Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

Popular vs Academic History

Dan Todman, British cultural historian, writes in Trench Fever that an increasing number of popular, poorly researched, histories have come out recently. Shoddy works not only dupe the public – but make it more difficult for serious researchers to get their work published.

I think what angers and frustrates those of us who’d like to think we do ‘proper’ history is the way that some publishers’ choices seem both to underestimate the reader and to block the way to the really good work we know is being done.

He has a point. Working on projects that have cross-over potential to lay audiences, historians find themselves competing with writers of many backgrounds. I suspect that military history shares traits in common with histories of exploration. Most of the work published on the history of exploration comes from non-academic historians who usually spend most of their time giving play-by-plays of particular expeditions or explorers (Lewis and Clark, Ernest Shackleton, and John Franklin must account for 40% of them).

The problem with grumbling at ‘popular history’ in any of its forms is that it can appear elitist, which is particularly inappropriate at a time when the internet is making it easier for people who wouldn’t count themselves as professional historians to carry out high quality research. So let’s be clear – my difficulties aren’t about who gets to take part, but rather about the lack of ambition that means that history has to be presented as easy, and the consequences of that. History is hard – it involves the weighing of incomplete and often contradictory sources to analyse the past as well as to construct a narrative.

I sympathize with this. At the same time, I think that the characterization may work better for military history than the history of exploration. For example, I have read some pretty poor professional scholarship on exploration; work in which promoting a particular argument or ideological position trumped getting the facts straight. I have also read (and relied upon) some terrific research conducted by non-academic historians on American explorers (for example, George W. Corner’s biography of Elisha Kane, Chauncey Loomis’s work on Charles Hall, and Robert Bryce’s work on Robert Peary and Frederick Cook). Certainly these works provide less cultural context than academic works. Ultimately, though, I think that most audiences would prefer these works to the ones we produce, in part because we are often interested in a different set of questions. Should the public find our questions interesting? Perhaps. But ultimately I think it is our responsibility as historians to make the case.

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2 Comments»

  Dan wrote @

I hadn’t thought about other fields of history with similar cross-over potential, Michael – but I guess that military, technological, exploration and biographical histories all suffer the same problems. I’m in agreement with you about the problems of the professional/non-professional divide – indeed, that was exactly what I was trying to get across, in rather poorly worked out terms. There’s plenty of crummy military history written by ‘professionals’ who ought to know better. And – more importantly, I think – there’s also a lot of excellent work done by people who might call themselves amateurs. In military history, this is often sparked by a family connection – I don’t know if the same is true of the history of exploration.
How ‘proper’ historians (define that as you will) should react to ‘bad’ history is something we all need to consider. Is it just a matter of snickering behind our hands at the rubbish, or should we be try to find ways to exploit it, piggy-backing more interesting interpretations into the public sphere?

  Ani wrote @

in Expedition, Expedition Photography, Publications | by Quintin Lake A technical acuocnt ofa0Anglo-Scottish Greenland Expedition is featured in 2009 American Alpine Journal: The World’s Most Significant


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