AHA President Bill Cronin lobbed quite a hard one at his fellow historians this week.  Working his way between a set of labels “good history” and “professional historians” (although a third unspoken signifier is at work here the ever nebulous “public”), Cronin concludes that 

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but professional history all too easily becomes boring for everyone beyond the small circle who understands what the professionals are talking about.” 

Serendipitously, as if to prove him wrong (or is it right?), the New York Times Magazine cover story this week features Robert Caro, although with the headline “Robert Caro is a dinosaur, and thank God for that. 

Caro is not a formally trained academic historian, rather he began as a journalist with a undergraduate degree in English from Princeton.  However as the article points out, he is the last of a dying breed of scholars even if he lacks the letters after his name:

Caro is the last of the 19th-century biographers, the kind who believe that the life of a great or powerful man deserves not just a slim volume, or even a fat one, but a whole shelf full. 

Caro has devoted (so far) close to four decades of his life to a multi-volume history of LBJ, which has not only won numerous awards, but routinely hits the best seller list as well (their profitability however appears debatable).  Stats for the soon to be released fourth volume of his biography

  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #27 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • However many people buy Caro’s books, I’m willing to wager that relatively few make it through them as they run to many, many hundreds of pages.  They are the sort of impulse buy that Barnes and Noble stacks by the front door, the Father’s Day gift you grab for lack of a better alternative, or the book you buy with the best of intentions before that long holiday that just ends up weighing down your suitcase.

    Don’t get me wrong, the academic historian in me loves tomes crammed full of both the insightful and the entertaining.  I still recall sitting in a diplomatic history class taught by Robert Dallek, quite the raconteur who regaled us, without benefit of notes, with anecdotes from the Oval Office as he worked on his own LBJ book. I have admiration for such scholars, but what of us who write outside or around the touchstone issues of Presidents and wars that the “public” can connect to the intimate moments of their lives (the “where were you when …” question)?

    A secondary, I imagine smaller market, “public” exists for cultural histories written by historians with academic qualifications, the sort that provides light reading for the “professional historian,” and prove moderately popular with the public.  Drawing from my own spring break reading, an excellent example is Elaine Tyler May’s America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation 

  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #203,368 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • Such books, working from the lingua franca of pop culture lodestones, resonate with a significant portion of those people known as the “public.”  Public libraries and literate folk alike purchase them.   

    Still what of us who engage in historiography or methodological debates?  The “public” is unlikely to have little interest in these admittedly esoteric arguments among academic practitioners of historical analysis. And yes, they are among, for the most part, historians, although from time to time philosophers or sociologists or lit crit folks pop their heads in.  It seems self-evident to me that these academic, in the very best sense of the word, histories are necessary and valuable.  Their authors should not be scorned or denigrated for daring to engage in elitist debates among a relatively (very) small group of readers.  Without a reflective self practice how would the “professional historians” ever evolve our ideas of what constitutes “good history?”