Episode #42 This Week in History Twitter May 19, 2019

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Well…sometimes the works of Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners don’t hold up to the standards set by Twitterers. At least this is what my feed suggested when historian David McCullough released his new book, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West. Critics are attacking the book for its outdated narrative pitting heroic white settlers against the savage frontier - essentially romanticizing the story. Some might dismiss the negative comments and reviews as simple political partisanship, but I’m not so sure that’s the case. With a few exceptions (like folks uncritically deriding him as a hack and a racist, for example), those who commented on McCullough’s book did so as historians and informed social critics.

David McCullough

David McCullough

Still, before I cast my own judgement, I am going to read the book. I recommend you do the same before you weigh in - remember…think for yourself, folks. This week I am reporting on others’ comments and critiques including Native American attorney Brett Chapman’s and editor Nima Shirazi’s screenshots and comments on the book’s index and table of contents…and how these two things alone should at the very least raise red flags. Andrew Wehrman’s insightful thread and reviews by Rebecca Onion and Joyce Chaplin also take center stage this week. There were tons of other comments on the book, many of which I thought offered additional useful insights - I wish I could mention them all.

Finally, I would love your own thoughts in the comments below. Generally speaking, I have to admit that I have enjoyed McCullough’s previous work and I also think that the narrative history genre is valuable primarily because of its accessibility and its potential to open further doors of inquiry. I’ve slotted some time to take this book on over the summer so my honest review is on deck…stay tuned. In the meantime…

For reference…

Brett Chapman’s screenshot of The Pioneers index and table of contents

Nima Shirazi’s screenshot of The Pioneers index

Andrew Wehrman’s insightful and quite engaging thread

Rebecca Onion’s review in Slate

Joyce Chaplin’s review in The New York Times

An important note: I unequivocally reject the Twitter mobocracy and call-out culture. If I mention someone by name it is because they - in some way - publicly initiated or contributed to an intriguing historical inquiry or debate on Twitter - for better or worse. I am not interested in ad hominem attacks, shaming, doxing, ideologue rage, or in any way harassing people on the Internet. I am interested in ideas and discussion...left, right, and center. That is it. Further, I am highly suspect of those who use history to promote a political agenda. It goes against everything I believe as a historian and an educator. I believe in objectivity and evidence. Thank you for understanding.

With compliments,


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