Thoughts on popular and academic history

A reader sent me the transcript to Nathaniel Philbrick’s online chat at the Washington Post about his recent book Mayflower. Now I’ll preface my remarks by saying I haven’t yet had time to read Philbrick’s book; I’ve been finishing my dissertation and moving to Houston and stepping into my new role as college professor. But, Philbrick hasn’t been shy about telling folks what his book is about; in the chat he casts his book as one fighting against the prevailing myths of Plymouth Colony:

Land was a central issue to the growing tensions in 17th century New England, but the war was not inevitable. There had been flare ups of potential violence for more than 50 years but those of the 1st generation had found ways to avert catastrophe. By the 2nd generation, a different attitude prevailed–on both sides. In many ways I see King Philip’s War as a crisis of leadership involving both Gov. Josiah Winslow and Philip.

Later in the chat, Philbrick also points out that one of the big myths about the Pilgrims is that they arrived on Cape Cod as a unified group; that certainly is an interpretation most historians would agree is invalid. The Mayflower passengers were a socially and theologically divided group. In other words, Philbrick has framed his book about seventeenth-century New England and King Philip’s War as a mythbuster.

But, as one of his readers at the chat points out, none of the myths Philbrick is busting are current anymore:

It’s funny: As someone pushing 30, I can tell you I grew up more with the destruction of the myth than the myth itself. For instance, my teachers tended to emphasize the nation’s horrible treatment of Native Americans than the journey of the pioneers. I clearly remember reading a children’s book when I was six talking about the horrible conditions of the early Plymouth colony and having textbooks in elementary school and high school talking at length about King Phillip’s War. And George Washington and the cherry tree? I was taught that it was a lie long before I was taught the actual story. I’m not complaining, mind you: I’d rather have the complicated truth than the clear falsehood. But is it right to say that the “myth” of Plymouth still holds sway? I think people are far more sophisticated about history than Yardley [a previous reviewer of Mayflower] may believe. At the very least, they’re more skeptical when it comes to unblinking stories of heroism.

This has been the thrust of other reviews of Philbrick’s work, most notably Jill Lepore’s review in the New Yorker. Lepore excoriates Philbrick’s unquestioning use of sources, and ultimately, his ahistoricality as well:

…he [Philbrick] finds most history books written by professors a chore to read. Trained as a journalist, Philbrick once explained his decision to include a bibliographic essay instead of footnotes or references to works of scholarship in his text: “I wanted to remove the scholarly apparatus that so often gets in the way of the plot in academic history.”

Herein, I think, lies the root of the problem between academic history and the popular history that folks like Philbrick write. Academic historians resent works like Philbrick’s that claim to destoy myths that a generation, and sometimes two or three generations, of scholars have already debunked. Lepore points out that Samuel Eliot Morison, hardly a font of revisionist historical thought, published a book in the 1950s that raised many of the same issues about the Pilgrims as Philbrick does. If one reads works written later than the 1950s, you find Neal Salisbury’s great book Manitou and Providence, for example, a plethora of books about King Philip’s War, synthetic histories like Alan Taylor’s American Colonies that briefly makes some of the same points Philbrick claims to make in his chat, and even more recent work that elucidates further the problems of land and domestic animals (like Virginia Anderson’s Creatures of Empire). In other words, academic historians have been there and done that, and they were able to do so through the “scholarly apparatus” and scholarly methods that Philbrick finds so annoying.

So why, then, does the reading public devour Philbrick’s book but heap scorn upon the many books that made Mayflower possible? Part of it, I think, lies in Philbrick’s own attitude. Philbrick resents footnotes, emphasizes plot over analysis, and as Lepore points out, often takes sources on their face that historians would be much more sceptical of. In other words, Philbrick can weave a scintillating narrative without the substructure or the method that academic historians rely upon. The result, the reading public believes, is not only easier to read but also more accurate. Academic historians have a reputation for undoing cherished American myths: they abuse the founding fathers, European immigrants, and other assorted heroes of the American past. Instead of a simple truth historians present a complicated story. I don’t think the reading public generally wants a complicated story; they want it easy with clear heroes and villains, winners and losers. Journalists like Philbrick can give readers that kind of history.

What academic historians provide, however, is argumentative, provocative history that engages deeply with many sources. Sure, academic history is festooned with footnotes–it has to be, for readers should know where to look for the antecedents to particular arguments. That “scholarly appartatus” is precisely what makes our work transparent, and what allows us to debate our interpretations. Acacemic history isn’t always neat and tidy, nor should it be. but nevertheless, I think the reading public would enjoy academic history if it could get over its suspicion of it.

I don’t resent Philbrick for his success. On the contrary, if some readers come away from his book with a better understanding of seventeenth-century Massachusetts, that’s great. But I think readers should understand that he has done a disservice to scholars in the process: without our many generations of work, his neat, tidy, and entertaining interpretation would not even be possible.


5 thoughts on “

  1. I haven’t read Philbrick’s book and I don’t plan on it, in large part because of the reviews. The criticism that Philbrick levels at academic historians is so played out. And Lepore is just the right person to point this out as her study of King Philip’s War is both analytically rigorous and a pleasure to read – even if it does have a few footnotes.

  2. I resent him–not Philbrick in particular, but the general trend of journalists who repackage scholarship and, in the process, seem to gain great acclaim. I have no problem with (at least) obscuring the apparatus of academic history to present it to the general public (and perhaps all historians should, at some point in their lives, write for this audience), but journalistic history tends to read like journalism. It’s formulaic, starting each section with a story that leads to a shocking revelation, … .

  3. And even academic historians can start doing this once they get into the journalistic and popular history business. Every time (for example) Simon Schama complains about academics being too narrowly focused and using too many footnotes I want to scream. As Rebecca says, where would the generalists and popularisers be without those narrow, obscure, heavily-footnoted and carefully researched studies? I’m always happy to see good writers getting that work out to wider audiences, and putting it in a broader perspective. Not everyone has that talent. But it’s dishonest to write as though you’ve discovered something new when you haven’t, and downright ungrateful to the scholars who put in years of hard work.

  4. I wonder how much of the complaints made by the popular writers (even the former academics who are writing for a popular audience) is actually a pose meant to play into the “ivory tower” perception of academic historians and the strain of anti-intellectualism that infects American culture. I also wonder how much the popular press publisher plays into this, given that they are more focused on profits than on scholarly rigor.This “I figured it out first, before all of these eggheads” stance also seems to be a marketing tool. Popular writers like Philbrick know that they are trodding through territory that has already been explored because they use secondary sources that have covered the same ground. They also use those secondary sources to pinpoint the primary sources they use to flesh out their narrative. Leaving out footnotes becomes a means of both cutting costs for the publisher and hiding the lack of originality in quite a bit of this popular history.Don’t get the wrong idea, I do beleive that, if done correctly, popular works of history can bring the academic history to the public and lead them to the more scholarly books. But the popular writer must, like the academic writer, pay tribute to those who came before. The popular writer should probably not make any great claims to originality, and should not insult academics.I should mention that I am an academic who is attempting to write a short popular history, mostly to see if I can do it. So, I’m thinking about things like the audience, the publisher, the local historians (don’t get me started there), and the academics whose work had given me a better frame for my analysis. “Popular” and “good” should not necessarily be mutually exclusive, and I’m trying to find a way to fit the two together.

  5. can someone please help me? i am startin a fast track course in june and before i do i would like to find out what the difference is between ‘academic’ and popular histoy. i have traid the internet for days but with no result. i am begging anyone who knows the answer please email me my address is i would be very greatful thankyou Emma.

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