- Popular History and the Literary Marketplace
The communication and consumer revolutions of antebellum America drove the emergence of a nationwide literate culture. Popular historians were part of this process, as analyzed in great, if not totally convincing, detail by Gregory M. Pfitzer in the latest volume of the Amherst Studies in Print Culture & the History of the Book. Pfitzer contends that the oral culture of patriotic orators was largely replaced beginning in the 1840s with the publication of multivolume "popular" histories by a series of novelists, poets, and journalists turned historians, heavily promoted by eastern publishers. While he draws in related material from Europe, he situates his very detailed narrative mainly in the context of American publishing. This is a work of both social and cultural history of interest primarily to specialists in the nineteenth century and students of historiography in general but perhaps less to historians of the book. The historians studied include not just literary lights such as Washington Irving and William Cullen Bryant but also others now less well known such as John Frost, Sydney Gay, John Clark Ridpath, Edward Eggleston, dime novelists George Lippard and Edward S. Ellis, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's son Julian.
An emerging class of professional historians rejected the popularizers' excesses—which varied in degree and kind from one writer to another and are closely analyzed by Pfitzer. Indeed, professional historians ensconced in colleges often reacted against popular history altogether. They felt the need to distinguish between "objectivity [End Page 388] as a method and objectivity as an intellectual goal" (143). The novelists, poets, and journalists recruited by commercial publishers, the historians believed, needed to tone down their high-flying prose and excessively personalized opinions. Pfitzer argues that by 1900, as the professionals turned to more dynamic sociological and psychological methodologies and as the American public became better educated and more sophisticated, the popularizers lost much of their audience. In a final chapter he draws parallels with David McCullough and certain of today's academic historians.
Pfitzer's study, valuable and insightful as it is, could have been made more compelling at least to readers of this journal if done with a broader knowledge of the print community, such as popular religious and children's publishing. Reading reception is only briefly considered, while libraries as a market and avenue for reaching the public are completely ignored. The Industrial Book, 1840–1880 (2007), volume 3 of Hugh Amory and David D. Hall's edited series, A History of the Book in America, may have appeared too late for consultation, yet surely the first volume of that series, The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (1999), would have provided avenues of thought to explore in Pfitzer's specialized tome. Similarly, a greater awareness of work by Ronald R. Zboray, David Paul Nord, and Christine Pawley would have added depth in terms of print history. Nevertheless, this is a solid and illuminating study of an area of modern thought often neglected—the popular reception and appreciation of history.