A Student of History

December 6, 2007

John Adams, David McCullough, and Popular History

Filed under: Early America,New books,The Academy — John Maass @ 10:09 pm

For those interested in the debate that still seems to rage on the subject of popular vs. academic history, there’s an interesting article (although it is 2 years old now) entitled “The Unpopularity of Popular History in the Academy: An Academic’s Thoughts on David McCullough’s Visit to Campus,” Oakland Journal (Winter 2006): 9-26.  This obscure journal is from Oakland Univ., in Michigan and was written by Todd Estes, a professor of American history there.   The entire article can be accessed here.

The article is a good one and makes a number of points worth considering, especially about “what’s wrong” with popular history.  Estes is a good writer, but one should be forewarned that Estes focuses almost exclusively on that question, and largely avoids the opposite side of the debate: why doesn’t the reading public like/read/buy/acclaim academic history. As such, Estes article is quite one-sided, and in fact presents some debatable assertions.  He faults McCullough for focusing on Adams’ character and ignoring politics and ideology, failing to put Adams within his times.   I suspect many readers would disagree with this notion.  Perhaps Estes was looking too much for the esoterica so popular in history departments, which was not in John Adams.  Isn’t it OK to provide a solid general background to the story of a man’s life (as McCullough does), without getting into, say, the meanings of parades and fetes and political culture of the 1790s, an over-emphasis on cultural history?  Sure it is.  McCullough’s focus on character is not “obsessive” as Estes says, it is central to the story he wants to tell.

In fact, Estes doesn’t really like stories, and even sympathizes with another historian’s complaint about John Adams:  its “narrative, narrative, narrative.”  Leave it to two academics to bemoan the fact that a book has too much narrative, and tells a story.  Estes goes on to quote from a review of so-called “Founders Chic” (a term that I actually find to be useful, as does Estes) by academic historian David Waldstreicher of Temple University.  He is a prize-winning author of one of the most poorly written history books I have ever suffered through: In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes (1997).  This is not to say that Waldstreicher’s research is faulty or that he’s a bad academic–not at all, in fact, quite the contrary.  The problem is, his prose is abyssmal, the book is one of the driest examples of cultural history (a genre already on suspect foundations), and he doesn’t really tell a story.  Yes, he tells the reader (if they can manage through it, which over 2/3 of my graduate seminar could not in 2003) facts, interpretation, information.  But how ’bout some narrative!?!?  

This gets to an important point:  because academics focus on interpretation (which is fine) to distraction, narrative and story suffer.  Hence, nobody reads their books!  Maybe there’s the rub, as noted in a Slate column several years ago called “That Barnes and Noble Dream.”  Doing history the way academics do means little public interest, no sales, and irrelevance–not to mention bitter jealousies toward folks like McDonough and Tuchman who actually write well about interesting topics.   Estes fails to engage with this question about why most folks detest academic histories, especially those that are written as salvos in petty historiographical wars of no interest and little meaning.

See also my previous post on this issue from 2006.



  1. John,

    Several disjointed thoughts.

    1. You can’t get to the “analysis” part until you’ve learned the basic facts and timeline. Too often the problem is that people want to get to the analysis before they know what they’re talking about. Just look at most of the discussions on the internet about the causes of the Civil War.

    2. I’m not sure how the ability to tell a good story got such a bad name. That’s how history as a genre began. Look at Herodotus or Livy. Those guys are fun to read! Even the supposedly more cerebral and “academic” Thucydides has numerous dramatic scenes and is far more narrative than analysis.

    3. People reading David McCullough or Doris Kearns are at least trying. I saw recently that 27% of Americans didn’t read a single book last year (and that figure is probably low, because that’s the percentage that admitted it). When I see someone reading a popular history book, I’m delighted, not disgusted. I even think the recent “300” phenomenon was great. How many viewers had never even heard of the Persian Wars before they saw the movie? If even 1%, or 0.1%, are then motivated to go on and read something about it, isn’t that a wonderful thing?

    Comment by elektratig — December 8, 2007 @ 10:27 am | Reply

  2. Great point: “I’m not sure how the ability to tell a good story got such a bad name.” Worth thinking about. JM

    Comment by John Maass — December 10, 2007 @ 3:00 am | Reply

  3. I considered for the longest time going back to school and getting a master’s in history as a complement to my other degree. Then I realized what I love so much is reading popular history. Why go back to school when academia will beat the appreciation of that out of me? Yes, beat it out. Not enhance it, but fill me instead with so much theory and microminutiae that the story which is so fascinating and rich and drew me in the first place, is lost forever.

    Comment by MarciaT — February 21, 2008 @ 6:13 pm | Reply

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