J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, September 05, 2013

Different Shades of Buff

When I wrote about “American Revolution buffs” yesterday, I was primarily drawing a distinction between them (us) and academic historians. But, though “buff” means a particular color of cloth when it comes to Revolutionary War uniforms, history buffs come in many different shades.

There are the general history buffs who read lots of books or even documents, attend lectures and events, and sometimes translate that knowledge into speaking and writing for other laypeople. A century and a half ago, these people were called “historians.” But then history became an academic discipline, with benefits (rigorous training and methods, salaries to support research and writing time, resources for publication, &c.) and drawbacks (the insularity of and within the academy).

Another group consists of material-culture buffs, who can be classified in two overlapping categories: reenactors and collectors. The knowledge some of these folks accumulate is amazing. And their stuff—they invest their salaries in museum-quality artifacts and hand-made recreations worth hundreds of dollars. As buffs, they’re enthusiastic about that knowledge and usually glad to share it.

Reenactors live aspects of the past, too. They know how to shoot eighteenth-century muskets and all the upkeep those guns need. They study drills manuals and actually try them out. “Living historians” know what it’s like to sew ladies’ stays by hand and to wear those stays. A political historian can write many articles about John Adams and never ask how his breeches hung; a reenactor trying to provide an accurate impression of an eighteenth-century gentleman needs to know that.

Yet another group of history buffs are the genealogists. They tend to study linear—or lineal—slices of history rather than the horizontal swaths of a single period. I remember attending my first meeting of genealogists at a library several years ago; as I introduced myself, I heard a murmur from all directions: “What lines? What lines?” In other words, what family names was I researching? I had to explain that I was using genealogical techniques and sources to look for links among Revolutionary Bostonians, and I didn’t really care about their ancestors or descendants. But I could do that only because genealogy buffs had produced and preserved so many resources.

Finally, there are indefatigable data-gatherers like Philip Lampi, who collected election results from the early republic from newspapers, and George Quintal, Jr., author of the National Park Service report on Patriots of Color in 1775. Those gents spent days in front of microfilm readers on their own time and their own dime before the larger historical community recognized the value of their work.

Public historians usually recognize the value of working with well-informed history buffs. The questions they pursue may be quite different from those of academic historians, as I discussed yesterday, but the knowledge base is complementary. And these days, with Congress squeezing the National Park Service budget and other museums competing for scarce resources, the energy and knowledge of self-made experts is crucial to preserving and communicating history to the public.

I also think it’s valuable for academic historians considering the gap between scholarly and popular history to understand something buffs are not: they’re not the public.

TOMORROW: The popular audience.

[Image from the terrific 18th-Century New England Life website.]


Steve MC said...

I'm a general history buff, the kind who used to photocopy documents at Bowdoin College and now delights in finding those full texts available online.

I've never felt an interest in donning period clothing, but I have the utmost respect for those who wish the full, authentic experience and who'll sleep in tents through twenty degree nights without giving in to the modern sleeping bags that our ancestors were without.

John L Smith Jr said...

I understand your distinction between degreed academics and scholars vs. history buffs. During the recent course of writing the book I'm doing on the Revolutionary War, I was asked if I'm a "historian"? My degrees, like those of David McCullough, Richard Brookhiser, Kevin Phillips or Rick Atkinson, are of a non-history major. But I, a layman, still consider those named individuals "historians". My old friend in Santa Cruz, Dr. Page Smith of UCSC who wrote the iconic two volume series "A New Age Now Begins - A People's History of the American Revolution" (writing while I was visiting with him at his house even) was as academically-degreed as any "historian", but hated the snooty attitudes of academics and revolted against their scholarly exclusion of "buffs". He always said if at a certain point a person considers themselves a "historian", then you are. You needn't have the sword of Kings dubbing each shoulder for the title.

Historical Ken said...

Mr. Bell - an excellent post that I will be sharing with my history friends.

And to John L. Smith Jr - - I agree whole-heartedly.
Very well said!

RodFleck said...

What an excellent assessment. Being a buff, and a genealogist that gives lectures, I have to say that the collectors and reenactors can provide the genealogists a lot of information if you are researching more than "lines." Great post!

csccat said...

Wonderful post! I'm a hybrid--a professional academic in another discipline who reads history (academic and popular) for fun. One of the highlights of my career as a history buff was being introduced to Laurel Ulrich at a conference on Maine material culture. My friend, a professional historian who understands the importance of sharing with the public, introduced me as an "avocational historian." I've worn the label proudly ever since.

meryka said...

Thanks for this line of discussion. It's really very thought-provoking.

I've been trying to figure out where I fit in since my academic training is in archaeology, I'm an artist, I've studied genealogy to aid my research, and am a collector... All of this has informed and aided my ability to do credible research even though I do not have a piece of paper that says I have a degree in history.

The problem is, how to be taken seriously by the academically-annointed historians?

And it seems the academic historians have many problems being heard also. See Jill Lapore's recent blog about The New Economy of Letters http://hnn.us/article/153209.

Another trend is now many "real" historians are scrambling to write "creative non-fiction." In my opinion, most I've read so far are not good at it. Perhaps they should get a degree in creative writing?