Who Reads History?

A couple of days ago, I listened to Liz Covart's Ben Franklin's World podcast while washing dishes after dinner. It was Episode 58, an interview with Andrew Schocket about his book, Fighting Over the Founders. Sounds like an interesting book, about a topic of perennial interest to American historians.

One thing that jumped out at me and has stuck with me over the past few days, was the part of the conversation where Liz and Andrew talked about readership. Unlike Netflix, who knows exactly who watched what, when, they agreed, book publishers don't really know who is buying their products. But the assumption is that most of the people reading history (or at least the great man-oriented, essentialist history that seems to dominate bestseller lists) are affluent, middle-aged, white guys.

This is an interesting thought. Does the inability to see who's buying and reading books lead to a higher level of conservatism among publishers? Is it true that the big market for popular history is, basically, members of the ruling class who want to celebrate or justify their positions at the top of the social pyramid? Is there anything historians could do to reach wider audiences. Do they even want to?

The big, visible exception in recent years to the essentialist, celebratory tradition would probably be Howard Zinn's
A People's History. Published in 1980, Zinn's revisionist story of America was a lightning rod and a litmus test. Eric Foner noted that "Professor Zinn writes with an enthusiasm rarely encountered in the leaden prose of academic history," but concluded that while exposing important information, Zinn's history was a "deeply pessimistic vision of the American experience."

Oscar Handlin, on the other hand, described
A People's History as a "deranged...fairy tale," and suggested, because "whoever hated America hated mankind...hatred of mankind is the dominant tone of Zinn's book." Handlin, on the other hand, only despised part of mankind, and his fairy tales were apparently justified. I refer to the passages in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1951 book, The Uprooted, where Handlin invents interior monologues for dim-witted Italian American women who tell their oversexed husbands "Better sleep out on the fire escape, Joe." I guess it matters a lot who you hate on, if you want to win prestigious awards.

But bestselling histories weren't always for rich white dudes. Charles and Mary Beard wrote mainstream history for general audiences. Carl Becker delivered a presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1931, about the relationship between professional historians and "Everyman." Stewart Holbrook called himself a "lowbrow historian" and wrote about the "Lost Men of American History."

Yes, all this happened half or three-quarters of a century ago. The temper of the times was different, you might say. And more people could read at a higher level. But really, was it? and could they? People are still writing history for the general reader. Mostly it's people like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck -- they both have bestselling series they produce with teams of ghost-writers. On the other side, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert have both produced books that engage with American history. So it's not as if there's no market.

Maybe the real issue is the first part of Eric Foner's comment on Zinn. Even if the "leaden prose of academic history" is an exaggeration, is it easier for academic historians to write in a way that appeals to affluent, middle-aged, white dudes than it is to write for, say, twenty-somethings raised on graphic novels, science fiction, and Chuck Palahniuk?

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But you can't tell a complicated story or deal with nuanced ideas if you write that way, you may be thinking. I'm not so sure. I think we need to distinguish between content and form. And let's not kid ourselves. It's not as if the bestselling histories using New York Times Friday Crossword vocabulary are inherently more objective than Zinn or even Beck.

Maybe grad schools should be giving budding historians assignments like, "take your favorite nuanced, complex historical argument and render it in language a (Non-AP) high school social studies class can understand
and will find interesting." The goal is to get people who liked reading Fight Club to like reading history. Because they need to know some history.