Tag Archives: Kevin Levin

On the Books

158046-bestsellers-lrgGreetings all!

I have just been listening to historian Edward L. Ayers interview fellow blogger Kevin Levin on NPR’s Backstory  concerning his recent post on Civil War Memory. The topic: history bestsellers in 2014.

In the post, Kevin offers his observations on a few salient characteristics shared by the authors on the list. Among those enumerated, notable is that most of the authors are journalists – not academic historians.

Kevin’s reasons behind this? Well, for one, it’s because journalists tell an entertaining story (which implies that academics don’t…but more on that later). And ultimately, that is what the reading public wants: entertainment. But more importantly, these authors have much more far-ranging influence than your garden variety academic. They benefit from exposure on television, in the press, and they have a strong social media presence. With this I think Kevin is pretty much right on the money. Take it from me, I know a robust Internet presence helps sell books (see what I did there?). In a follow-up post, he counsels academics, and I would agree: if you want to keep up, you had better get to work.

Get to work indeed. Many (though certainly not all) academics are missing out on an enormous opportunity to engage with the general public precisely because they do not take advantage of the instantaneous and world-wide connections provided by social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Let’s take the journalists…I can assure you that they have things covered in the exposure department.

But popularity aside, are these journalist-author-personalities up to the challenge? I suggest that not all best-selling journalists – even Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists – are created equal, at least when it comes to writing history. While the American public thirsts for a good historical tale, many would-be historians fall short in their efforts to rise to the occasion. The well-read, and might I add informed public, certainly get the entertainment they desire. What they often do not get is engaging history – but rather, shallow reports of historical events. So let’s not be confused here. Entertaining stories and history are not necessarily the same thing. Though first-rate journalists may have a flair for the written word, I am not convinced that they stand up to the rigors of academic research. And I do not want to sound snotty – but much of their work fails to match the standards set in academia. Some just write bad history well – and that is a damn shame.

Case in point. I recently read journalist Dick Lehr’s book on the controversial film, The Birth of a Nation. The book was not without virtues.  The writing was vivid, punchy, and yes, entertaining. But the history didn’t cut it for me. Lehr’s book was full of pretty obvious historical errors. His analysis was one dimensional and the book lacked depth and insight (spoiler alert: the film is racist…and black people didn’t like that).  I can only surmise that this is because the man is not a trained historian – so I forgive his shortcomings. And let’s be honest – if I tried to be a journalist, I would most likely blow it. So I will stick to doing what I know how to do – and keep writing history.

On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed journalist Rick Atkinson’s WWII Liberation Trilogy. This series was exhaustively researched and beautifully written. And yes, it too was entertaining. So I guess you never know. Like in any profession (even academia…) some are just better than others.

So while Kevin might call for academics to get on board with the 21st century and reach out to a world of potential readers, I would add that journalists should up their game as well – perhaps hit the archives and the historiography a little harder. And as a side note or a story for another day, I would be thrilled if academic historians would not only reach out to but also write for a broader audience. To my friends in the hallowed halls – dial down the esoteric language. It sounds so…academic. You’ll just wind up writing a better story, and that’s a good thing.

As always, feel free to weigh in here.

With compliments,




Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 9.44.02 AMYesterday I came across this post on Kevin Levin’s blog and could not resist a little walk down the road to snarksville. Kevin had posted an excerpt by Civil War historian Earl J. Hess in a recent issue of Civil War History lamenting the dearth of knowledge concerning “traditional” military history when it comes to Civil War genre scholarship – in particular: memory studies. He is what Dr. Hess had to say:

In addition, despite the appearance of some top-quality memory studies by Carol Reardon, Brian Craig Miller, and Kevin Levin, a number of examples of this genre exhibit poor scholarship. Unfortunately, it is easy for a graduate student to research postwar newspapers and throw together a pale imitation of David Blight’s book. The most serious weakness is that the author, when writing the obligatory chapter or two about the war as background to their main effort, cannot get the larger story right. When encountering such manuscripts while reviewing them for university presses, I often compile a list of factual errors about the conflict, in addition to many conceptual errors about their subject. Ironically, many of these memory studies are focused on individuals whose sole claim to fame is that they commanded large armies in the field. Yet, the authors of these studies know next to nothing about what the general in question actually did during the war, and they know even less about how traditional military historians have interpreted his career. (pp. 391-92)

With my usual flair for biting one-liner commentary I noted that “graduate students throwing together a pale imitation of Blight’s book is so ten years ago.” But in all seriousness, considering the growing body of brilliant scholarship published over the last decade or so, I was disturbed by Hess’s dismissive comment. I also found the notion of the “traditional” troubling. Whenever I hear that word associated with scholarship, in the sense that one must adhere to something set and unchanging, I imagine a scholar mired hopelessly in analytical muck. Like many of my colleagues, some of whom study military history, I think this problematic “traditional” word should go away. if anything it suggests a lack of change. Let’s face it, abiding by the traditional in history scholarship is entirely ahistorical.

What do you think?

With compliments,


The Americanist Independent

Why Mince Words?

I do not have Screen shot 2014-03-15 at 6.53.45 PMmuch to say about the notion of black Confederates. Kevin Levin handles that topic well enough at Civil War Memory. But I saw this brief clip featuring my mentor, Gary W. Gallagher, while perusing Kevin’s site and felt compelled to post it here. I think Gary drives the point home in good order…in his usual direct fashion. Yes – the idea that the Confederate States of America enlisted thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of black men as soldiers is indeed demented. You can see why I enjoyed working with him so much when I was at UVa.

With compliments,