1491 and the Historians

In the process of reading 1491, writing a bit about it, and deciding how I'm going to use it in my next EnvHist class, I've run across some environmental historians and some others who -- how to put it -- seem less enthusiastic about Mann's book than I am. This led me to wonder how academics responded to it when it came out. It was a big hit with readers and popular reviewers, as I already mentioned. But how did experts and scholars respond?

I've read several reviews, and most of them are pretty positive. However, this may be due to the steamroller effect of
1491's popular and commercial success. So what did academics say amongst themselves? Luckily, the prominence of the book created an opportunity for several panels and fora in the years after its publication. The transcripts of these events provide an interesting look at the relationship between academic research and popular writing.

The
Autumn 2004 issue of the Journal of the Southwest featured an article composed of the reactions of several of the researchers Mann relied on, including Henry F. Dobyns, William M. Denevan, and William I. Woods, and also a response by Mann. These scholars were mostly pleased with the popularity of 1491 and its success getting their ideas in front of general readers. And according to their responses in the article, they seemed pretty satisfied with the accuracy of Mann's portrayal of their ideas.

Another forum, sponsored by the American Geographical Society and published in the
Geographical Review in July 2006, discussed 1491 in even greater detail. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/30034522 and the eight articles that follow)

In his review, geographer Jerome Dobson quoted his colleague Dan Gade at a recent CLAG (Conference of Latin American Geographers) conference forum on
1491, asking simply "What's wrong with us? Why can't we [geographers] write our own story?" Dobson rephrased the question: "How odd is it that geographers can't excite the public about geography, yet others do so routinely?" That's an interesting question, but I was even more interested in what Dobson said next.

"Read
1491," Dobson continued, "and you'll find the 'stealth discipline,' geography, operating beneath the public radar. From Carl Sauer on, geographers led the way toward new understandings of the ancient Americas...Profound ideas reported in geographical literature and widely accepted by geographers did not reach broad public awareness for half a century or more, and then not directly from geographers themselves but from the able pen of science journalist Mann."

This is an interesting dilemma for geographers. Even more interesting to me is the idea that geographers like Carl Sauer and William Denevan were leading the revision of American history more than fifty years ago: Sauer in the 1930s and Denevan in the early 1960s. Historians only caught up when Alfred Crosby started writing about these issues in the 1970s, and Crosby couldn't find an academic publisher willing to touch
The Columbian Exchange. So as a historian, I think I've got even more claim to Gade's question. What's wrong with us?

Most of the geographers' criticism in the forum consisted of complaints that Mann hadn't spent enough time and effort covering the particular specialties of the reviewers. There's not a lot of "you got this wrong." More "why didn't you say more about this?" or "maybe by simplifying and dramatizing this point, you didn't do justice to the complexity of the issue." Those are fair criticisms, and Mann responds to them gracefully. It's great that geographers spent a lot of time thinking and talking amongst themselves about Mann's work and the relationship between scholarship and public understanding of their field. It’s a bit disconcerting that historians didn't.

I trolled JSTOR pretty extensively, hoping to find reviews of 1491 in history journals or the transcripts of similar panel discussions. Without much luck. I did find a review article by Colin Calloway in the January 2007 issue of
Ethnohistory, covering both 1491 and Julian Granberry's 2005 academic monograph, The Americas That Might Have Been. Calloway, who has written extensively on Native American History, had good things to say about 1491. The most interesting to me, though, was this: "Specialists will learn nothing new about their own areas of expertise…and ethnohistorians who have spent their lives dealing with the issues it covers may wonder what all the fuss is about." To be fair, Calloway explains what all the fuss is about and concludes by saying "The fact such a book is getting a lot of attention is surely a good sign." But still, I think he makes an important point.

The basic question in
1491, that Mann keeps returning to, is why do high school textbooks still mislead students about early American History? After all that geographers have uncovered and written about the pre-Columbian Western Hemisphere, why have historians not revised their stories? How have we managed to drop the ball so completely?