Brian Pohanka, RIP

Brian Pohanka has died.

My colleagues and I were enchanted when he joined the McClellan Society in its early days. It was a measure of his generosity that he scanned his entire McClellan CDV collection and posted it on our MacSoc discussion board.

I am now sorry to have ragged so much on the Romanian location of Cold Mountain in this blog, a production decision he was paid to publicly defend. And my digs at pop history sometimes caused me to twinge after the fact when it occurred to me that this good-hearted man might have read them and then taken my grousing personally.

Brian pioneered a "public intellectual" role for Civil War historians, especially in TV and new media. He did a remarkably good balancing act in that he was a well-informed reader with esoteric interests and a fine capacity for analysis who appeased the idle (almost worthless) curiosity of masses of ignorant viewers and readers.

As each new wave of Civil War first-timers was unleashed in the marketplace, whether by Ted Turner or Ken Burns, Brian was there with something - the History Channel, Time Life Books, C-Span - to try to edge them up a notch in understanding. He was a way station.

He did not generate those forces that so badly disfigured the market for Civil War scholarship for so many years; no, he tried to tame and civilize them. He was one of us, a serious reader and researcher but one operating in the mass media.

Where McPherson met his masses with flattery, endorsed their most primitive ideas, and generally passed them through his ACW information mill unchanged, Brian's work with the same level of audience was different. It often held out a "not so fast" aspect. He consistently seemed to press viewers and readers to "look deeper," in contrast to the Centennial team's message of "And that's the way it is."

Brian Pohanka winnowed mass audiences so that our field would have better readers. And thus, better books.

Thank you, Brian, for being a friend to this great field of study in its darkest decades.