Web site helping researchers visit ex-slave sites * Was there really a 'Baltimore Plot' against Lincoln?


Tomorrow, I'll do a little roundup of best Lincoln books to appear in the last three years. And I'll put in a few good words about McPherson, and the fact that he clearly does not hold himself out as a scholar, but lets his history-challeneged readers imagine him to be one. That should close out our McPherson file for a time.
Today is Lincoln’s Birthday and although I cannot take you to Kansas to hear James M. McPherson speak about Abraham Lincoln at the Dole Institute, I can at least give you a taste of the depth of his thinking. Topic: What is it about Lincoln that fascinates us?

Part of the fascination is the sort of rags-to-riches, log cabin to White House image that's associated with him. Part of it is the enduring language of the greatest documents we associate with him, the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural and several others. Part of it is his association with the war, which also has its own fascination, as you know. It's hard to say why he stands out so far above everybody else in popular fascination.

Thank you, thank you. Here is your speaking fee, sir. And see you again next year!
NEWS | Was hoping to run a number of Lincon stories today. Surprising lack of Lincon news. Visit some news sites and see for yourselves.


I spent some time recently puzzling over reviews earned by Sears' Gettysburg. The pattern was to give the work five stars, label the author pre-eminent and such, then get down to a level of criticism that would sink any other work. I am beginning to understand that this is how you criticize a prizewinner with major industry clout.

When James McPherson issued his own Gettysburg book to coincide with the anniversary of the battle we saw again the correct etiquette to be used in condemning a weak offering by a strong personality.

Here is a review to illustrate the "good form" required, and you can skip over the ingratiating beginning, and the maximimum number of stars to read that:

* "He appears to have written this book in haste..."
* The number of "errors and other problems are both puzzling and disappointing."
* "Most of these [erors] could have been easily avoided if the manuscript had received even a cursory historical proofreading (which it apparently did not)."

And here is my personal favorite: "As an introduction to the campaign, this book is adequate." Five stars indeed!

Now that you know the form, you can start writing those critical reviews. I've been waiting for them for a long time.
An interesting take on James McPherson and Civil War publishing:

"The guy's everywhere, like Viagra spam."

The author of this op-ed cleverly interprets McPherson's ubiquity as a highly public signal sent by event organizers, by publishers, by audiocassette manufacturers. The signal is "Nihil obstat," church Latin for "nothing objectionable" in this content.

McPherson's blurbs, therefore, are less a conventional "seal of approval" than a label assuring potential buyers that the material conforms to the Nevins/Catton/Williams interpretation of Civil War history.

And that, I think, is an extremely useful service rendered pop history's mass audiences. Of course, it helps the serious Civil War reader too, though not in the way intended.
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As noted previously, the Dole Institute is hosting a Lincoln Week roster of speakers. The engagements were made by outgoing Dole director, Richard Norton Smith, and offer a fair picture of what is in store for the Lincoln Library and Museum, now that he (Smith) has taken over.

The roster of speakers – with a lonely exception - is made up of winners of the Lincoln Prize, issued annually by friends of academic entrepreneur Gabor Borritt. Douglas Wilson (1999), Allen Guelzo (2000), James McPherson (1998), and Phillip Paludan (1995), each have previously won $50,000 through Borritt's prize system. (Paludan was a last-minute replacement for non-winner Harold Holzer, who dropped from the lineup and who had earlier declined to be considered for the leadership of the Lincoln Library … thus opening an opportunity for Smith.)

Borritt is very open about his projects: "Why things change, who knows? We did our small part. We started the Lincoln Prize. That's a huge prize; it's not for Lincoln alone, but all things being equal, if you work on Lincoln you have an advantage." It gives him leverage beyond his Gettysburg Civil War Institute, and it extends his Civil War brand by awarding a Lincoln Prize to titles like The Destructive War: William Tecumseh Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, and the American; For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War; and A Great Civil War: A Military and Political History, 1861-1865. This list (and you should read the entire list of contending titles) makes nonsense out of a mission statement that says "The Lincoln Prize at Gettysburg College shall be awarded annually by the Lincoln and Soldiers Institute for the finest scholarly work in English on Abraham Lincoln, or the American Civil War soldier, or a subject relating to their era."

Finest scholarly work? But that would require research, not the recapitulation of conclusions reached in secondary sources. Oh wait a minute. We are talking about "Civil War" type scholarship. The kind exemplified by James McPherson, who sadly embodies the highest standard of Civil War scholarship.

When you consider that the bona fide but prizeless scholar Harry Jaffa issued his second-ever Lincoln title (A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War) after a near five decade interval during the period Borritt's friends were handing out prize money to each other, you get a sense of "scholarly" being defined for the Lincoln Prize in the same corrupt and nonsensical way it is used in Civil War publishing generally – where Borritt has his roots, and where every pop history frolic to hit the shelves is considered scholarship.

"Now the 49th Delaware Volunteers would receive their baptism in blood! As the enemy drew closer with whoops and random firing, Colonel Alonzo cooly checked his watch." That is what we mean by "scholarship" in Civil War history; all that is needed is a citation of Catton tacked on to make it exceptionally scholarly.

Jaffa's portrayal – to a popular audience no less – of Lincoln's wrestling with Calhoun's intellectual legacy, particularly Calhoun's self-conscious Kantianism – is so far beyond Borritt's grasp of the scholarly as to be laughable. But the laugh is not on Jaffa.

Nor is it on Michael Burlingame, who will be speaking elsewhere during Lincoln Week. In the period Borritt and company have been honoring battle books with Lincoln Prizes, Burlingame has been doing painstaking things like assembling and annotating pseudonymous newspaper articles published by Lincoln's secretaries in defense of Lincoln's policies. Might that be a little bit fresh? A little bit important? And reissuing improved, more thoroughly annotated editions of John Hay's diary – a basic piece of scholarly drudgework long needed. Burlingame most recently collected anecdotes about Lincoln's dark side and then examined them for their possible historic meanings. I might call that scholarship too, though it lacks that climactic charge of the 49th Delaware that pop history prize committees so dearly love.

The disgraced historian Doris Kearns Goodwin is preparing a Lincoln book and is guaranteed it will win the Lincoln Prize the year it comes out. For Goodwin sits on Borritt's prize committees, publishes fluffy, lightweight stuff, and Borritt rose to her defense when she was under attack for plagiarism. (Scroll halfway down the linked page to see his letter to the editor.)

I mentioned months ago that if Richard Norton Smith were going to function as the acceptable figurehead for the Lincoln Library, with no Lincoln background, he would need a string of number twos to do the heavy lifting … a deputy for fundraising, a deputy for political liaison, and a deputy for Lincoln scholarship, among other deputies. If this Dole Institute speaker's roster is an indication, Gabor Borritt is going to be Smith's offsite number two for Lincoln scholarship. The Lincoln filter. The go-to guy for that Lincoln stuff. And it is going to be an era of friends helping friends. An era of big helpings.

Which will not sit well with actual, bona fide scholars, nor with serious readers.
Now, Spike Lee is piling on Cold Mountain, though not for shooting in Romania.
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James McPherson seems to share an audience with Jeff Shaara (scroll down for Sharaa's comments). Here is Professor McPherson explaining the legal aspects of secession to his public:

They said, if you have a voluntary association of states you have no Union, if any state can pull out you have no country, you have no nation. As Lincoln said, this is the essence of anarchy. And so that was the political theory under which the North fought. It was the outcome of the war that decided the legitimacy or illegitimacy of these points of view.

You might thinks that a teen wrote that in a class paper after a late night on the town. Or that if you grade enough papers, you will start to think and speak like that. But Jeff Shaara understands.

Now, here, from the same interview, Dr. McPherson explains to his readers the dynamic behind Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation:

Lincoln said over and over again before the war and during the war, that slavery is wrong, it's a monstrous injustice, it's a social, moral and political evil for the white man, to the Negro. He said, if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong, and so on. This was something that Lincoln believed was right, and when he issued the final proclamation on January 1, 1863, he said he did so because it was a military necessity, but also as an act of justice. And I think those two things, plus the foreign policy dimension, were all factors that he took into consideration.

Before reading Jeff Shaara's analysis, I would have thought these crude comments would embarass an undergraduate. Now I understand to whom McPherson is speaking and why he speaks and writes the way he does. Thanks, Jeff.
Jeff Shaara considers on the subject of who reads his ACW novels and who buys ACW pop history:

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.
Gary Gallagher considers the impact of pop history on mass audiences:

I think 'Gone With the Wind' has shaped what people think about the Civil War probably more than everything we've written put together, or put together and squared.

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I would love to think - and it's a foolish thought - that the head of Miramax Studios is complaining about this blog when he says

the low Oscar-nomination count for "Cold Mountain" was due in part to stories in the U.S. press attacking the moviemakers' decision to shoot the U.S. Civil War drama in Europe and not America.

I will say, I do not know what he is talking about. Every piece of criticism of the Romania shoot that I found in print was linked in this blog and 90% of such press rumblings were indistinct, always muffled by larger contexts (buried in interviews, gossip, whatever).

Outside of this blog, where was the press campaign to criticize Romanian production? How did I miss it?

Weinstein, who jetted in to support the Anthony Minghella-directed story, which opened the Berlin International Film Festival, hinted that there had been a whispering campaign against the production because the filmmakers chose to shoot largely in lower-cost Romania.

Ahhh. A whispering campaign is something else. And that exonerates me. Bloggers don't whisper.

p.s. Weinstein: "I'm proud of 'Cold Mountain' being a European film." And he's proud to be promoting it at the *Berlin* Film Festival by generating a little controversy.
So it's an accident that this Lincoln symposium was set up at the Dole Institute just as the head of the Dole Institute took over the Lincoln Library and Museum.

It's not as if the departing head of the Dole Institute used Dole money to spread a little patronage to build bridges to Lincoln scholars. No sir, not Richard Norton Smith (for it is he), and we are told that,

Strangely, Smith had been working on the Lincoln Week events before he was approached to direct the Springfield museum.

Mr. Reporter, Smith was approached at least twice, probably more times than that, by two separate administrations. Which "before" would you be referring to?

And did you know, "The Lincoln lectures ... are designed to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Kansas Territory." We all associate Lincoln with the founding of Kansas (don't we?), so why would an all-Lincoln program arouse any comment? Consider:

McPherson, who speaks on Lincoln's birthday, Feb. 12, said it was tough to separate Bleeding Kansas from Lincoln's involvement in the Civil War.

They are connected because it's tough to separate them ... and that's the kind of insight that sells millions of books.

And speaking of selling millions of books, thanks to the reader who pointed out to me the mercenary undertones in this:

James McPherson, said he expected a lot of focus on Lincoln and territorial Kansas during the next year.

Opportunistic publishing anyone? We flame broiled Antietam, we steam broiled Gettysburg, now come and get your bleeding Kansas on an anniversary bun. Over 700,000 served.
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If you are wondering what kind of insight wins Pulitzer Prizes or secures a chair at Princeton, try on this little preview of a speech to be given on Lincoln's birthday:

"The way I see Kansas, viewing it from the outside, is its importance as a mini-Civil War from 1854 to the late 1850s," McPherson said. "I see Kansas as a rehearsal for the Civil War. A lot of people involved in the Civil War got their start in the Kansas wars."

Is this the beginning of a reassessment of slavery? In seeing strength where weakness has been emphasized? Unfortunately, these pieces lack enough context to understand the sentiments expressed:

"When I look at the history of slavery, I see positive, not negative," Bates said. "Yes, it cannot be condoned, but we must look it in the face."

Here is another one: "To say that I'm ashamed of slavery is like saying I'm ashamed of my own mother."
And now, Seminole War re-enactors.
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Once upon a time, in a land called "Illinois," a prize-winning pop history author named Richard Norton Smith was offered the leadership of the Lincoln Library by the governor of that great state, a Republican. He declined the offer, saying he was concerned about the institution becoming a holding pen for politicans who had lost their magic. For you see, this governor had appointed a special crony to a major post within the library before offering Dr. Smith the top job.

Later, a new governor took the reins in Illinois. When offered the same post again by Illinois's newly elected Democratic governor, Smith quickly accepted. The Democrats would never stuff the library with political deadwood.

Sadly, an Illinois political hack (doubling as a heritage tourism official), was quickly made his number two, although she was a working politician, at least.

Now we learn that a former governor is in line to be the next president of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Foundation, "the fund-raising arm of [Smith's] new Lincoln facility in Springfield." It's a bipartisan pick: this fellow is a Republican. But can he raise money? Does he have any magic left? Or is his nomination one of those "thank you" gestures politicians make ... in this case for starting the library project back when he was governor.

"[S]tate officials said they do not expect any opposition..." to this appointment.

And so, Richard Norton Smith became the respectable face of a political log rolling operation called The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. And scholarship was served happily ever after.
It's becoming a publishing cliche: family letters are discovered and evolve into a Civil War tome. The process still makes for a charming story, however.
It seems that Phil Sheridan was not an ethical hunter. Interesting also that he had to publish his own memoirs himself (not enough commercial interest?). And my, he was certainly interested in viewing the Franco-Prussian War.

If he, Burnside and Chamberlain had made it to the Franco-Prussian War, each on his own desired terms, Sheridan could have observed Burnside's French forces be defeated by Chamberlain's Prussians. He then could have returned to the states to hear Sherman's analysis that the French were making good use of their defeat in learning new lessons, where the U.S. would need to suffer a similar disaster in order to correct its military sins.

There's a book in there somewhere.
The General Manager of the Vancouver Canucks is an ACW buff. And the Philadelphia Flyers coach is a re-enactor. Imagine that.
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It doesn't get any more brazen than this:

In Kentucky, the big tourism bucks still are associated with big lakes, big mountains and big events, but there is big money to be made on a little thing called history...

The good lady featured in this story is learning enough about her own community to be able relate to visitors ... outsiders who already know enough about the place to want to visit it.

Moreover, it's as if she's the local government's designee for performing a dirty job that somebody's got to do if the tourists are to be milked of their dollars. Let her learn the history of this place ... thank heaven I wasn't chosen.

What's wrong with this picture?

The next step is to actually hire outsiders - from far away - to be your local historian. The whole National Park Service historian system exhibits this logic.

And the next step after that? "Heritage in a Box" software learning kits that make anyone an expert on any locality anywhere. Coming soon.

Far-fetched? Well, something must be done to relieve the natives of their heavy burden of local history ... and without reducing visitor spending.
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The Democratic Party of South Carolina asks for what might be called "a statement of affirmation." Some wag calls it a loyalty oath and that term gains immediate currency. It seems to be evoking a level of hostility not seen in the last 140 years.

Consider this an example of our Civil War heritage in action. Here's the link.
What would you say about a 17-year-old Civil War historian? One who has published multiple books and won a couple of prizes in his short career? This article touches lightly on his background:

In addition, Northeast Ohio author Brian Jordan will be at the museum from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. to sign copies of his new book, Triumphant Mourner: The Tragic Dimension of Franklin Pierce. The 17-year old author and historian is the recipient of awards from the Civil War Preservations Trust and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Congratulations to this youth; I wish him every success. More children should try their hand in this field.

* Normally complex human relations rarely rise above the understanding of a 17-year-old in Civil War histories.

* Normally complex human motivations rarely rise above the understanding of a 17-year-old in Civil War histories.

* Normally complex political-military interactions rarely rise above the understanding of a 17-year-old in Civil War histories.

* Normally ambiguous outcomes are generally portrayed in black and white in Civil War histories.

This field is ideal for 17-year-old writers. In fact, Master Jordan has already gotten bored enough with it to move on to topics demanding more nuance and insight.
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