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, November 29, 2012

Academic History, Popular History, and Jefferson’s Slaveholding

A more salient element of the debate over Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves than differing interpretations is the divide between popular and academic history.

Wiencek is an “independent scholar,” not an academic. And more power to him. He’s written two books on American slavery and its legacy, The Hairstons and An Imperfect God, that received good reviews from in and outside academia.

Master of the Mountain’s loudest critics have come from inside the academy. Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of history and law at Harvard. Jan E. Lewis is a professor of history at Rutgers. David Waldstreicher, also quoted in the recent New York Times article about the controversy, is a professor at Temple. Another researcher who raised her voice on their side, Lucia Stanton, recently retired as historian at Monticello.

But there’s no real enmity between scholarly and popular historians. There’s even some overlap, with some professors publishing through commercial presses that don’t use peer review and some popular writers winning research fellowships. It may well be more of a system of mutual envy from both sides of the fence. Independent scholars might wish for the regular salaries, library access, and prestige of professors. Academic authors might wish they had no teaching responsibilities and could reap big advances by retelling great stories that break no new historiographical ground. But that situation has been in place for years; it inspires more bemusement than passion.

Book marketing might be a source of more friction. Basically, all history books these days have to be promoted as “the untold story.” Even if a book is about a topic that dozens of people have already covered, its publisher wants to be able to announce that it offers important new information. And academic and popular historians have different yardsticks for what’s new. For a professor, the innovation might lie in a research finding, interpretation, or methodology. In contrast, popularizers often define what’s “new” as what overturns the understandings of the general public, which can lag the scholarly discussion by decades.

In writing about Thomas Jefferson and his slaves, Wiencek certainly isn’t traversing unexplored territory. The last fifteen years of Jefferson historiography have been largely consumed with assessing the man’s attitude toward slavery, with particular regard to the strong evidence that he had children with his slave Sally Hemings. Though there were important antecedents, that trend picked up after Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy was vindicated by D.N.A. findings in 1998. Lots of books followed, including some by scholars who had previously dismissed the Hemings evidence and were catching up.

Furthermore, that sea change in interpreting the Jefferson-Hemings relationship made the newspapers. It prompted new depictions of the third President in popular entertainment. Today Americans are probably more sensitive than ever before to how Jefferson exploited enslaved people. To be sure, there are diehard Jefferson “defenders,” just as there are a few examples of what Wiencek refers to as “slavery’s retrospective apologists.” But there really aren’t enough of those folks to make the case that it’s “new” to reveal Jefferson as a slaveholder.

Master of the Mountain strives for novelty in arguing that Thomas Jefferson was a harsher slaveholder than previous authors have described. In some respects it does this by presenting new arguments. The book is the first to make much of two documents I noted yesterday: Jefferson’s 1793 letter about the growth of slave economies and the 1801 letter about whipping boys in the nail factory. Wiencek’s depiction of Jefferson committing himself to lifelong slaveholding in the early 1790s is new—and debated. But such interpretations aren’t what’s got the academics so upset.

Rather, Master of the Mountain increases its claim to novelty by complaining that previous writing on Jefferson (all of it? a lot? too much?) has minimized or excused the man’s slaveholding. Among those titles Wiencek includes not just older works but some of the groundbreaking academic books of recent years. And some of the arguments in his book appear “new” only in that they don’t acknowledge similar arguments in recent studies.

For example, Wiencek discusses how Jefferson handled Thaddeus Kosciuszko’s bequest suggesting that he free some of his slaves. Gary B. Nash and Graham Russell Hodges were exploring that episode back in 2007. They published a book on the topic: Friends of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and Agrippa Hull. As far as I can tell, Master of the Mountain doesn’t mention their work at all.

But even that, I don’t think, is what’s fueling the current critique. For decades academic authors have watched popularizers write books that are twenty years behind scholarly findings and take those “new” stories onto the bestseller lists. Something else is happening in this case.

TOMORROW: How Master of the Mountain treats Gordon-Reed’s work.


Waldo4me said...

I like all the attention being given to Jefferson. He is certainly one of the more complex figures of all our so-called Founding Fathers. I've really enjoyed a site called "the Thomas Jefferson Hour". This is an NPR program and the website can be found here: http://www.jeffersonhour.com/

Be sure to download Podcast 994, "The Darkside" for further facts, thoughts and opinions on Jefferson's slaveholding. This site is clearly on the academic side, but it contains so much more about our third President.

Dr. Sam Forman said...

Thank you for the insights relative to the tensions between popular historians and academicians. I like to think that enthusiasm for the subject and collegiality about sharing rigorous scholarship in primary sources combine to trump various sources of tension.
Emerging realities of the publishing landscape may add to tensions. Academic presses, their budgets constricted,are hard pressed to publish scholarly titles for a limited readership while at the same being being tempted to reach for a broader, more commercial public by appealing to general audiences (dumbing down, as some might say). Meanwhile consolidations in commercial publishing of hard copy history books and diminished author royalties accompanying lower priced ebooks, are characteristics of the emerging publishing world in general, factors dampening the prospects and remuneration of both popular and scholarly authors.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, publishers of all sorts, academic and commercial, face competition for potential readers' time from other media and therefore have been seeking books that might command larger audiences. Nobody wants uncommercial monographs, the more successful university presses are commissioning books that the higher-end commercial presses used to issue, and the big trade publishers are chasing blockbusters. Hence the pressure to proclaim every history book as containing significant new revelations.

The arrival of digital books as a real market force in the past few years is shaking that up further. That change is opening new opportunities for authors and publishers, but the economics are still being worked out.

Michael D. Hattem said...

I really don't see this as an academic vs. popular historian issue. Fundamentally, this is about integrity in historical writing. And I believe that academically-trained historians have a duty to call out bad history whether it's by a fellow academic or, perhaps even more importantly, by a trade press author. Unfortunately, in the press coverage, Wiencek has decided to take the posture of being persecuted by academics for daring to practice history "without a license," so to speak.

I, like many others, I believe, find not only his use of sources and the argument he derives from them troubling, but particularly his mischaracterization of other historians' work. And, for that, he should be taken to task. Wiencek has deliberately mischaracterized the work of prominent scholars and ignored the work of others in order to take advantage of and mislead a popular audience as to the importance of his own work. For me, that is his greatest sin in this whole affair.

J. L. Bell said...

Gordon-Reed started her review criticizing Wiencek for the journalistic flaw of chasing the "scoop," so she did draw a line between historians and other types of writers. But I agree that that's not really the issue, either in evaluating the book or in understanding the energy of the response. More tomorrow.