- We Have Seen the Enemy and It Is Not David McCullough
I have just completed a four-year term as editor of Common-place, an on-line journal whose aim is to reach beyond the usual circles of academic historians. That ambition is driven by the idea that there is an amorphous but potent history community out there, defined not by the credentialing apparatus of the academy but by the pure, democratizing force of personal interest and civic obligation. And that community, we would like to believe, has an appetite for carefully argued, industriously researched, and well-crafted history writing.
As I hang up my electronic editor’s red stylus, I find myself wondering if this ideal audience is a fiction, invented by a history profession that, like any church, constantly struggles to square its mission to serve a flock with the cloistered, privileged position of its clergy. In part, my sense comes from Common-place itself. With the exception of the occasional genealogist or secondary school teacher, the bulk of our readers appear to be in the academy: professors, graduate students, librarians, and archivists. There are, of course, many reasons for this. Among them, that Common-place is a small operation with neither the budget nor the know-how to stake a claim to the massive digital public. But marketing aside, I wonder if there is something to be learned from this quest—not at all unique to Common-place—to reach beyond the academy?
As readers of Historically Speaking (note particularly the spirited response to Adam Hochschild’s “Practicing History Without a License” in the March/April 2008 issue) know, historians spend a great deal of time interpreting the intersections between the general public and the history profession. Although there are historians who reach audiences outside the academy, this is by no means the norm. Most of us toil in monographic obscurity, agonizing over small deviations in fact and interpretation. Some of us embrace this condition as a blessed refuge from market-driven mediocrity. Others condemn it as yet more evidence of assorted postmodern assaults on intelligibility. But virtually none of us, being the modern, egalitarian evangelicals that we are, is prepared to blame the laity. The days when the likes of Richard Hofstadter could stand up and proclaim that most Americans wouldn’t know good history if it hit them over the head are long gone.1 The problem is not them; it is us. Only when we find better ways to do what we do will we find the audience we seek. Such is the creed of our modern, evangelical church.
For those historians who, like me, study early America, this sense of popular irrelevance sits awkwardly with some important facts. No field of American history has been so consistently implicated in the nation’s ceaseless appetite for commemorative experience. Since I entered graduate school in 1989, barely a year has passed without some notable early American anniversary (the most recent being the 400-year anniversary of the founding of Jamestown in 2007) and its attendant documentaries, museum exhibits, best sellers, Web sites, special school curricula, magazine features, and newspaper editorials.
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Similarly, early American history appears to be disproportionately represented among the history most Americans read. A glance at the history titles that made the New York Times hardcover bestseller list during the ten years between 1997 and 2007 is perhaps indicative. David McCullough’s two books, John Adams and 1776, spent ninety-four weeks on the list. Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers and His Excellency spent a total of fifty-eight weeks there; Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin was there for twenty-six weeks; Ron Chernow’s massive Alexander Hamilton, twelve weeks; Cokie Roberts’s Founding Mothers, eleven weeks, and two books by Nathanial Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea and The Mayflower, together enjoyed a thirty-nine-week run. When Americans read history, it seems, they prefer the history of their nation’s distant past.
Again, I don’t want to rehearse the many and obvious commercial variables that shape what gets consumed by the wider public. But it does seem...