A recurring theme of the historical field seems to be the perceived schism between popular and academic history. There are a lot of good articles out there discussing the issue, and I would recommend the following in particular:

Adam Hochschild wrote an article titled “Practicing History Without a License” in the March/April edition of Historically Speaking. It is an extremely well-written and creative piece, and the article is accompanied by reactions from a wide variety of historians, including John Demos, Joseph Ellis, and Felipe Fernández-Armesto. As a journalist and outsider to traditional academia, Hochschild really gives a great perspective on some of the problems he sees in this divide. In particular, I loved his idea for one kind of solution: teaming up academic historians with popular writers to produce works that fused exhaustive analysis with beautiful narrative (ex. David Brion Davis and Toni Morisson co-authoring a work on slavery).

David Greenberg wrote “That Barnes and Noble Dream” in a two-part article for Slate back in 2005. Greenberg offers a really great overview of the dichotemy, breaking down various divisions and pointing to both examples and exceptions. He also takes a harder stance against the “Barnes & Noble historian [who] seems to treat history as a pageant of larger-than-life events and people to be marveled at, rather than a set of social, political, and cultural problems to engage.” In order to solve this problem, he suggests striking a more balanced approach to the engagement of historiography - somewhere between the complete obliviousness of popular writers to the work that came before them, and the writing of the academic historian who is completely immersed in arcane, historiographical debate.

Finally, Jeremy Young of the Progressive Historians blog wrote for HNN a piece titled “Why Historians Should Write Books Ordinary People Want to Read.” Young argues forcefully against the validity of academic hand-wringing over the divide, pointing to booming history book sales as a positive trend and instead urging for a re-alignement of how the academy values historical writing: “We should reclaim that aspect of 1950’s academic culture that rewarded scholars, not penalized them, for engaging effectively with the general public through published works.  We should encourage historians to aggressively colonize and then conquer the popular historical market by producing well-researched, well-argued books on popular subjects.” My favorite aspect of Young’s piece is the fact that it garnered over 30 impassioned comments, proving just how relevant an issue this really is.

One of those experiences I find endlessly encouraging and frustrating is to walk through any bookstore and scan the shelves upon shelves of history books. It is incredibly encouraging to be entering a field with that kind of popular sway in the general public. How many people read about physics or finance or literary criticism as a hobby? Far fewer than those who read about history in their spare time. But it’s also endlessly frustrating because the rows of books are dominated by such a select subject area: military history, Revolutionary founding-fathers history, and the biographies of “great men.”

When skimming through a history book, I’ll immediately do the history nerd approach and read the acknowledgments, skim the footnotes, and breeze through the introduction. Doing that gives a decent impression for how the author wrote their book. And I’m continually stunned at the shoddy source evaluation of many popular writers, whose citations take up a sliver of pages and are filled with second-hand secondary source references. On the other hand, I will often read more academic prose, and be stunned at how dense and jargon-filled the prose can be.

What frustrates me, and which many others have highlighted, is that this doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario. There are plenty of exhaustive historical monographs with beautifully-crafted narrative prose. But on the academy side of the fence, the emphasis is almost exclusively on how to “do” history academically, instead of how to write well for a layperson. While I had a number of phenomenal teachers who helped my writing, no one ever had led a single class period devoted to how to write engagingly. The majority of instruction covered how to clearly present an argument, how to support it, how to contextualize it. I would have loved to take a a couple of hours with a creative writing professor and simply learned the basics of writing in a style that makes ordinary people want to read more. Apparently many graduate schools are requiring their students to take a semester-long writing class (I’ve heard rave reviews about Jill Lepore’s “The Art and Craft of Historical Writing” at Harvard), and I couldn’t agree with this more.

Unfortunately, even if history students are instructed and fully capable of writing engaging prose, the stodgy conventions of the academy actively discourage them to take chances, to write something fresh and fun. One solution I was thinking about the other day would be to have history students post weekly excerpts to a blog during the writing stage of their dissertations - it would allow them to take chances, get feedback, and transcend the suffocating traditionalism of writing a historical monograph. Although there is a scary vulnerability to making your draft writing so readily accessible to everyone, I feel that the rewards of openness and collaboration far outweigh the risks.

The entire historical profession needs to take the step of creating a more equitable stick-and-carrot system. Right now, it does a good job of railing against the sloppy history-ing of some popular writers. But for the majority of people out there, poor reviews by snooty academics are rarely read or valued. Consequently, I believe the carrot would be more effective: historians should more actively encourage and rewarde those works that manage to combine serious scholarship with a truly accessible and engaging writing style. Those authors and historians who manage to succeed both academically and among the public at large should be justly recognized as the profession’s most effective ambassadors and leaders.