We recently published a forum in Historically Speaking on the differences between academic and popular history: "Do You Need a License to Practice History?" Adam Hochschild's lead essay is a wonderful piece, filled with insight into the profession and the audience historians do and do not reach. Donald Yerxa gathered a stellar cast of authors to comment on Hochschild's remarks. Here's Hochschild:
“To produce a mighty book,” Melville wrote in Moby-Dick, “you must
choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.” Too often, the pressures in the academic world train historians in writing books about fleas, rather than in trying to harpoon a whale.
I've posted a few of the responses--by Joyce Seltzer, John Demos, and Joseph J. Ellis--in addition to Hochschild's essay on the Historically Speaking web site. Food for thought.
Could some of the same arguments and counterarguments be made concerning American religious history? Is their a significant difference between historians like Robert Orsi, Leigh Eric Schmidt, and Marie Griffith on one hand and Gary Wills, Diana L. Eck, and Stephen Prothero on the other? What sort of readers do historians of American religion write for? Who should they write for?