Professor Wood Challenges His Colleagues

In his rave review of the new biography of George Washington by Ron Chernow, Gordon Wood, now an emeritus professor at Brown University, gives (polite) vent to his frustration with his fellow academic historians.  The history professoriate, he explains in the upcoming issue of the New York Review of Books, increasingly writes for itself, and not for “the educated general reader,” which explains why their books often are not widely distributed.  But I should allow Prof. Wood to speak for himself:

gordonwood.jpgChernow is an outstanding member of the new breed of popular historians who dominate narrative history-writing in the United States today. Independent scholars such as Chernow, David McCullough, Walter Isaacson, Jon Meacham, Thomas Fleming, Stacy Schiff, Richard Brookhiser, David O. Stewart, James Grant, Eric Jay Dolin, Barnet Schecter, and others do not have Ph.D.s in history and possess no academic appointment. They are not engaged in the conversations and debates that academic historians have with one another, and they write their history not for academic historians but for educated general readers interested in history. This gap between popular and academic historians has probably existed since the beginning of scientific history-writing at the end of the nineteenth century, but it has considerably widened over the past half-century or so. During the 1950s academic historians with Ph.D.s and university appointments, such as Richard Hofstadter, Samuel Eliot Morison, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Allan Nevins, Eric F. Goldman, Daniel Boorstin, and C. Vann Woodward, wrote simultaneously for both their fellow academicians and educated general readers.

This is normally no longer possible. Academic historians now write almost exclusively for one another and focus on the issues and debates within the discipline. Their limited readership–many history monographs sell fewer than a thousand copies–is not due principally to poor writing, as is usually thought; it is due instead to the kinds of specialized problems these monographs are trying to solve. Since, like papers in physics or chemistry, these books focus on narrow subjects and build upon one another, their writers usually presume that readers will have read the earlier books on the same subject; that is, they will possess some prior specialized knowledge that will enable them to participate in the conversations and debates that historians have among themselves. This is why most historical monographs are often difficult for general readers to read; new or innocent readers often have to educate themselves in the historiography of the subject before they can begin to make sense of many of these monographs.

As usual, Prof. Wood makes good sense.  His most recent book, Empire of Liberty, gives us all a lesson in how to write thoughtful, comprehensive history for the “educated general reader.”  And, as you have no doubt inferred by now, I was tickled to be on his list of non-professors who are poaching on the historians’ game, and in some distinguished company. 

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