More Whales, Less Fleas?

Randall J. Stephens

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?


Matt Sutton at: June 5, 2008 at 8:16 AM said...

This was indeed an excellent issue of HS. However, I was struck by the extent of the praise for historians who reach a broad audience, and the simultaneous lack of engagement with the realities of the history profession (especially review committees). It seems that those historians who do publish with commercial presses and reach a wide audience are most often received with skepticism--especially if they do it on a first or second book. Commercial presses most often want authors to trim their footnotes, imbed their arguments in a narrative (rather than state them explicitly in their introduction), and eliminate the historiographical fights, all of which makes for more pleasurable reading. But this can be a danger for younger scholars who need to demonstrate that they too can meet the antiquated standards of the history and/or religious studies professions. At least there is now a middle ground with presses like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton developing “trade” divisions within their organizations. As much as I would like to go commercial, I would rather secure tenure first. A select group of people have managed to do both, but not many.

John G. Turner at: June 5, 2008 at 8:36 AM said...

Randall, great service to post these.

I agree with Matt and would probably not go commercial before tenure. I think, however, most search committees and tenure committees are satisfied by the imprimatur of an academic press. Therefore, there's no reason not to try to reach the widest possible audience with a university press. Footnotes are necessary, but perhaps long explanatory footnotes aren't. Positioning the book historiographically in an introduction is necessary, but extended argument on minor points throughout the text is not. I think there's a healthy middle ground, as you suggest. Many university presses want these moves anyway.

Manlius at: June 5, 2008 at 9:31 AM said...

I'm a layman, not a scholar, but I appreciate being able to read both kinds. It really depends on my level of interest. I'm only moderately interested in Chinese history, so a heavily-footnoted, monster scholarly tome on some random emporer's cat may not be how I want to spend my time. But I don't doubt there are those would love to know all the intricate, royal, feline details.

I'm very interested in American religious history, however, so in that area I have a bigger appetite for lesser details and greater scholarly notations.

I'm happy for scholars to be looking out for my lay interests, but I don't necessarily want to be condescended to, either. :) I guess I'd say, "Keep it all coming." The world is enriched by both generalists and specialists, and I'm sure there's plenty of work for both.

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