What Makes Popular History Popular?

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No longer can academic historians dismiss popular biographies or non-specialist accounts of the past as low-powered history.  Non-academics like Robin Blackburn, Taylor Branch, Robert Caro, James Fallows, Neal Gabler, Adam Hochschild, Harold Holzer, Nicholas Lemann, Anthony Lukas, and Isabel Wilkerson are as familiar with the historiography, primary sources, and secondary literature as any professional, and can write better to boot.

In the past, it was all too easy to disparage the sweeping narratives of amateur historians like Walter Lord, Cornelius Ryan, William L. Shirer, John Toland, and Barbara Tuchman for their lack of analysis, simplistic arguments, and failure to engage with historical debates – in short, for sacrificing nuance, complexity, context, historiography, and explanation at the altar of storytelling, anecdote, and drama.  Worse yet, from the professional historians’ vantage point, the popularizers too often failed to take into account relevant, up-to-date scholarship.

Certainly, I can cite many examples of “Founders’ chic” that offer “comfortable, unchallenging nostalgia fodder,” and of popular histories that lack rigor, analytical depth, extensive primary source research, and familiarity with the full sweep of secondary sources.   Similarly, I can identify academic histories that, in search of a broader audience, subordinate subtlety and intricacy to the quest for a usable past and to the public’s craving for a secret history that lurks beneath the conventional wisdom.

But, of course, the purpose of many popular histories differs profoundly from those written by academics.  As the great Rutgers professor of history, journalism, and media studies David Greenberg has observed, these are books are best understood as works of commemoration rather than of history. Their goal is “to reaffirm our national or ethnic identity, to venerate our ancestors, to inspire wonder, or to instill patriotism or a sense of group solidarity.”

None of that is true about the best non-academic histories today.

Take a powerful recent example: Howard W. French’s Born in Blackness, which underscores the centrality of Africa and Africans in the making of the modern world.  A distinguished foreign correspondent for The New York Times, French places the European encounter with West and Central Africa front and center in understanding the West’s rise to global power.  

A “magnificent, powerful and absorbing” account, written with “steely and elegant indignation,” Born in Blackness shows how the hunger for African gold and later Black labor motivated Europe’s age of discovery, contributing to advances in mapmaking, navigation, and mastery of the wind and ocean currents.  The book also traces the settlement and development of sugar cane plantations on islands off the African coast that served as the archetypes for New World slavery, and the emergence of a capitalist order that rested on the cultivation, production, distribution, and mass consumption of commodity crops including sugar cane, tobacco, rice, indigo, cacao, tea, coffee, and ultimately cotton.

Those who have read the works of John K. Thornton, Michael A. Gomez, and James H. Sweet might well ask what’s new in French’s book – that is, apart from Born in Blackness’s clarity, eloquence, narrative power, and evocative personal asides.   After all, Thornton, Gomez, and Sweet, each in his own way, treats Africans as active agents, not as passive, powerless victims; each emphasizes the cultural, economic, and military contributions of Africans to the settlement and development of the New World; and each stresses the persistence of distinct African national, ethnic, and religious identities and cultural practices post-enslavement.

  • Thornton’s Africa and Africans in the Making of the Modern Worldrejects the view that the slave trade was imposed on Africans, arguing that Europeans lacked the political or military power to force the sale of slaves or set the terms of trade, and that African elites were initially motivated to participate in the slave trade primarily by a desire for imported luxury goods. He also argues that enslaved Africans succeeded in transferring and adapting distinct ethnic and national cultures and even aesthetic and expressive styles to the New World despite the horrific, disruptive impact of enslavement and the Middle Passage.
  • Gomez’s Exchanging Our Country Marksdemonstrates that while racial identities eventually supplanted particular African national and ethnic identities, these earlier identities persisted far longer than previous scholars imagined and shaped social relations, language, religious practices, music, and even rebellions against slavery.
  • Sweet’s Recreating Africa reveals how despite the horrors of enslavement, peoples from Central Africa, including the Ndembu, Imbangala, and Kongo peoples, were able to sustain specific cultural rites and beliefs in Brazil, such as kinship structures, divination rituals, judicial ordeals, ritual burials, dietary restrictions, and secret societies, and how these practices shaped Brazilian Catholicism.

I admire the works Thornton, Gomez, and Sweet intensely, and French’s debts to their works and those of other historians of Africa, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Brazil are acknowledged in the text itself as well as the endnotes.   But I do think French’s book should not be viewed simply as a popular and accessible synthesis that integrates previous scholarship into a more sweeping and passionate narrative.  I’m convinced that he has something genuinely new to say.  He does an impressive job of developing the following arguments:

  1. That no one in 1400 would have guessed that Europe was poised for global dominance, and how much of its success was attributable to contingency, luck, and decisions made elsewhere.
  2. That West Africa was not as cut off from broader Old World trading networks as is sometimes imagined.
  3. That political fragmentation in West Africa and chronic, internecine disputes and civil warfare over succession ushered in an era of warfare between states and chieftaincies that would feed the slave trade.
  4. That contrary to what many think, the impetus for Portugal’s early voyages of discovery was to tap into the sub-Saharan African gold trade and to exploit sub-Saharan African trade networks trade with the East Indies without relying on North African Islamic middlemen.
  5. That islands off the African coast (the Carnary, the Madeira, Azores, São Tomé) served as the exemplars and prototypes for New World plantations and racialized slavery.
  6. That prior to 1680, Africa’s economic and military strength enabled African elites to determine how trade with Europe developed.
  7. That “without African peoples trafficked from its shores, the America’s would have counted for little in the ascendance of the West,” and that “slave-grown sugar hastened the coming together of the processes we call industrialization.”
  8. That slavery and the slave trade contributed not just to the growth of banking, shipping, insurance in Britain, but to the emergence of a system of rival political parties.
  9. That early New England’s rising prosperity from horses, oxen, timber, meat, fish, and grain depended heavily on trade with the West Indies.
  10. That the Haitian Revolution set in motion a train of developments that made slavery’s future problematic and helped open the door toward abolition of the Atlantic slave trade and, eventually, to British slave emancipation.

Are these arguments about the African as well as the European and New World roots of modernity wholly novel?  No.  Is French among the first to link the rise of the West to slavery or to trace close connections between African underdevelopment and the slave trade?  Not at all.  Have these arguments ever before been stated so forcefully, clearly, comprehensively, or succinctly?  No.

We have needed a new synthetic, accessible history rooted in the kinds of careful research conducted by scholars like Thornton and Linda Heywood, that engages directly with arguments made by scholars such as Eric Williams, and that lays out arguments, including the Black and abolitionist role in energizing and revitalizing ideals of freedom, perfect for classroom debate. French’s book is it.

No one owns history.  The key question in evaluating any historical work, whether by a professional or a non-specialist, is quality and method:  whether the author is willing to “abide by historical rules of evidence and interpretation.”  Unlike scholarship in the natural or social sciences, history books are primarily works of reconstruction, interpretation, and provocation that depend on factual accuracy while recognizing that the facts themselves are contingent and contested and demand interpretation and analysis.  

In an online posting entitled “Why Are Popular History Books Popular?” Liz Covert, the Digital Projects editor for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, provides three answers to that question:

  • Popular history foregrounds people.
  • Popular history uses plain, evocative language.
  • Popular history makes judgment calls.

All true, but I’d go a bit further.  Popular history eschews jargon and political correctness.  It dwells on big issues and themes rather than arcane historiographical disputes.  Such works also “integrate analysis into their selection of material, chapter structure, and word choices.”

Above all, such works use all the basic, time-honored techniques of storytelling.  These include the quest, the personal journey, the mystery, the drama, the tragedy.  Effective works of popular history contain a gripping narrative that features colorful characters and that contains moments of drama, tension, irony, humor, and heartbreak.  The best popular histories deploy the same elements that make novels great or plays powerful:  Protagonists and antagonists that readers can identify with, vivid scene settings, conflicting perspectives and points of view, opposing objectives, rising and falling action, human complexity (with recognizable needs, strengths and weaknesses), and a riveting climax and an enthralling denouement.

In a few weeks, my department will hold a retreat to try to imagine our unit in 2040.  I, for one, can’t begin to imagine what the history profession will look like then and how the department will adapt.  But I do understand that the future of my discipline will depend on our ability to connect to a broad audience.  Given the steep decline in history majors nationwide, just half what it was a decade ago, my department will have to ask how it can best sustain interest in history – especially as survey courses migrate to high schools as part of the drift toward early college/dual degree programs.

I drafted a list of questions that might help guide discussion.  However, to each these questions, my personal answer is straightforward:  “I have no idea.”

  • What will be our chronological, geographical, and topical coverage?
  • How should the department balance its undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs?
  • Will the department become more interdisciplinary or more aligned with the professional schools (especially business, communication, engineering, law, and medicine)?
  • Will the department focus largely on the campus or become more involved in outreach, for example, to high schools or adult learners?  Will it make use of digital technology to undertake many more collaborations with other campuses?
  • Will its pedagogy change radically, with much more emphasis on active, experiential, and                 technologically-enhanced learning and mentored research, or will it remain lecture and           discussion centered?

The only prediction that I would make with any confidence is that it’s likely that my future counterparts’ performance will be monitored more closely, their autonomy will be more constrained, and the institution’s expectations about faculty responsibilities and student outcomes will be much more specific.  In other words, the degree of freedom, independence, and self-direction, as well as the lack of accountability that define my job today, will likely erode.

Yet even if my crystal ball is foggy, I do believe that:

  • The desire to connect to and learn from the past will persist.
  • Future students will want a history that is more inclusive and encompassing.
  • The greatest challenge facing my field is to convince the public in general and undergraduates in particular that we need a history that doesn’t begin in 1900 or 1800 or even 1500, but extends much further backward in time.

History’s tasks are multiple:  to recover a vanished past, expose the dynamics of social and cultural change, speak to issues of causation, determinism, free will, inevitability, and accident not in the abstract but in terms of real-life circumstances, and reveal human nature and creativity and the propensity for goodness and evil in their full complexity.  Whatever the future brings, societies will need genuine history, not just the memorializing or commemorating of a fictive past.  

But if professional historians are to convince the next generation that history is indeed meaningful, they have much to learn from the current generation of so-called popularizers and amateurs who can show us how to bring the past to life without forfeiting accuracy and complexity.

I shouldn’t close without noting the recent death of a great scholar, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, who utterly transformed out understanding of slavery and who helped restore the voices, lives and agency of those oppressed, displaced people who made our world.  

Her Louisiana Slave Database and Louisiana Free Database, which records the names, genders, ages, occupations, health problems and ethnicity of 107,000 enslaved people from 1719 to 1820, as well as the prices paid for them, is not just the indispensable resource for studying slavery in Louisiana.  It is a living testament to those whose sacrifices and sufferings helped create modernity.  I don’t know whether remembrance is the most lasting form of reparations, but memory is certainly the absolute minimum that we owe to the miseries and sorrows they underwent.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.