Non-Academic History

George Will has a strong review of Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses Grant in today’s Washington Post.  Among other things, as I urge editors that Salmon Chase deserves at least 600 pages, it is nice to read a review that says Chernow’s 1000-page book is not too long.

The following paragraph from Will raises interesting issues:

“Chernow’s large readership (and the successes of such non-academic historians as Rick Atkinson, Richard Brookhiser, David McCullough, Nathaniel Philbrick, Jon Meacham, Erik Larson and others) raises a question: Why are so many academic historians comparatively little read? Here is a hint from the menu of presentations at the 2017 meeting of the Organization of American Historians: The titles of 30 included some permutation of the word “circulation” (e.g., “Circulating/Constructing Heterosexuality,” “Circulating Suicide as Social Criticism,” “Circulating Tourism Imaginaries From Below”). Obscurantism enveloped in opacity is the academics’ way of assigning themselves status as members of a closed clerisy indulging in linguistic fads. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who is impatient with academics who are vain about being unintelligible, confesses himself mystified by the “circulating” jargon. This speaks well of him.”

Although I taught for one school year at Chapman, I definitely consider myself a non-academic historian.  Like Will, I am mystified as to why academic historians do not write books that people want to read.  Well, not completely mystified.  Academics are rewarded for writing academic articles and books; they are not really rewarded for writing for general audiences.  Tenure is granted by departments, not by universities, and even if it was granted at the university level, it is not clear that many university administrators would reward professors for writing for broader audiences.  For that, by the by, I credit Jim Doti and Danielle Struppa of Chapman, who hired me because they wanted someone who writes for general audiences to teach their students.

For me, although I read and use many academic articles and books, I am glad to write books for general audiences.  American history is not for a narrow educated elite; it is for ordinary Americans; and I want to research and write for ordinary Americans.