- Scholars, Scholarship, and David McCullough's The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West
We are pleased to announce a new feature in the Journal of the Early Republic (JER): Critical Engagements. Critical Engagements will appear on a recurring though not a fixed schedule to allow the JER to participate in conversations of great interests to scholars of the early American republic and the general public.
To launch Critical Engagements, the JER commissioned a forum on David McCullough's 2019 New York Times #1 bestselling history, The Pioneers. By telling a story about citizens of the U.S. republic moving west and enlarging the nation's territorial claims, Pioneers brushed against subjects of central interest to members of Society of Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR) and readers of the JER, issues including, but not limited to, Indigenous history, settler colonialism, the expansion of slavery, and the role of land acquisition and speculative profit in the development of capitalism. The Pioneers early received both a great deal of public attention and stinging scholarly criticism. Criticism is reasonable when the limitations of the work demand it, and so this forum certainly provides it. But with this feature we intend to focus at least as much on engagement. The remit of each contributor was to take The Pioneers as a starting point for discussion, rather than to approach this task as a formal review. Given the reach of popular histories such as McCullough's and the book and musical Hamilton, can we use such [End Page 175] histories that reach and fascinate large audiences to show those hungry for exposure to the past how to think about history further and in new and more necessarily challenging ways? Can we as scholars engage with popular and less scholarly historical works beyond just pointing out their limitations? No matter how warranted or cathartic that reaction is, it often has the effect of alienating the public that enjoyed the book—not just from our critical reviews, but from our scholarship and even our methods and questions altogether. How can we reach that audience and build from the interest that propelled them to read McCullough's book? How can our interventions offer a richer, more complicated picture?
We asked five scholars working in different sub-disciplines within the history of Ohio and the Northwest Territory to choose particular themes or passages and use them as starting points to address McCullough's narrative and use of evidence. We asked two senior scholars to reflect on the entire forum. Because our ultimate objective in this endeavor is to reach an interested reading public, beginning with this forum, we will disseminate three versions of the material treated in Critical Engagements forums. The first is in the pages that follow, in the traditional format of the JER. The second will be a shorter, more informal version posted and freely accessible in our online forum, Panorama. And finally, the JER will host a roundtable of the contributors at the annual meeting of the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic to engage in active conversation.
We hope that this Critical Engagements feature and those to come encourage constructive reflection about how scholarly history can inform and engage popular history and matters of wide-spread interest, and do more to encourage and enrich public understanding and appetite for the complexity of the past. [End Page 176]