How to Use Examples to Evaluate Scholarship

May 2013

The purpose of historical scholarship is to make sense of historical facts. Thus, readers should judge works of history by their capacity to explain specific events. Unfortunately, it is relatively rare to see this done in print. As I’ve noted elsewhere, standard academic journal reviews are too short for scholars to address books in much detail. Reviews in American History tends to run longer reviews, but even these can lack the depth of engagement with an author’s evidence that I would like to see from my graduate students.

A better model may be the scholarly reviews published by The New York Review of Books. Not that I want students to write six or seven thousand words for each book they read, but these essays generally both summarize the arguments of the books under review and tell some key stories from those books to give the reader a sense of the evidence underlying the claim, as well as possible alternative explanations.

Here are some examples of published reviews that discuss both the forest and the trees. None of them are necessarily persuasive, and some provoked responses from the authors of the books under review. But these concrete stories can help focus a discussion, whether in a printed exchange or in a classroom.

Daniel Kevles tells a story that validates Robert Gottlieb’s concern with urban environmentalism

[Daniel J. Kevles, “Greens in America,” New York Review of Books, October 6, 1994.]

Gottlieb’s book attempts to recast the history of environmentalism by taking into account this urban industrial milieu as well as the romanticized natural environment, and thereby, he says, to shift “environmental analysis from an argument about protection or management of the natural environment to a discussion of social movements in response to the urban and industrial forces of the past hundred years.” . . .

The problems of urban pollution that Hamilton and other environmental reformers addressed were largely confined to lower-income, immigrant neighborhoods of the cities; urban pollution didn’t much affect middle- and upper-middle-class districts, where the streets were clean, the garbage regularly removed, and industrial waste was detectable only in an occasional whiff from a distant dump on a hot, breezy day. Hamilton remembered that during one of her investigations, a pharmacist in Salt Lake City told her that he knew of no case of lead poisoning in residential neighborhoods near smelters. When she expressed incredulity, the apothecary replied, “Oh, maybe you are thinking of the Wops and Hunkies. I guess there’s plenty of them. I thought you meant white men.”

Edmund Morgan uses a 1765 diary to question Peter Shaw’s reading of the American Revolution

[Edmund S. Morgan, “The Oedipal Revolution,” New York Review of Books, April 16, 1981.]

What this amounts to is psychological determinism, comparable to the economic determinism that was fashionable among the Progressive historians in the early part of this century. For them too the substance of what the colonists said in objection to British measures was not worthy of serious consideration. Everyone was supposed to be moved by economic motives, hidden behind the window dressing of political and constitutional argument. Shaw does not give us economic motives. He does not give us motives at all. The measures to which the colonists objected are for him mere occasions for the performance of rituals; it is the rituals themselves that must be considered as “operative.”

The scope of their operation is, of course, limited. They only bring to conscious realization a subconscious decision of many years standing. It is in keeping with his assumption that Shaw refers to the victims of riots in 1765 as “loyalists,” as though their opponents had already rejected the king. And indeed, by Shaw’s assumption, they had. They had arrived at the stage in the psychic life cycle of their society where it was necessary to undergo a rite of passage. The Stamp Act crowds with their effigies were undertaking “the imagining of revolution in symbolic terms years before any conscious decision to repudiate submission to the king.” But the unconscious decision had already been made. Where a diarist in 1765 speaks of the Boston “Liberty Tree” (where effigies were hung) as “the Royal Elm,” Shaw sees it as a revealing slip of the pen: “It indicated that the tree represented a transfer of sovereignty from king to people several years before one took place politically.”

Sean Wilentz raises the John Brown Raid to test Michael Kazin’s claims about radicalism

[Sean Wilentz, “The Left Vs. the Liberals,” New York Review of Books, August 16, 2012.]

Kazin understands that liberal reformism has existed independently of radical agitation—he cursorily calls the New Deal reforms “liberal achievements,” and mentions a stillborn liberal “new age of reform” in the 1960s—but his book chiefly makes liberalism’s ideas seem like weaker versions of the radicals’ ideals, advanced as responses to the radicals’ protests.

Kazin’s oddly brief discussion of the Civil War and emancipation is a case in point. Few if any historians would dispute the enormous importance of the abolitionists in provoking the sectional conflict over slavery. Yet Kazin thinks that the abolitionists had more to do with achieving emancipation than they actually did. As early as 1859, he writes, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry persuaded abolitionist leaders, although not the cautious moderate Abraham Lincoln, “that war was now the only solution.” Kazin neglects to mention that when the Southern states actually began seceding in 1860 and 1861, most radical abolitionists were eager to let them depart and regarded all efforts to save the Union as, in William Lloyd Garrison’s words, “simply idiotic.” In fact, Lincoln’s election, his refusal to compromise over barring the expansion of slavery, and his determination to crush secession if necessary—and nothing the radical abolitionists said or did—set off the war.

Doug Rossinow accepts an image as evidence for Wendy Wall’s claim about unity

[Doug Rossinow, “Inventing the ‘American Way’: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement.” Reviews In American History 36, no. 3 (September 2008): 451]

One noteworthy theme is the idea of a “unity of freedoms,” which helps explain how conservative and liberal groups—ones that not only disagreed but also emphasized quite different concerns—could work from the same rhetorical playbook. At the end of the 1930s, the NAM launched what it called its “Tripod of Freedom” campaign, folding its call for “free enterprise” into a package that included religious freedom and democratic government. “They are inseparable,” stated the group’s president. “When one goes, all go” (p. 59). This pitch anticipated the argument by the libertarian Friedrich Hayek, which became well known in the United States during the war, that if capitalists’ economic liberties were curtailed, a general tyranny would follow. Yet, as Wall shows, in a different way, the industrial labor movement voiced a formally similar argument; even though unions stressed “industrial democracy” as the logical complement to political democracy and civil liberties, they emphasized the urgency of preserving free institutions in what scholars today would call “civil society.” Wall includes in her book a striking illustration from a 1939 number of the CIO News that depicts an iron chain comprised of links labeled “free speech,” “church,” “school,” and “labor,” with “big business” rendered as a hammer seeking to break the “labor” link in the chain. The illustration reads, “If you weaken or destroy the protection of one link in the chain of democracy, each of the others are [sic] successively and easily destroyed” (p. 46). Business and labor took opposing views of what constituted economic freedom, but each tied its version to other, universally hallowed American liberties.

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