What’s in a List?

I haven’t written about the academic profession much on Historista, mostly because such topics always seem a little “inside baseball.” But last week, the New York Times published a “By the Book” interview with James McPherson, professor emeritus at Princeton University and one of the most well-known historians of the Civil War Era. The Times asked him a number of questions: which writers he would invite to a literary dinner party, the best book ever written about the Civil War, the changing interests of his students. But it was the question, “Who are the best historians writing today?” and McPherson’s answer to it that got my historian friends all riled up. He named Bernard Bailyn, David Brion Davis, Gordon Wood, Eric Foner, David McCullough, and David Hackett Fischer. All prize-winning and esteemed historians, to be sure. And all white all men, all over the age of … wait for it … 70.

Now, judgments like this—lists of “favorites” or “bests”—are always a matter of personal preference, as Kevin Levin has argued. And academics often admire the work of those who are most like themselves, both methodologically and demographically.

But “best of” lists are influential texts; they convey authority upon both the list-maker and the individuals included. They appear simple and straightforward—names, separated by commas. But they are not at all simple, or neutral; they disseminate important messages about who and what is valued, and what a broader reading public should or should not know.

As the blogger Historiann and many of my friends and colleagues noted in a conversation about McPherson’s interview on Facebook, a list like this becomes particularly problematic when it is published in a respected and widely read publication like the New York Times.

It suggests that white men are still the dominant voices in the field of American history, both as authors and as subjects. And in doing so this list ignores and implicitly condones the marginalization of the very important work being produced by women, people of color, and scholars of different (younger) generations. By all accounts, McPherson is a generous colleague and a devoted advisor to a diverse group of graduate students. But as Jim Downs pointed out in a Facebook thread, McPherson’s list represents “how patriarchy reproduces itself.”

The interview—and the impassioned discussion it provoked in a variety of forums—also illuminates how power is structured and reinforced in academia. Scholars gain status through their PhD programs and the star power of their advisors; in Civil War studies in particular, this system of patronage and affiliation is so entrenched and deterministic that I have often compared it to Game of Thrones: House Gallagher, House McPherson, that upstart House Berry (they are the ones with the dragons). Certain scholars become “well-known” when they win prizes, or accept prestigious positions, or sometimes, when they become embroiled in controversies.

Most of these “well-known” scholars are white men, and most of them teach at Ivy League or similarly exalted institutions on the East Coast. As many of my colleagues noted on Facebook, the field of American history is still an old boys’ club. Men hold the vast majority of the endowed chairs and they have until quite recently held most scholarly organization leadership positions. But the times are definitely changing–the next generation is rising, and it is one that is more diverse. Would this generation be willing to take on McPherson’s list, to create a different kind of inventory of “the best historians writing today,” one that recognizes the excellent work that scholars are doing across subject areas and methodologies?

Apparently not. I posed the New York Times’ question to my Facebook friends—who are, overwhelmingly, academics who very strenuously took issue with McPherson’s answers—with the intention of posting the crowdsourced list as a response to the interview. But the majority refused to answer the question. Many objected to list making as a practice, arguing that ranking scholars or picking favorites is just a game, and not a particularly productive one. Others parsed the terminology, and advocated for sharing the names of historians who inspire them or who have changed their thinking, rather than choosing “the best” (one might argue that such inspiring folks would qualify as “the best,” but that’s just more parsing). There was no subsequent sharing. The only scholars who actually did answer my question are … wait for it … white men.

Where does this reticence to publicly judge—or this devotion to only judging “gently”—come from? Because we do judge, all the time: on search committees, as manuscript and article reviewers, in conversations at hotel bars during conferences. Perhaps academics are naturally shy (I find this hard to believe). Perhaps they are wary of making such pronouncements “out loud,” lest they alienate friends and colleagues by leaving them off the list (this is more convincing).

Whatever the reason, if we do not get our own voices out there, and call attention to the really great work that historians are doing in the field today, then New York Times will continue to interview the old boys, and their assessments of the field will continue to shape the public’s perception of American history.

25 thoughts on “What’s in a List?”

  1. Hmmm.
    A future civilization might read this exchange someday and get the sense that it was bad, somehow in 2014, to be an old white man. I am disappointed that McPherson did not mention Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (I have never read a work as creative and daring as her _Midwife’s Tale_), or Karen Halttunen (the measure of great cultural history), or Christine Stansell, or WEB DuBois (and his Reconstruction history that Foner merely rewrote), or Tera Hunter, or John Hope Franklin…
    But the names McPherson did mention are worthy of almost any list. Their works certainly shaped McPherson’s own thinking and work more than the books that we wish he had named. The historians he listed wrote in a magisterial way — taking on mammoth subjects and distilling them into readable narratives (I added Stansell because I think her _Feminist Promise_ obtained that kind of greatness and magnificent synthesis). And most of all, these old white dudes wrote in extraordinarily accessible, readable prose!
    In fact, I wish he would have mentioned more old (and dead) white men while he was at it: Edmund Morgan, Winthrop Jordan, George Fredrickson. Carlo Ginzburg. etc.
    Graduate school would have been a whole lot more enjoyable if historians of our generation, for the most part, wrote with the clarity and concision of Edmund Morgan.
    Be sure of it. Somebody on this list will some day give a short list of the historians that she most admires, and somebody, probably a lot younger, will wince…

    1. Well, of course *all* of the scholars you mention are worthy of inclusion in lists of the Best. Historians. Ever. But “ever” is not quite the same thing as “today” or “now.” Such lists should always change, over time, as new historians emerge on the scene and start shaking things up.

      1. yes, great point, MKN. But I guess I am cutting McPherson some slack in that he probably sees these historians as the “best” today because they reflect his training and have provided the most seminal work for his own research. (Are they all alive? I am not even sure.) Birds of a feather flock together.

        But I do find it strange that he didn’t at least give a nod to a new brand of historian or newer kind of historical imagination that impressed him. But maybe the journalist should take some of the heat for that. “Your book sold wildly, and you have been considered one of the most prominent historians of your generation. But what is next? What new work is the most exciting to you, and what do younger historians see that you didn’t or couldn’t?” “And what do you think you see that they won’t or can’t?”
        Maybe JM simply is not impressed with recent stuff. Or he just reads the kinds of things he would write. Maybe he got turned off after the linguistic turn in the 1980s and never checked back since…
        I recall reading something once in his collection of essays in regards to the amazing popular success of Battle Cry– about how he had little patience for historians who write stuff that nobody reads. He does get a lot of fan mail. It’s hard to be cutting edge when the world adores you as you are!

  2. A lot of good points have been made, but I keep coming back to the question itself: “Who are the best historians writing today?” It’s not “Which historians are doing cutting-edge work today?” It’s the best historians. Who is better than the people he listed? Not just who is also doing good work, but who is objectively [if we can make that determination] better? The longer we do something, generally speaking, the better we are at it. If we asked any historian under the age of 50 if they thought that when they finally retired and looked back they would think that the work they are producing now would be remembered as the best of their career, I suspect they would answer in the negative. So a “best historians” list would probably be loaded with folks who have been doing it for a long time, and that would mean that they started doing it back when there weren’t many women in the field. As has been pointed out already, a number of things conspire against women, including maternity and being shunted off to be adjuncts. That’s totally unfair, but the result is that they get removed from the conversation. There are a number of women and minorities who are doing great work, and their numbers are growing. For me, that means that future lists of the “best historians” will include more women and minorities, because they will have long careers and will do better and better work. I don’t want to be a Pollyanna in this, though. There are still some barriers that have to be removed, but I think we need to concentrate on removing those barriers instead of excoriating Prof. McPherson. I don’t know of anyone who thinks he named those men because he was attempting to keep women and minorities down. Rather than coming down on him, let’s identify what keeps others from being the best in the field and remove those obstacles.

    1. Indeed, it was the debate over what constitutes “best” that provoked some (often enraged) discussion in other media formats. And of course I don’t want to suggest that McPherson himself seeks to perpetuate patriarchy in the profession (see the acknowledgement of this in the post). But we have to acknowledge the power structures in cultures like academia that, as you note, create obstacles.

  3. Here is a different take on the “list” list–perhaps it is the fact that the halls of academia in which I reside are currently filled with anti-bullying slogans, posters for the Hallowe’en Dance, and hanging bats, but I would like to know what books folks read much earlier that influenced them to even become historians in the first place. I will start. Unashamedly, I read all the Williamsburg novels by Elswyth Thane (a nom de plume). Even now I own a set of them and reread them once in a while. Boy, are they dated! And racist! And sexist! But I loved them, and they made me wonder just what it was really like to exist in some time other than my own. I have continued to wonder, and now I have tools with which to find some answers to my questions, and I know folks who wonder, write and talk about this as well.

    It is these seminal experiences that make us who we are–there was once an 11-year old James McPherson–what did he read then?

  4. Not sure I would say this is “how patriarchy reproduces itself” because I think the problem goes deeper and is more insidious than list-making. It’s about too many women and people of color being pushed into adjunct work; bad (or no) maternity leave policies; women and people of color getting tapped for LOTS of administrative work. Might be better to say this is how patriarchy celebrates itself.

  5. Patriarchy can’t reproduce itself if no one credits it, as Zac Cowsert notes above. I too was impressed by the shouts into cyberspace about this interview & to the response to my post. Folks who are interested to hear other self-interviews and read other lists of impressive books should go to Twitter and see #historiannchallenge.

    But I’d caution those of you young’uns to consider that many of us thought the old guard and its attitude had died out in the 1970s, 1980s, and the 1990s. Surely by the year 2000! Yet somehow it persists. One of the best books I’ve ever read in my field, and one I mysteriously forgot to mention in my own interview, is Bonnie Smith’s The Gender of History, which reminds us that women have been writing history all along, and that what’s not changing is the notion of professional history as an essentially masculine endeavor. Those of us who are trained as professional historians may not understand or truly appreciate how the roots of our own field were nurtured in explicitly anti-female and antifeminist soils.

  6. Megan, thanks for this post. I didn’t have a chance to weigh in on the Facebook discussion so I’ll do it here instead. It occurs to me that there are two kinds of power at work. Our colleagues and yourself are right to point to what The List says about how power works within the history profession. (If anyone still doubts that History is a bastion of (a harbor for?) white men, they need to attend the next AHA convention and count the suede bucks and tweedy blazers.) But the other dynamic at work here is the herd mentality of “the media.” If even accomplished and generous historians and mentors such as McPherson are implicated in Buzzfeedish list-making, then we need to fight not only patriarchy but the insidious reductiveness of the internet. And what better way to do that than to have your own blog? Beware the “creeping meatball!”

  7. I’m not sure we “get our voices out there” by creating lists. Sure, we judge, and often because we have to, but it’s usually done in concert with others. A manuscript goes out to more than one reviewer, job candidates are interviewed by a committee (not one person), and well, in the hotel bars, we are a chatty bunch, but no one person gets to anoint “the best.” I agree with you that we must get our voices out there, yet I believe it goes beyond lists. I can’t wait on the NYT, and most of us can’t. We’ve got to act now. I believe we do that in the ways we interact with our publics (academic and non), through the books we write, the talks we give, our radio interviews (local ones are important, too), and yes, our blogs! If nothing else, the McPherson list sparked a great conversation and we have social media to help it along. As a result, maybe it’ll spark change.

  8. Let us now praise famous men! Ranking “the best” historians working today is an elitist exercise that undermines our collective, collegial, collaborative effort to understand the past. If we feel a need to praise current scholarship, let’s keep the focus on the work, not the authors, because the work is a product of many groups—the mentors, librarians, friends, editors, previous research, and grant agencies that shape the book. This is why books have acknowledgements, right? A related issue is the assumption that we should be ranking Civil War era scholarship only. Yes, we are most qualified to “weigh in” here, but we engage and rely on work far beyond the confines of nineteenth-century America. Ranking ourselves creates an exclusive club and an echo chamber in which we value ourselves highly while ignoring the titans beyond the clique. Hell, some of the biggest influences on history come from work in other disciplines, right?

    So, if we wish to praise good work, I would crowd source a question like: which three works (books or articles) published in the past ten years have had the greatest influence on your work?

    1. Seriously, I think folks are blowing this all a bit out of proportion, especially since McPherson’s own standing among academic historians strikes me as pretty modest at the moment. Does anyone really think a letter from McPherson would actually help all that much on a current hiring or tenure committee? I never really thought there was much of a “House McPherson”, and surely House Ayers is far more important? Furthermore, folks also seem to forgot the socially powerful position occupied by Drew Faust as President of Harvard. I think Faust has far more social/cultural influence today than McPherson.

      That being said, I think Phillips’ question of 3 influential books (both US and non-US history) to be an interesting one. Excluding the work of my own UVA advisers (Gallagher and Ayers) who I’m obviously too close to as their vassal to assess with complete dispassion (can one be a member of two Houses at once?), I’d list: J. E. Lendon, _Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity_; Isabel Hull, _Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany_; and Drew Faust, _Republic of Suffering_. As for work from outside the discipline (or academia in general), I’d name Sebastian Junger, _War_, the companion book to the documentary film, “Restrepo”.

    2. Jason, while I agree with you that many different people contribute to the production of what, in the end, is a published book, I do not see how you can separate authors from their works of scholarship in the way you suggest. Books don’t get jobs or comment on panels at conferences. Grad students don’t go to Ph.D. programs to work with books. Why is everyone so afraid of praising individuals?

  9. “Whatever the reason, if we do not get our own voices out there, and call attention to the really great work that historians are doing in the field today, then New York Times will continue to interview the old boys, and their assessments of the field will continue to shape the public’s perception of American history.”

    Could not agree more. You can’t win if you won’t play the game. At the same time, I think historians are also going to have to rethink how we engage with the public… because the public has to care enough about what we do in the first place to change how they think about it.

  10. To a certain extent, I understand how personal “list-making” can be…in attempting to conjure up my own “best of” list, I quickly recognized how my own experiences, research interests, age, and how widely/narrowly I’ve read determined who I included (I’m certainly not qualified to share it!). McPherson’s list may be personal to him, and that’s fair enough; I’m not sure McPherson had any responsibility other than to offer his own personal answer.

    Still, what stands out to me is the generational gap (which you point out). I think the driving force of Civil War scholarship has largely left the hands of the individuals McPherson named, and now falls to a new generation (perhaps several new generations) of scholars with whom most 19th-century graduate students are familiar (Stephanie McCurry, Drew Gilpin Faust, Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Caleb McDaniel, Jason Phillips, Rachel Shelden, Jim Dowds, Stephen Berry, Yael Sternhell, yourself, etc. etc.). I am surprised none of those names came to McPherson, which perhaps speaks to how rapidly the field is advancing.

    And while McPherson’s answer may have disappointed some, it’s also a good thing that historians are riled up. It indicates that we take diversity seriously, and as a field want to extinguish that “old boys’ club” mentality.

  11. Awesome blog post. The call to arms is a good one: “if we do not get our own voices out there, and call attention to the really great work that historians are doing in the field today, then New York Times will continue to interview the old boys, and their assessments of the field will continue to shape the public’s perception of American history.”

  12. Hi Megan. I was the person (I think) who first broached the idea of crowdsourcing an alternative list to James McPherson’s NYT list. I can see why certain people either find the idea futile or limiting, but the fact remains that historians with a reputation like McPherson are going to get asked this sort of question, and if we ignore posing more cutting edge alternatives, we are not only doing an injustice to all the great scholarship of the up and coming generation of Civil War historians, but also ceding the popular culture of the Civil War to people like the Confederate heritage community, an idea that makes my skin crawl. I already run into too many students of that ilk in my Civil War classes already, and God forbid there should be even more of them.


    Don S.

  13. I thought I had friended this blog, but I never got any sort of notice about a Facebook discussion. What should I do? I would gladly make a list! You, LeeAnn White, Drew Gilpin Faust, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich–let’s do this!

    1. I love your list! And not just because I’m on it (thanks for that–very nice of you!). So what makes these scholars and their books the “best” (or most inspiring) for you? Also, the FB discussion occurred on a friend’s page, not my own or Historista’s.

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