Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Generalist

Chris Beneke

Gordon Wood’s favorable review (“The Real Washington at Last”) of Ron Chernow’s massive new biography of George Washington appears in the latest New York Review of Books.* For a man who said so little and wrote so economically, Washington has inspired an avalanche of words. As Wood notes:

[W]e now have assessments of Washington’s political philosophy, his constitutionalism, his religion, his private life, his portraits, his leadership, his physical appearance, his interest in the Virginia backcountry, his concern for the decorative arts, his enlightenment, his place in popular culture, his view of the Union, and his relations with his wife Martha, Lafayette, James Madison, Henry Knox, Nathanael Greene, Benedict Arnold, his other generals, and various other revolutionaries. There are studies of Washington as a president, as a slaveholder, as a man of the West, as a general, as a partisan fighter, as an American symbol, as the modern Cincinnatus, as a Freemason, as a young man, as a patriarch, as a visionary, as a spymaster, as the architect and owner of Mount Vernon, as the designer of the nation’s capital, as the French saw him, and as the master manipulator of public opinion.

Wood’s title isn’t ironic. He contends that Chernow gets us closer to the “real Washington” than any of the legions of earlier biographers. Chernow is the beneficiary of a series of herculean archival efforts, including the ongoing project at the University of Virginia to publish all of Washington’s papers, which will eventually consist of ninety volumes.

Chernow benefits from another fortuitous circumstance, according to Wood—he’s not an academic. It isn’t that academic historians write especially bad. By comparison with other fields, our prose is not wholly dull, nor completely impenetrable. The problem lies, says Wood, in our tendency to write for one another and to publish books on “specialized problems” that few readers outside of History Departments will ever comprehend, never mind enjoy at the beach.

As Wood notes, we share this internal orientation with chemists and literary theorists alike. Like theirs, ours is an “accumulative science.” We are sunk in its immensity. “[T]he monographs have become so numerous and so refined and so specialized that most academic historians have tended to throw up their hands at the possibility of synthesizing all these studies, of bringing them together in comprehensive narratives. Thus the academics have generally left narrative history-writing to the nonacademic historians and independent scholars who unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive monographic literature that exists.”

Not Chernow. Wood says that he writes well and knows the secondary literature. The result is a very big and illuminating portrait of our national icon of sincerity, the general who always managed to elude his pursuers.**


* Barnet Schecter’s book, George Washington’s America: A Biography Through His Maps is also reviewed here. But the focus is on Chernow.

** For a sharp and less reverent account of both Chernow’s book and Washington’s life, see Jill Lepore’s “His Highness” in The New Yorker (September 27). Lepore isn’t persuaded that Chernow has made Washington more comprehensible.


Adam Arenson said...

Wouldn't it even be better if historians could use their training to communicate with the public regularly, rather than wait for the occasional brilliant nonacademic to do it? That has been my goal.

Chris Beneke said...

@Adam. Yes.

Randall said...

I have assigned books by journalists/historians for my classes. Timothy Egan's Worst Hard Time produces some wonderful discussions in my America since 1920 class. It's a real student favorite.

hcr said...

I'm not sure Wood is being entirely fair. There are increasing numbers of academics who write smart books for a popular audience. The problem is less that historians don't want to do this than that the academy doesn't necessarily honor it. There is a weird sense that if you write for a wider audience then you are somehow selling out. My own experience is that books for popular audiences must be smarter than those written for academics, because those readers allow no sloppiness either in logic or in evidence, while academics often will so long as an author is engaging with an important historiographical debate.

Chris Beneke said...

I think that Wood would agree with you hcr, at least on the first point. The argument he was advancing--which I didn't adequately convey--was that historians generally write well, but they are also bound by narrow professional constraints that discourage the kind of writing that Chernow, et al, does.

Jonathan Dresner said...

I am very, very tired of the "historians don't know how to communicate with general publics" meme. It's true that we often write academic works that are specific and professionally oriented. It's also true that the vast majority of us spend a good portion of our daily energy communicating with general publics in the classroom. We write textbooks, articles (sorry, Mr. Beneke, I do work there, I admit, but it's because I believe in the project), blogs, letters, twitter feeds, etc., much of which are quite accessible.

If we spent more time noticing, and less time agreeing with the evaluations of non-historians who don't read serious history and don't understand what we do, maybe more people would notice.

Chris Beneke said...

You're right, it's not a new genre. And I have a lot of admiration, as well as gratitude, for the work that HNN does (that was a helpful link, thank you). What I found interesting in Wood's piece were two non-GW related things. Simply put:
1. There are some popularizers, like Chernow, who actually do serious research.
2. Our effort to reach a wider audience isn't hindered so much by bad writing as by the demands of a field where specialization rules.

Chris Beneke said...

And yes, I agree with you too that we could do with less self-loathing.

hcr said...

On the self-loathing front, can I add that I've noticed historians reviewing other historians' books for popular media tend to rip them to shreds, while journalists tend to review other journalists' books-- which are rarely well researched history-- glowingly. It's then no wonder that the journalists' books about history get wide attention, while the historians' books, which are far better works of history, get ignored.

There is a time and a place for tearing apart each other's work, but the pages of the New York Times isn't it. Doing so taints serious history in popular forums, and leaves the field open for poor journalistic versions of the past to stand in their place.

dan allosso said...

I got the sense from the post (less so from the comments) that we associate writing for the public with generalizing. Are we sure the public is really looking to us for more grand narratives and sweeping syntheses? Seems like they buy a lot of books (fiction and non) that drill pretty deeply into topics. Maybe the issue is there are different standards for relevance -- a different answer to the "so what?" question.

Chris Beneke said...

@hcr: I haven't kept tabs on the NYT Book Review section, but that seems like a really un-helpful practice.

@Dan: You've stated the problem better than me. It's our tendency to over-qualify, over-reference, and under-narrate, in other words the venerable core of our work as responsible professionals, to which Wood seems to ascribe our predicament. Certainly there are some very engaging micro-histories out there. (Of course, I could be misconstruing Wood. He clearly favors the grand narrative in his own work.)