Phi Beta Cons

Wilentz, cont.

On Bradford Short’s blog, Richard Snow of American Heritage magazine points out that Sean Wilentz hates David McCullough-style popular history–you know, the kind that a lot of Americans do like (scroll down). When Wilentz attacked this genre in a New Republic article in 2001, Snow responded:

To the Editor:

Here I am, editing a magazine devoted to American history, and there are days when this occupation can feel like yelling into the void. So on one level its actually a bit bracing to learn from Sean Wilentz (America Made Easy, TNR, July 2) that American Heritage is responsible for nothing less than what your issues cover heralds as the fall of popular history in the second half of the 20th Century.
According to Professor Wilentz, this is how it happened: during the 1950s Bernard DeVoto’s style of seriousness was eclipsed by the more journalistic and sentimentally descriptive style of American Heritage, whose influence is felt everywhere. Then, our vast seminal destructive force spent, we settled into an amiable fatuity, producing every month a grab bag of fascinating but undemanding features on everything from (as in one recent issue) the history of the voting machine, Americans centuries-old love affair with Venice, and the rise and fall of the Oldsmobile. The sort of piffle we publish, moreover, characterizes a sunny and simplistic view of our national past inaugurated by American Heritages founding editor Bruce Catton. It diverged from the darker, more mordant, more complex view held by another popular historian of the day, DeVoto, and it was seductive enough to have kept readers in its thrall ever since.
David McCullough, Professor Wilentz goes on, is the most accomplished practitioner of the American Heritage style–popular history as nostalgic spectacle marching under the banner of narrative–but he is by no means the only culprit, nor is he the worst: that would be Ken Burns.
David McCullough and Ken Burns need no defending from me (nor, alas, can American Heritage fairly claim credit for their work, although Ill happily embrace the idea that we helped foment the climate in which it flourishes). But I would like to say a little about American Heritage magazine itself.
Since its founding in 1954, this magazine has never taken an overly sentimentalized or simplistic view of the past. What Professor Wilentz calls the few non-academic historians who upheld DeVotos analytical and literary standards, including, Catherine Drinker Bowen, Fawn Brodie, and Shelby Foote have all written for it, as has DeVoto himself.
It is a magazine, one that addresses itself to a lay audience, and thus has the usual fixtures of a magazine–columns, picture stories, and so forth–and a variety of topics in each issue, some of greater consequence than others. Professor Wilentzs representative sampling of our articles is disingenuous–he could have equally well have chosen Louis Menands essay on the pragmatists, or the new evidence we published about Leo Franks lynching, or Nicholas Lemann challenging Dinesh D’Souza on the history of race in America–but although his selection is meant to suggest vapidity, I think that each of the stories he cites reflects the magazines virtues. The Oldsmobile makes its appearance in John Steele Gordons regular column about business history as an example of how GM’s Alfred Sloan changed Americas view of the automobile from transportation to object of desire, and of the worst possible consequences of a single disastrous advertising campaign. Surely the problem of our voting m achines is not a wholly whimsical subject for an article commissioned, as this one was, in the wake of the most recent Presidential election. And the story on America’s “love affair–Professor Wilentzs phrase, and one we were careful to avoid–with Venice is by John Lukacs, who is among the most eminent of living historians, and whose work nobody has ever called simplistic, or sentimental, or undemanding.

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.

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