James McPherson has long been the ACW go-to guy for his genre in the New York Review of Books. Currently, he has a long omnibus review of titles in that paper.
Rather than do a long essay on McPherson's review, I want to show you how I read McPherson and why he is so objectionable to me. You get no continuity here, just a series of McP's statements in the order they occur and my comments.
McPherson: Born in England, raised in Los Angeles, and residing in London and New York, Foreman is well qualified to write about “Britain’s crucial role in the American Civil War.”
Comment: This is a non-sequiter. Born and raised are not scholarship qualifiers.
McPherson: ... her main title (“A World on Fire”) might strike some as an exercise in hyperbole.
Comment: It is Seward's hyperbole, not hers. She has made a play on his famous public "world wrapped in fire" threat against British intervention. Any Civil War reader would know that.
McPherson: ... the British government and armed forces did not intervene in the Civil War.
Comment: What audience needs to be reassured of this?
McPherson: But the Lincoln administration had already in effect recognized the Confederacy’s belligerent status by proclaiming a blockade of Southern ports...
Comment: No, not at all and this is to miss the whole point of the international law controversy behind the blockade.
McPherson: Meanwhile a “cotton famine” caused by the war and the blockade had reduced the amount of cotton coming to British and French mills to a pittance and thrown hundreds of thousands of workers and their families onto the dole.
Comment: There was no "dole" then. And the famine was temporary; new cotton sources were developed during the war which permanently margianlized future US cotton production.
McPherson: As Southern armies invaded Maryland and Kentucky in September, the British and French governments planned to offer mediation ...
Comment: There is no linkage between these events and the mediation statement is false. The British government kept intending to discuss mediation among its ministers but could never muster the political confidence to have that discussion. The impetus for the discussion was a provisional, contingent request by Napoleon III who never had any intention to mediate or intervene on his own. This whole matter was a potential brainstorming session that never took off.
McPherson: If the Lincoln government refused such an offer [mediation] (as surely it would have), the British and French intended to recognize the Confederacy.
Comment: This is nonsense. Neither France nor Britain ever reached a point in internal discussions where diplomatic contingencies could be agreed upon. This is projection, a discussion point that was to be raised in discussions that never happened.
McPherson: The contribution of A World on Fire lies in its richness of description, vivid writing, and focus on individual personalities...
Comment: After decades of serious diplomatic ACW histories, in what sense is this a contribution? Isn't this an insult to the hard work pillaged to construct a pop history? Wouldn't the next real contribution be a deep analysis of the neglected French diplomatic sources?
Rather than go on nitpicking, let me draw your attention to two general points.
First, notice that in his review, McPherson recapitulates Civil War history rather than analyze books. In each review he eventually comes around to some "value judgement," but these are superficial and always, always outside of the context of Civil War historiography.
Second, the headers on this piece promise us that McPherson is going to review four books. He reviews exactly two, if you call recapitulation of content a "review."
I understand that McPherson is old and that he may not have all his faculties at full strength. But these faults have been with us from the beginning. And my time to stop disagreeing with him is when he withdraws from publishing.
p.s. If you read the review, you'll notice he picks an absurd quarrel with Gary "Stop-the-Madness" Gallagher. Regular readers of this blog will remember that Gallagher, an editor at UNC Press, promised to let McPherson write a history of Civil War navies. That promise was broken, the book being written by Craig Symonds. Bad feelings?