Can a Distinction Be Made Between “Academic” and “Popular” History?

Nick Sacco has a very thoughtful and insightful post on trying to distinguish between what is “academic history” and “popular history.” This is, in my opinion, really well done. How would you differentiate between academic history and popular history? Can someone who’s not an academic historian write an academic history? [I think so]

Exploring the Past

A colleague and I recently engaged in a fascinating discussion comparing and contrasting works of “popular history” and “academic history.” Through this conversation I realized that I’m not sure how to define the proper criteria for what constitutes a work of “popular history.” Does a work of historical scholarship become popular once it hits a certain number of book sales? If so, what is that number? Does one need to have a certain educational background in order to be considered a popular historian? Can a work geared towards academic scholars become popular with a non-academic audience? Can a clear distinction be made between works of popular history and academic history?

Some professional historians with PhDs believe that they alone are qualified to shape and participate in the historical enterprise. A couple years ago historians Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein attempted to act as gatekeepers in a condescending article for Salon

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  1. Three thoughts:

    First, journalist William Hogeland’s The Whiskey Rebellion is as good as anything I’ve read on the topic. It’s a great read, but also fits the Whiskey Tax into the Early Republic and Hamilton’s larger financial plan. He does a great job of explaining the whole “fund and assumption” thing, which many historians brush over. McCullough’s John Adams is great, but as Gordon Wood has pointed out, you get to know zero of Adams political theory.

    Second, there are also scholars who write popular histories. Garrett Epps’ Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights is pretty good, although a little less rigorous than I would like–but then, it wouldn’t be “popular,” would it?

    Third, I think academics largely have only themselves to blame. Combining the skills of research, interpretation, and writing doesn’t seem to come naturally to professional historians. But it is a huge source of frustration that a hack like DiLorenzo probably makes more money on his Lincoln books than all of the books by other Lincoln scholars combined.

  2. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    Popular history can be written and done well. Let’s take Joseph Ellis. His books sell well for the historical market and are about dead white men. Obviously Ellis understands the formula for writing a historical book that sells. Some historians are not pleased with this, but the simple truth is they’re jealous. Every author needs to take into consideration their audience. The general public is not able to read a dissertation. They cannot understand words they don’t use. This does not make them stupid by any means. They just will not read something if they can’t understand the language used by the author.

    We can also divide popular history up into categories. If the book is like DiLorenzo’s trash, then it is not history, but fiction. It should be noted as such and filed as such right next to the Beck and Barton stuff. Actually, if a book is historical then why should it be considered popular history? In fact, why are academics writing books in a manner that prevents so many people from being able to read them? This goes back to the main problem academics have. By writing in a specific style they literally limit their potential audience.

    There have been discussions on the issue of too many books being written as well. This is part of the publish or perish mindset for academic historians. I think we need to examine one of the key roles for a historian which is education. Just who are they educating and how are they doing it? In fact, can they educate? Writing a book is a form of education. If the book is written in such a way that the proposed students cannot extract information from it, then the ability to transfer the knowledge is not available. The same goes for magazine articles.

    Let’s take the last 12 months worth of Civil War magazines sold on the newsstands. Just how many articles were written by academics and how many were written as a forum of popular history by people who would never classify themselves as an academic?

  3. Can you think of any other war where the descendants of the combatants, from both sides, would meet to reenact the battles? I can’t.
    I think that tells us something about what emerged from the ideas and compromises that gave us the Constitution of the United States.
    It is one thing to fight for what you think is right, but if one wishes to continue living in a republic with democratically elected representatives once the war is over, he or she must be willing to accept differences of opinion, and forgive those whose ideas were different from his or her own.

    Can we agree that the overwhelming number of persons killed in battle were just common folk trying to make a living? They were people who believed their leaders and chose to do what they thought was best for their states. We can hash over the various reasons why leaders in one part of the country believed that dividing into separate nations was the only way to resolve problems being debated in 1860. We can debate why saving the Union was so important that men from opposing political parties were willing to fight side by side in order to save it.

    What have we learned from the Civil War? What can today’s combatants, anywhere in the World, learn from studying the American Civil War and its consequences? 

  4. Dear, Al Mackey and Jimmy Dick, I have an idea for a civil war story that I think would make a great play on even a movie. it’s the story of the Breckinridge family as told by Robert Breckinridge. I’m sure you know about his sons, the Unionists, and the Confederates, and his nephew, the vice president. There is also his Kentucky families close ties to the Todds. Does any novel, or story like this already exist?

    I have written a Biographical essay about John C Breckinridge that you can read on my WordPress account. I don’t know about the quality of my writing but I think I got my facts right. Do you know of anyone who would be interested in writing such a play. Thank you for your time and attention. Sincerely, Pat Eakin, aka pde21.

    1. Why don’t you write it, Pat? Nobody can do that better than the person who has the passion for it.

    2. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

      I am not a great writer. The whole thing sounds like a great history book. It would definitely show the conflict that family represented as well as the area they lived in. It definitely could show the divisions in Kentucky as well as what happened. As for a movie, they rely on character conflict and lots of it. It just would need some unrequited love, lovers torn asunder, or even forbidden by family pressure to wed but with love triumphing in the end if possible.

      Al has it correct. Nobody writes better than the person with the passion. That holds true for historical writing as well as fiction writing.

      1. I personally prefer history books. They have an index, notes, and a bibliography so I can see exactly where the author got his/her information. Most people I know like novels and movies. So I’m thinking, if I want a lot of people to know about the Breckinridge family I going to have to figure out how to make it into an interesting drama. It’s a challenge, but I’ll have some extra time since I’m retiring on New Years Eve.

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