Greenfield & The Popular History Question

Without even bothering to read the book in question (David McCullough’s 1776), professor David Greenberg has declared war on popular history in a two part argument on Slate. Specifically, Greenberg suggests that McCullough’s “surfeit of scene-setting and personality, the meager analysis and argument, the lack of a compelling rationale for writing about a topic already amply covered” will drive Greenberg and his academic colleagues up the wall.

Greenberg’s assault is largely composed of ad hominen tactics and arguments without support. Without citing any specific examples (the stuff that one would expect from a professor), he has declared popular history “vapid mythmaking that uninformed critics ratify as ‘magisterial’ or ‘definitive.'” But if the alternative to popular historians along the lines of Stephen Ambrose or Will Durant is a populist reading public that is not concerned or curious about history, I have to wonder why popular history is such a bad thing.

In a paragraph on academic vs. popular history, Greenberg bemoans doctorates who “command little scholarly respect” — again, without citing examples or clarifying why. He then points to an anti-Zinn Michael Kazin essay that is similarly sparse with its supportive examples (the Greenberg argumentative approach in a nutshell). (Kazin, for example, complains, “The doleful narrative makes one wonder why anyone but the wealthy came to the United States at all and, after working for a spell, why anyone wished to stay,” apparently not aware that it remains a triusm that, irrespective of class, families, sometimes lacking resources to migrate, will subject themselves to misery to (a) survive and pine for a better tomorrow and (b) insure that their families are taken care of.)

Even more curious, Greenberg takes offense to journalists who write about the past ending up in scholarly footnotes. But if a journalist has confirmed a fact or talked with a primary source to confirm a detail, how is this any different from what a scholarly historian does? It would be difficult, for example, to accuse bestselling biographer Robert A. Caro of being anything less than thorough in his lifelong work on Lyndon B. Johnson. His footnotes alone could probably squash out an ant colony.

Then with a hasty conclusion, Greenberg concludes, “institutional status hardly correlates with quality.” I absolutely agree. In fact, I’d argue it from a radically different perspective. After all, it was a self-taught amateur (Heinrich Schliemann) who discovered the ruins of Troy. A history book, whether popular or scholarly, is subject to whatever level of scrutiny the public (or academics) will give to it. But to suggest that a wall between academic and popular history exists is to remain inflexible to the transitory nature of books and scholarship. For those who insist upon maximum scholarship, that market will always exist — if not in books, then through communications among scholars.

One sizable problem with Greenberg’s argument is that it is laced with a strange contempt. At one point, Greenberg openly confesses his jealousy to losing a job because of another man’s dissertation, but he also proudly confesses his deliberate ignorance of its contents. Is the inability to read what you’re criticizing the stuff of scholarship? I would certainly hope not.

Greenberg also complains about radical histories being “tinged with a sentimental celebration of ‘average Americans’ that no more prods us to critical reflection than does a Richard Brookhiser biography of Alexander Hamilton.” So if I understand Greenberg correctly, it’s apparently a mistake to comb over the everyday people who populate this planet in favor of the leaders, artists and sundry mighty figures who were essentially history’s administrators (rather than the people who voted for a leader or, as Goldhagen has chronicled, those who followed genocidal orders without question). Furthermore, Greenberg fails to elucidate us on what he considers “sentimental.” For example, if the reader stares into the famous Dorothea Lange photo, “Migrant Mother,” one will indisputedly have a “sentimental” reaction. But to cover, say, the Great Depression without referencing this would overlook a seminal photograph that captured a moment at a particular time. Is it the historian’s fault that the reader actually feels sad by the photo?

While Greenberg seems completely adverse to the notion of popular history (he is more a booster of the academic beating out the easy explainer), he does have a few solid points about how histories, whether academic or popular, can be improved. In particular, Greenfield’s second part, while directed towards academics, is far more constructive on this topic.

Greenberg does have a good point when he bemoans the cult of personality now coveted by historians. If I had my way, I’d suggst that certain academics be wiped from the face of television after five appearances on Charlie Rose. If you’re a historian pining for an east wing to add to your palatial home, then become a ruthless capitalist, not a talking head.

I concur with Greenberg when he suggests that analysis should co-exist hand-in-hand with narrative, although I would suggest that something be left for the reader’s perspective. And I also agree that banishing jargon isn’t the answer. I would suggest that publishing books which explain things in clear and understandable terms are part of the answer. For example, last year, I read a book by David Bodanis called E=MC2 that went to the trouble of explaining nearly every part of Einstein’s famous equation. I was finally able to understand not only what the damn thing meant, but how it influenced thermodynamics in the process.

Greenberg is also right to point to historian Christine Stansell’s review of Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex, pointing out that history without varying context or new perspectives fails to ensure a fresh perspective. Then again, this is only one example, not several. One could also also argue that there’s plenty of fresh perspectives in popular history. What of Joseph Ellis’ American Sphinx, which focused exclusively on Thomas Jefferson’s character? I’m curious to know if Greenfield considers this a novelty or a contextual triumph. And are we to discount Ellis’ Founding Brothers, which used Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians as the inspriation for its comparative portrait of figures from the Revolutionary War?

Greenfield provides an interesting perspective, but I’m troubled by his generalizations and his inflexibility to certain fields of history. He says that “we need critics who will expose the perils of the historical blockbuster trend and show us more substantial ways to think about the past,” but I would argue that there is plenty of criticism out there already.

Since Greenfield didn’t bother to check out review coverage, I’ll do it for him. Here are some review excerpts for David McCullough’s books:

On John Adams:

Sean Wilentz writing in The New Republic: “In conveying so much about Adams’s goodness, in vivid and smooth prose, McCullough slights Adams’s intellectual ambitions, his brilliance and his ponderousness, his pettiness and his sometimes disabling pessimism. McCullough scants, in other words, everything that went into rendering Adams the paradox that he was: a great American who would prove virtually irrelevant to his nation’s subsequent political development. And in its very smoothness and vividness, McCullough’s life of Adams is useful also in another way. It gives a measure of the current condition of popular history in America, in its strengths but also–rather grievously–in its weaknesses.”

Michael Waldman in The Washington Monthly: “This is not a tome for scholars, or for those who want a detailed rendering of political differences between Federalists and Republicans. At times the reader wonders if the prickly Boston lawyer is being subtly reworked into Give-‘Em-Hell John.”

And in the most recent New Yorker, Joshua Micah Marshall writes: “McCullough, whose books include superb biographies of John Adams and Harry S. Truman, rarely finds his way into clashes of ideas or vast impersonal forces. (The word “equality” gets its only mention halfway through the book.) This is history at the ground level, sometimes even a few inches below.”

All of these reviews criticize McCullough’s smooth-as-silk approach to history. However, none of them suggest alternative paths about how we should look and chart history. At the very least, we should probably thank Greenfield for reminding us to ask that very question.

[UPDATE: Kevin at Collected Miscellany also weighs in.]


  1. A really good post. I’ve also commented at Kevin’s place, where I said this: “Too often a ‘good story’ smooths out the rough edges of history and prevents us from learning anything other than what can be squeezed into a rousing narrative.” Don’t you think McCullough’s books often do this?

  2. Dan: On the contrary, my attitude about history is that its very ugly details allow for compelling conflict, which makes squeezing rough edges into a narrative not too much of a problem. (To use my Robert Caro example, certainly Caro makes LBJ one of the biggest sons of bitches I’ve ever read in a biography. But he is no less an interesting character.) Where I would object to McCullough (and agree to some extent with Greenfield) is when a historian overlooks ugly details in favor of mainstream gloss. In which case, popular history faces the same dilemma as popular fiction. But I don’t think it’s really as popular vs. academic as Greenfield makes it out to be.

  3. At first I was almost willing to write off Greenberg’s essay as another occasional example of an academic taking issue against the popular version of his discipline. (You can see this same sort of thing in science writing, and, now and again, an English professor will put out a screed against popular fiction.) I suppose it’s only natural for them to be irritated by unsophisticated folks eating up books intended for a popular audience, having only a passing interest in their subject.

    I don’t know, I suppose that these sorts of history books can be awful from the professor’s perspective. But to discount an entire genre seems a bit extreme. Surely there are good popular history books out there. And, certainly, at its most basic level, history is meant to be a study of what and when things happened. If your lucky, you might be interested enough to delve a bit deeper into the why, but without any grounding at all, that’s not very likely. (Rather like science books for children are often meant to interest them in the topic so that, when the time comes, they’re willing to slog though all that math.)

    I know that, before I read enough popular histories of the Civil War, I wouldn’t have known what to do with an insightful analysis if one had hit me in the face.

    (By the way, I had intended to comment on your excellent post about books, but it got way too long, as I’m afriad this one has.)

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