James McPherson - some loose ends

1) Never update the Bible

Battle Cry of Freedom has not been revised since it was issued in 1988 - or so it would seem to me after looking at frontmatter in new copies in bookstores.

We hear constantly that this volume is not just "scholarship" but the best Civil War "scholarship" available. Is there a scholar anywhere who would not revise a 20-year old tome given the chance?

Oxford University Press opted to publish a picture-book edition of Battle Cry a few years ago when that same budget could have been used to issue a new, updated edition of the full work. I suspect McPherson told them no revision was necessary. Perhaps his timescale is like Gary Gallagher's, i.e. he thinks a new synthesis is needed once every 40 years. If so, he's got 20 years to go.

2) Never write anew when an old book review will do

I broke my promise to you to read and review This Mighty Scourge. The promise was based on the possibility of commenting on a collection of monographs but this is actually a patchwork of old book reviews. How I misled myself: Kevin had referred to the collection as "essays." John Hoptak did so as well.

A book review is a piece reviewing a book, not a monograph on an ACW subject. The author is not committing himself to a revelatory laying-out-of-the-sources or to the judgement of the reader who judges the hand that weighs the evidence. Mind you, the New York Review of Books, where McPherson reigns as an authority, likes reviews with broad scope and lots of context, so the casual reader might become confused. Reviews can be "essay-like" and there are those who will write an essay about a book - not reviewing it at all - but please do not call reviews (which Scourge contains) "essays."

The mixup does not stop with John and Kevin. The enthusiast who reviewed Scourge for the Washington Post was so muddled that he spawned errors now replicating themselves across the Internet. The Post:

He [McPherson] shows how the "Brahmin elite" of Boston provided invaluable leadership for the Union forces, acting with "an ethic of sacrifice, the noblesse-oblige conviction that the privileged classes had a greater obligation to defend the country precisely because of the privileged status they enjoyed."
McPherson does not show this. He is reviewing books by Richard F. Miller (Harvard's Civil War) and Carol Bundy (The Nature of Sacrifice). The work done by these two authors ("showing" anything about the "Brahmin elite") has here been assigned to McPherson as if he did the research, thinking, and writing.

Too fine a point for you? Look at this blog entry: the blogger takes the Post's goof and has now entered into a "dialog" with Brahmin expert McPherson and the reviewer.

At the Boston Globe, their reviewer was just as unguarded as the Post's and even less keen on distinctions. "McPherson explores," "He explains why," it's McPherson all over the place and the authors he is recapitulating disappear entirely. Entirely.

This part of the Globe's review of Scourge is amazing: "He [McPherson, not Miller] devotes a chapter [a review!] to the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 'the Harvard Regiment,' named for all the Brahmins who served and died in it, and plumbs the leadership that helped it fight so well for so long."

Got that? McPherson "plumbs" the topic in "his chapter." Poor Richard Miller. Reviewed by the greatest Civil War historian, his work becomes McPherson's own through the magic of the Boston Globe. The reviewer continues, "He [McPherson, not Carol Bundy] also enlightens us to Charles Russell Lowell, who led the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Cavalry before he fell with the 13th horse shot from under him, at Winchester, Va., in 1864." This afterthought mentions an entire second book, written by Bundy, covered in the same review. Again, thanks to the Globe, McPherson "enlightens us" about Lowell.

With book reviews paying dividends like these, it will be a wonder if James McPherson ever writes anything else again.

Note that this de-Bundifying and un-Millering effect can work in reverse, too. They are lucky McPherson did not make a mistake credited to them. Gore Vidal gives an example, which I linked yesterday:

I [Vidal] quoted to him Henry Adams ... For reasons unknown, the reporter then changed the author of my quotation, Henry Adams, to, of all people, Thoreau! This means that for scholars in the future The New York Times's error will be used as a primary source to prove that I—not the reporter—did not know Adams from Thoreau.
I hope Miller and Bundy can be as philosophical about their good luck as their bad luck.

3) Never stop talking to undergrads

McPherson was talking to Bloomberg Radio last week (hat tip to Lincoln Studies) and the interviewer made two Civil War references to "Brahmins" which led me to think McPherson himself had a new book out on the Harvard regiment. I looked it up. He doesn't - he simply again (new day, new venue) accumulated the intellectual capital of Miller and Bundy - their work being nothing but metal filings to his magnetic reputation.

The interview begins with the question of what the greatest Civil War historian was thinking when he wrote Battle Cry. The answer - let no one forget this - is that McPherson says he was thinking of his undergrads (he assigns them the age of 20). "I really just projected my technique of teaching" 20-year-old undergrads into this writing assignment.

Now that settles it, right? Battle Cry cannot, by definition, be a great work on that basis, can it? Can we please take McPherson at his word and agree that this book is no more than what he says it is? The entire interview, BTW, sounds like a professor talking to American History 101.

4) Never think past the blurb

McPherson is asked in this interview about a great Lincoln moment and mistakes the question as one being about a great Lincoln book. He leaps into it with a spirit missing from the rest of the interview - he wants to talk up Goodwin's pop history. It is the only great Lincoln book he wants to talk about.

What is really odd is that he reiterates the dust jacket copy where you or I would say instead "I really liked [something] about it." What is required of him is something more on the lines of "This book is important because it [does this really unique thing]." But McPherson does not even rise to our own level of idle chit-chat (our personal reason for liking). I have transcribed his full comments on Goodwin. See for yourself:

I think probably one of the best books on Lincoln in the last 10 years is Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals on the way in which Lincoln installed in his cabinet the four leading competitors he had for the presidential nomination and then proceeded to weld these disparate men into an effective team to win the Civil War. It's really a study of the way in which Lincoln exercised leadership and kept all of the four horses who wanted to move in different directions pulling in the same direction. And I think that's probably one of the best explanations of why the North won the Civil War - the way in which Lincoln was able to reconcile many different factions both as president and as leader of his party and as commander in chief - and keep them working together toward a common goal
Somewhere out there, someone is crediting McPherson with the most brilliant insight on why Goodwin's book matters. Somewhere out there, a dust jacket copywriter will be entitled to scream.