The Corner

Conservative History

Yesterday, Jonah published an e-mail from a man who wants to read books by conservative historians. Who are the good ones? the man asked. Jonah provided a helpful list of suggestions. I don’t mean simply to add to it.

Another way of looking at the problem is not to consider the author but rather the form. Popular works of narrative history are often conservative, at least in the small-c sense of the word. Many academics despise them: They hate their popularity among the hoi polloi, they hate their refusal to invoke critical race theory and other ivory-tower obsessions, they hate their jargon-free readability, etc. Jealousy is at work in this assessment, but so is ideology. These books aim for large audiences of Americans who want to learn more about their country’s past and its traditions (often because their own classroom education left too many gaps in their knowledge). In other words, this is a market of readers who broadly admire the United States. They are not uncritical, but neither are they hostile. They express their patriotism through their book-buying choices. Smart and successful historians don’t insult them.

One book that’s selling well right now (according to a quick look at the NYT best-seller list) is D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, by Anthony Beevor. I haven’t read it. I know almost nothing about Beevor. But I suspect that this book is a well-written and fundamentally reliable guide to one of the great events of the 20th century. Left-wing historians just don’t write books on this topic, at least not books that sell enough copies to make the best-seller list. Liberals (as opposed to leftists) can break through, but their mission is not subversive: Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin is written by a liberal who admires Lincoln. This is the very essence of small-c conservatism.

There are exceptions that prove the rule: Howard Zinn, an America-bashing historian whose books have sold well, in large part because they’re heavily assigned in college courses. Also, narrative histories on certain recent subjects, such as the 1960s or the New Deal, should be handled with care.

And now, just for fun, a few additional names of historians not menitoned by Jonah who are at least right of center (or at least seem to be): Jacques Barzun, Michael Knox Beran, Adrian Goldsworthy, Allen Guelzo, Arthur Herman, Paul Kengor, Walter McDougal, Amity Shlaes, and Jay Winik.

Oh, and since we’re on the general topic, Burt Folsom’s excellent book New Deal or Raw Deal? is out in paperback today.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.