James McPherson, children's author

Just in time for the holidays, James McPherson has released a picture book for children about the settling of the West. In this email interview run by the New York Times, McPherson lays out his credo better than I ever could:

I emphasize here the word story. If history is not presented in a narrative format it loses the drama and vividness that evokes interest — in adults as well as children. If history is taught — at any level, from elementary to college — as little more than facts and dates to memorize, or concepts to analyze, it becomes deadly.
On the contrary, the overwhelming experience of history begins at some point after the facts, dates, and (yes) storyline have been mastered. Fail to master those, and you cannot begin to engage this as hobby or discipline. The reading (and listening) experience called history rests on combinations of details that never stop surprising, delighting and challenging.

History taught as story cuts out the legs from under those who might eventually learn to love history - perhaps even study or write history - and converts them into readers of nonfiction genre narrative, usually second rate literature with appallingly low history content.

The question is how many of those nonfiction readers cross over to discerning history readers: direct mail specialists call this the "conversion rate" and I personally think it is miniscule. Consider Elektradig's formula,
I'm delighted when I see that someone under the age of, say, thirty, knows anything about American history. If Doris Kearns Goodwin inspires 100 or 1,000 people to become interested in the Civil War or Lincoln, I say she can have her award. Ditto for James McPherson and Ken Burns. In an age when teenagers have never heard of World War I and aren't sure when World War II took place (much less between whom), I say that popular history is better than no history at all.
Well, it is not history except that it uses historical materials more or less the way a novelist would use them. It is genre literature written to entertain - not in the way a crossword puzzle does, or even a detective novel, but in the same way a Western works - black hats, white hats, a struggle, a showdown, the end.

I am selfishly concerned that a generation of people with no historical sensibility to whom McPherson and Goodwin have been portrayed as "historians" is making my life miserable. If McPherson and Goodwin were represented to newbies as the starting point in a long journey, then I should keep quiet. But if held up as representatives of this discipline called history they merely encourage newbies to read more authors like DKG and McP. They become a gateway to more Goodwinism, not to history.

Like so many thoughtless nonfiction readers, the commentator Hugh Hewitt imagines history as raw material for his garden variety political analysis and that is what he uses Goodwin for (just as the NewsHour used her and Richard Norton Smith). Meanwhile the postings of history professors on HNN look like third-rate political punditry (scroll down here anytime) and the poses struck tell us these "historians" would much rather be policy makers or newspaper columnists but they've settled on their third choice of career.

This is all data my friends and it suggests that "historians" growing up in a McPherson/Goodwin world do not wind up as Historians - far from it, whatever their credentials, whatever their job title.

I am not irritated with writers of some story well told but at butchers of stories. I am not miffed at popularizers of history but with popularizers of anti-history.

Kevin Levin is waving McPherson's forthcoming (adult) book of essays at me by way of teasing. Actually, I encourage people to read that book and will do so myself. By adopting a topical format, McPherson abandons the master narrative structure and places himself at the mercy of the facts in each case. Which is to say, an enormous disadvantage.

A man who cannot understand (process) historical controversy and who then misrepresents the views of bona fide scholars is not going to fare well in a monograph setting.

If all our Goodwins, not just McPherson, could be lured into writing in depth topically, their pretenses would be exposed and the advanced readers could use this new digital media to supply them with the feedback they desperately need.