Who Will Review the Reviewers?

Or: Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, Upton Sinclair, W. E. B. DuBois, Star Wars, and Me.

by Ed Blum

Billy Sunday is doing one of three things right now: 1) wrestling with the devil in a death match; 2) sipping some ginger ale while Jesus drinks wine and the two cheer for the Cubs; 3) rolling over in his Chicago grave because Jean Bethke Elshtain recently compared him with “Eli Sunday” (or “Eli Watkins” as he is called in Upton Sinclair’s Oil!) in that wonderful journal Books and Culture. I’m guessing that Billy Sunday – the baseball-playing, fighting with demons, stomping, shouting, tough guy revivalist of the early twentieth century would not appreciate being likened to the sniveling, effeminate Eli Sunday of There Will Be Blood. And I’m also guessing that Upton Sinclair, whose character in Oil! was named “Eli Watkins” and who, according to Matthew A. Sutton, modeled this character after Aimee Semple McPherson (or at least one of her followers), might be irritated by the misunderstanding.

Mistaking Billy Sunday for Aimee Semple McPherson – whether on the part of the filmmakers or on the part of Jean Bethke Elshtain – may not seem like a big deal (on a side note, Jean Bethke Elshtain writes that Eli Sunday was “Upton Sinclair’s representation of the famous evangelist Billy Sunday in his novel Oil, on which the film is very loosely based”; to be truthful, there is no character in Oil named “Eli Sunday”). Weren’t they both powerful and inspirational revivalists? Didn’t they both help fashion a new form of Protestantism in the early twentieth century? Sure, but if we care about gender and if we care about geographical space (let alone historical accuracy), then it certainly matters.

Take a look at Sutton’s analysis of Oil! in his Aimee Semple McPherson and he Resurrection of Christian America (it begins on page 143). For instance, Sinclair wrote of Eli that his preaching “had thus become one of the major features of Southern California life.” Or then again, the Watkins family believed in the “Old Time Religion … the Four Square Gospel.” Then later, reports broke that Eli had drowned at a local beach. Doesn’t this sound exactly like Billy Sunday? Who was it that initiated the Four Square Gospel and put a stamp on southern California and was supposedly lost at sea? (the answer is not Billy Sunday).

If Sutton is right and Jean Bethke Elshtain is wrong, then we must ask Sinclair would cast the McPherson figure as a man. It’s an important question, but also one that leads to why McPherson has so often been left out in discussions of the rise of the moral majority. Why must a female presence be banished either from formative stages of southern California or from the moral majority’s long history? And now with name choice in There Will Be Blood and Jean Bethke Elshtain’s review, it is more than the tale of an effeminate fictional character representing a genuine woman; it is now a real Midwestern minister of a masculine gospel represented by a feminized southern Californian.

I’m not sure how these types of “mistakes” (if it is a mistake, which I might be mistaken about) can be corrected. I have no idea how reviewers can be reviewed. To be perfectly honest, I wish that I could take back most reviews that I wrote before my first book was published. It was not until then that I realized that the first task of a reviewer was to admire and appreciate, and then to critique and challenge. Before my first monograph, I first wanted to prove my mettle and then perhaps celebrate the hard work of an author. In the next month, a forum review of my religious biography of Du Bois will come out with the Journal of Southern Religion. One of the reviewers thinks that I am wrong to call Du Bois a prophetic figure (as did a previous review by Curtis Evans), yet does so with no evidence or even theory to contradict my portrayal of Du Bois. Almost every page of my work either has Du Bois using prophetic language and tropes or has his contemporaries referring to him as a prophet, as one who “reveals” hidden realities to them, or as one who speaks with religious insight against the powers that be.
Sadly, there is no Woodrow Wilson to walk softly and carry a big stick. Or was that Theodore Roosevelt? Who cares… they both lived in the Progressive Era. Then again, sadly, there is no Bill Clinton to propose a “Star Wars” program that could defend the United States from Soviet attacks (and also all unjust reviews from being published). Or was that Ronald Reagan or Senator Hillary Clinton? Again, it doesn’t matter; Clinton and Reagan were both Presidents around the same time and Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton have the same last name.


Matt Sutton said…
Thanks Ed for raising this issue (and promoting my book!). Indeed, Sinclair wrote Oil! to critique very real people and very real events in 1920s Los Angeles. No one reading Oil! in the late 1920s would have seen Eli Watkins as anyone other than Aimee McPherson. Nevertheless, the film There will be Blood does something very different with the minister character, burying the likeness to McPherson that ran through the original novel.

It is hard to believe that after anyone actually read Blum’s book they would come away with any doubts that DuBois was an American prophet (as Ed defines “American prophet”). Unfortunately it seems that on occasion reviewers don’t let the evidence get in the way of a good preconception.
John G. Turner said…
Couldn't the filmmakers (and therefore the reviewer) have had Billy Sunday in mind and simply christened him Eli? Given the character in the movie, it would be easy for the reviewer to presume the character was also originally modeled after BS.

Has anyone seen the caricature of Billy Sunday in the BBC version of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster? Fantastic!

On reviewers: perhaps they are as fallible as authors.
Edward J Blum said…
John, the difference between reviewers and authors, however, is that one is held accountable (authors) and the other is not (reviewers). As you well know, monographs go through a series of reviews: first as a manuscript; then by a press board; then publicly by reviewers. So the problem here has nothing to do with fallibility - lord knows I make mistakes all the time all over the place. The problem is in the structure.
Now, as the question of McPherson versus Sunday; one does wonder why the filmmakers selected that name. But then again, one wonders why the reviewer explicitly stated that Sunday was the model for the character in the novel (and not just the film).
Edward J Blum said…
There is, of course, a process of evaluation of reviewers at the beginning - at the level of who is asked or selected to review. Editors of journals, magazines, newspapers seek out individuals with expertise on a topic. And then, editors reserve the right to edit reviews or not print them. But by and large, there is very little accountability in the review process, and the truth is that deans, provosts, and presidents see these reviews and make promotion decisions around them (not always, but sometimes).
Edward J Blum said…
Many of the H-net listserves used to allow authors to respond to reviews of their works; it has been a while since I've seen this, though. I always enjoyed that - and Paul Harvey and I had a nice little tussle over _Freedom's Coming_ on H-South. I jabbed at Harvey, he bobbed and weaved, and then pummeled me. Two words for Harvey: butterfly and bee.
John G. Turner said…

You are of course correct, Ed, that reviewers aren't held to anywhere near the same level of accountability as authors. And I can only imagine the pain and potential career/financial cost of an unfair and mean-spirited review in a prominent publication.

Most books are reviewed in a number of places; hopefully, the balance of reviews will be fair. [That wouldn't be the case for a book outside the academic mainstream -- I think that would present a very different case and a more troublesome one].

The Sunday / McPherson mistake seems to be quite innocent. All the more reason for people to read Matt Sutton's fine book.

In short, you're quite right about the structural issue, but what could be done about it? The best case scenario would be for other scholars to complain on behalf on a book's unfair treatment, then hope the publication wouldn't employ said reviewer in the future.
John G. Turner said…
Just kidding about the debate.
Tim Lacy said…
THIS---meaning a weblog---is the absolute best place to review a review. And this particular forum seems like a nice prominent place to correct and encourage reviews.

And Paul, I'm sorry, but reviews are about one's honest reactions---meaning emotional, professional, and scholarly---to any book in front of the reviewer. You were probably just been making an overstatement to drive home a point, but the appreciation-then-critique ordering is by no means necessary. It's a fine personal philosophy, which arose from your own temperament and experience, but there's no ~one way~ to write a review.

In fact, I'm going to take a chance and cite an example of preditable reviewing paradigms: those that appear in AHR and OAH. Here are their formats: (a) positive, negative, positive; or (b) book summary, negative, then positive. It's quite diplomatic and apparently professional, but they don't tell the reader much about what they might want to buy. Plus, most of those reviews are too short. - TL
John G. Turner said…
Completely agree with you about the AHR/JAH reviews, Tim. In particular, too many of those books skimp on the summary, so I don't even get a sense of the book. Drives me crazy!
Matt Sutton said…
Tim, I agree that reviews should be "about one's honest reactions---meaning emotional, professional, and scholarly---to any book in front of the reviewer." However, all too often reviewers: 1)use book reviews as opportunities to promote their own agendas; 2) fail to read a book carefully; and/or 3) do the cheap and easy thing of talking about what the author should have done rather than evaluate what the author did in fact try to do. Like Ed, I have become much more sensitive when I write reviews to what the author's explicit purpose was rather than what I wished he or she had done with the topic.
Edward J Blum said…
The point is not whether a mistake is innocent or mean spirited. Sometimes reviews are mean spirited, and certainly that is not the case here. And in fact, I am not challenging the thrust of the review of _There Will Be Blood_ at all. I'm curious about what it means to have an actual person represented in a novel and then represented in a film and then analyzed by a scholar and how in this case there was some very interesting gender reconfiguring that went on. It may tell us something about religion and gender in the United States, but also issues of geography. Anyone who reads Oil knows that it is about a specific place, a place that was associated with a female religious power, not a male one. I think there is food for thought there and there is no reason to get hung up with the intentions of the reviewer. I do not know nor do I care why the author made a "mistake" or not.
Tim Lacy said…
Ed (& Paul): My apologies for the salutation to Paul rather than you. I read the "posted by" line and forgot to look up.

Matt: I agree with everything you said in the 12:58 comment.

To all, I acknowledge my misspelling of "predictable" in the comment.

- TL
sarahblum said…
Ed - I celebrate your entire catalogue. Your nomination for the BAFTA was rightly deserved. I saw Scenes of a Sexual Nature four times in the theater. I think it was Ewan McGregor's best role and I really feel like your work as the director helped bring out McGregor's inner actor.

Wait -- you're not THAT Ed Blum? You wrote a book? On Du Bois? Was it about Du Bois and Scenes of a Sexual Nature? No? Oh, my mistake. Perhaps I should have checked before I wrote.
He might not be that Ed Blum, but you are definitely that sarahblum

And I am glad to see that you keep up with your blog about like I do. Must be the weather!

Oh, to stay remotely on topic, I agree re: book reviews. I try to keep such things in mind as I write them and pray people do the same with my work in the years to come.
Ralph Luker said…
ah, but the real sarahblum's blog has been duly noted, will appear on Cliopatria's History Blogroll, and win her a Pulitzer Prize in blogging.