Brands reviewed in WSJ

Russell Bonds reviews Brands' Grant bio in the Wall Street Journal with reference to Brooks Simpson and a decent amount of historiography for a piece in a generic venue like WSJ.

It has become exceedingly rare for a major newspaper to review a Civil War book. When a review is published, the editors seek out a kind of content recap leavened with a little oatmeal punditry, so we are lucky Bonds was able to do as much historiography as he did.

In the 1960s the influence of the New York Review of Books began to be felt in the big Sunday papers' book sections. This peaked in the 1970s and died out as papers shrunk in size and the book sections were abandoned.

The better editors tried to follow NYRB's methodology.

If the NYRB was going to review a book on Hottentot cooking, it would first try to get a reviewer who was expert in cooking or in books about cooking. He or she would be obliged to explain why the book was worth reviewing generally and where it fit into the history of cook book publishing. The reader would learn the why of Hottentot cooking, who were its critics, what were their positions, and the future held for this subject. There might be a little sidebar by a Hottentot who cooks. NYRB's readers would be "loaded for bear" at the next cocktail party, should someone serve a Hottentot appetizer. And in the weeks that followed, the letters column would be filled with back-and-forth on the subject.

(Oddly, the NYRB did not apply this approach to ACW books, which were the exclusive province of one James M. McPherson. McPherson's reviewing technique tends to be to recapitulate the historical event underlying the book - without reference to the book. He made an exception for Keegan, whom he attacked for errors, but generally, he does not do historiography or analysis.)

The newspaper format is large enough for this discursive, in-depth NYRB approach while magazines tend to be constrained and therefore run bland little informational notices.

So congratulations to Russell Bonds for giving a newspaper some taste of how it could be if done right.

Nevertheless, the constraints remain and the only place nowadays you can function as a Hottentot food critic (or critic of ACW histories) is on a blog.