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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Friday, September 06, 2013

Historians and “the Public”

When academic historians talk about “the public” and its collective interest in history, they’re usually talking about the crowd of people whose purchases put certain history books on the bestseller list. Sometimes they might allude to visitors at historic sites or viewers of television shows that claim some basis in history.

As I wrote yesterday, that group is different from the many types of history buffs. Sure, buffs might buy some of those bestselling books, but they (we) will also buy $75 university-press or out-of-print titles on the topics they study. Buffs aren’t afraid of footnotes as “the public” supposedly is. Buffs don’t need the narrative structure that I think the general public looks for. [I’ll get to that topic someday.]

If buffs watch history documentaries on cable television, it’s usually to spot friends in the slow-motion footage of historic reenactments and then to complain about the simplification and sensationalism. Academic historians might lament the public’s knowledge when they teach the freshman survey course, but so do buffs who volunteer at reenactments and historic sites.

An academic historian watching the H.B.O. miniseries John Adams might say:
The smallpox inoculation scenes showing Abigail and the children alone in their house—with no sign of the servants, the extended family, or the trip to a hospital in Boston—are an anachronistic reflection of America’s post-WW2 idea of domesticity centered on the nuclear family.
A history buff might say:
They showed Henry Knox hauling the cannon from Springfield to Cambridge by way of Quincy! And when he went past the Adams farm, he wasn’t even headed in the right direction!
And members of “the public” might say:
Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney were so good—the whole story made me want to watch Lincoln!
Okay, I’m purveying broad stereotypes here. But my point is that academic and historians and history buffs are allies in the struggle for solid sources and accurate information. Individuals may vary widely in their interests, knowledge, and level of analysis, but the basic effort is similar. Therefore, assessing the public through contact with buffs is a mistake.

Unfortunately, there aren‘t enough professionals, and buffs to make history books into bestsellers. For that, a book also has to connect with “the public.”


Adam Carriere said...

I said exactly that about about Knox and his Cannon

T. Frantz said...

I am a member of "the Public", and might classify myself somewhat of a "American History Enthusiast". I'll admit that I suffer from the same insularity that you mentioned in your previous post, as I tend to care mostly about 18c & 19c America, and any of our dealings with foreign countries, especially during the Revolution.

And yes, I thought Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney WERE absolutely phenomenal in HBO's John Adams. But I have yet to see Lincoln!

My interest in American History is made up of mostly book reading, attending lectures and sightseeing. I don't collect artifacts or perform in reenactments (even though I desperately wish I had the time and money to do both), however I am endlessly fascinated by watching any reenactor – especially in Boston – walking down the streets in full 18c garb.

Both the career I chose and daily living obligations don't allow much free time to dive into any historical research of my own, which is why I am so appreciative of any and all academic/historian/buff/genealogists.

It's the incredibly intelligent, talented and devoted individuals like you, J.L., who allow the rest of us laypeople understand not only the events that transpired, but how the individuals who were involved in those events thought and interacted. A well-written book, or an passionate, informative lecture make learning IMMENSELY enjoyable.

I realize that not everyone is interested in learning about what happened centuries ago. Most people would probably say that history is "cool", although they don't really care for the most part. But those of us who really do care and are genuinely interested, certainly make up for the lack of masses with our intensity of whatever subject we're interested in.

Just figured this was the perfect moment to thank you and your academic colleagues for your invaluable contributions.

Citoyen david said...

Now I understand why the Committee of Correspondence page isn’t doing well. Accuracy isn't important to most people, just a good short story and nice picture. I’m afraid no one like my upcoming book on the Committee of Safety!

John L Smith Jr said...

Knox's noble train of cannon passing the Quincy home of the Adams family is "JMD" (Just More Dramatic). J.L.:LOVED the HBO stereotypical comments! Very true, as well!

Anonymous said...

Excellent posts this week! I've hit several brick walls doing that linear genealogical research you mentioned earlier in the week, and have found it useful (and refreshing) to switch to a more cross-sectional look at the world around whatever person or time period I'm stuck on. It helps put individual ancestors in a greater context.

G. Lovely said...

To my mind,Historians dig up the bones, 'Buffs' put flesh and clothing on those bones, and we the 'Public' have the privilege of simply admiring the results.

Or a better analogy is the relationship between farmers, cooks (some are chefs), and diners, all of whom, ultimately, need each other.

Jimmy Dick said...

You are incorrect, Citoyen David. I will be interested in your book as that committee was closely related to the Committee of Secret Correspondence.

RodFleck said...

Your blogs are spot on. In my history degree honors class I took, the prof and I got into a heck of a debate of the role of the public. There was a level of disdain about genealogists, and such. Well, I rose to the debate and said, are you not doing a biography on a person? Why yes, and I said I suspect the first five pages or so include a genealogy...did you do all of the research on that or use one of us genealogists?

He changed his tune! ;-) But, we continued to have the debate - auction houses were the devil, until I called one, explained his unique research area and they sent me three catalogs of past auctions specializing in that region and in certain documents. The prof had never seen three of the documents in the catalog...and um...changed his mind a bit more.

One group not mentioned on the military side are the true military miniature folks...I recently had a question and not only did they help me with the facings of a small regiment from Hessen in the Napoleonic wars, but I am getting an amazing figure made of my ancestor with that regiment. Another group worth reaching out to if you are wanting nfo.

William H. Otis said...

Are the United States Supreme Court Justices considered "academics" of the American Constitution? If so then why do they draw differing interpretations of Constitutional Law? Take the Second Amendment for instance. How can they not know, 100 percent beyond the shadow of a doubt, what the agreed upon meaning of that simple rule was - as written just a mere 200+ years ago?

If the Supreme Court is unable to draw out the true meaning of a law that was thought of, written, argued, rewritten, debated, and finally approved of, then how can anything else ever recorded by this country's founders be interpreted as absolute by other "acedemics"?

How can two "academics" claim superiority on a subject, yet draw completely different conclusions? Is one of them wrong? Are both of them wrong? Because obviously one or both are not right. And if one or both are not right on the subject, then one or both are not experts on the subject. And if one or both are not experts on the subject, then one or both are not "academics" on the subject.

Is there a "buff" or "public" here that can make sense of this for me?

Historical Ken said...

I am going to "re-quote" G. Lovely's comment here because what was written is exactly the way I feel (with one slight change - I hope he/she doesn't mind):
"To my mind, Historians dig up the bones, 'Buffs' put flesh and clothing on those bones, and the 'Public' have the privilege of simply admiring the results.
(We) all need each other."
To this I say Amen!
There is just too much unwarranted animosity between "academics" and "buffs." Both are needed to walk hand-in-hand to give a more complete picture of the past.

By the way, even though I saw the inaccuracies in the John Adams HBO movie, I still loved it. It's so rare to see a movie of this time period in our history done to this caliber. Why the so-called small inaccuracies could not have been corrected in the first place is beyond me. But as a whole I found it to be very enjoyable.
Just my two cents.

Thank you, Mr. Bell, for a wonderful blog. I enjoy it immensely.

Anonymous said...

Why aren't there math buffs? Or Physics buffs? Or Theology buffs? Or chemistry buffs? Why does the word "buffs" only apply to History? I tend to be insulted when someone calls me a history buff. It implies "one of those people" or someone looking to learn one more fact than the next guy for the sake of knowing one more fact than the next guy. I study history to learn more about my world.

Thanks for the great post and blog.

Historical Ken said...

To Anonymous and William Otis -
From a fellow reader, thank you both for your comments. You are writing eloquently what I've been thinking.
Thank you both again.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks to everyone who has commented on this series of postings. I may have thoughts on individual comments as well.