Whistlestop Blog

History is more than the historian

Book store blogs are expected to be promotional as well as informational.  We have bills to pay, after all.  My thoughts here, however, will persuade you, I hope, not to buy a book.  I also hope that they will give you an idea of how I stock history and biography here at Whistlestop Bookshop.

I love to read history and biography.  I read for new information and new perspectives.  I read for going over familiar territory and renewing old acquaintances.  I like microhistories, time-spanning surveys with thematic ambitions, lives of the famous and the obscure, classics of the art, and labors of love for the sake of getting the story down.

While I was reading and liking Peter Baker's recent book on the presidency of George W. Bush, I was reminded that one of President Bush's favorite books was The Raven:  a biography of Sam Houston by Marquis James.  James was an Oklahoman journalist who wrote some bestselling biographies and industrial histories from the 1920s to the 1950s.  In 1938 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his two-volume biography of Andrew Jackson which established a Jackson industry that flourishes to this day (see Jon Meacham's 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning American Lion:  Andrew Jackson in the White House).  In 1930 James was awarded his first Pulitzer for The Raven, and Baker's book nudged me into picking it up.

I'm glad I did.  The Raven is an excellent, fast-moving, and vivid account of a larger-than-life sized frontier man who packed several lives into one.  It is well-sourced, and it handles the complexities of the man and the time with a jaunty confidence that comes from James's enthusiasm for his subject.  After reading it, I felt I understood better Sam Houston, Indian-White relations of the mid-century, Texan history, and what historians love to call the Age of Jackson.

As I was enjoying The Raven, I thought I would listen to an unabridged audiobook of Waking the Giant:  America in the Age of Jackson by David S. Reynolds.  This big survey history was published with great reviews in 2008 and was picked for best-of-the-year lists by the Washington Post and the New York Times.  Reynolds is a Distinguished Professor at CUNY and has taught American Literature and American Studies for years.  He won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for a book on Walt Whitman.  I looked forward to such a book providing the context of the life I was reading.

Waking the Giant was a deep disappointment.  I am halfway through it, and only stubbornness will take me to the end, where I half-hope that Reynolds will pull salvation out of the wreckage, and I half-hope I will figure out how such a mess was so well-received.  It is poorly written:  a trite phrase is always employed to jarring effect ("sex appeal" when referring to women in utopian communities); so far I am counting four uses of "lambaste" when "criticize" or "attack" would have been more precise; potted biographies are the rule (insert physical sketch of X here before summing him up); and the trudge through the many religious sects of the time is formulaic to a deadening effect.  The fixation with the sexual practices of each sect is annoying at first, comical in its consistency.  The long march through all the major and minor denominations and cults has the feel of an assembly by graduate students that is glossed and buffed by the author.  Reynolds has no comprehension of the Eaton Affair in the Jackson Cabinet.  He never addresses the effect the Texan war for independence had on a generation of politics and foreign policy.  His ignorance of religion, despite the lengths of description, is appalling (the "rites of the Presbyterian Church").  His serene neglect of analysis robs the reader of any opportunity of evaluating patterns, considering recurrences of debate, and examining the many different responses that arose to national growth, whether it came from immigration or conquest or diplomacy.  One is either bewildered by the roving harvest of serial facts or left wondering, well, what was the point of that dose of history?

How did this come about?  How did an old-fashioned story-driven biography by a journalist embarrass an acclaimed Definitive History by a Distinguished Professor?  Not only does Waking the Giant cry out for an editor, it raises questions about the reviews.  Did anyone review this book that was familiar with the time period or the subjects addressed in it?  Just because the narrative uses the Ripley's Believe-It-or-Not approach to history, does that mean you mistake it for thoughtful and methodical historical illumination?  I ran into this problem with another acclaimed, prize-winning book, Linda Gordon's The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (1999).  She wrote of a fascinating and complex incident, and yet a close reading revealed an agenda-driven structure, a pattern of lifting "primary sources" from secondary works of other historians, and some sources that simply did not exist.  So much for critical and academic blessings.

Good history demands a necessity for the story to be told, not just recycling other commentaries.  Research is best when it is honest, not when assumptions are made about it in the light of technology.  History is more than the historian.