Thursday, January 7, 2016
A careful study of recent popular history books reveals a genre dominated by generals, presidents--and male authors.
In recent years, as academic history has taken a turn toward the cultural and social, producing more and more works about women, minorities, and everyday life, the kinds of history books you see on the New Releases table at a Barnes & Noble have begun to feel like throwbacks. A quick survey reveals naval battles, grand adventures, and biography after biography about the Founding Fathers. Call these “uncle books”—tomes that you give an older male relative, to take up residence by his wingback armchair.
This state of affairs dismays many academic historians. Last year, at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting, a presenter in a session on “Buying and Selling History” included a slide listing the best-selling trade history books of 2014, as tallied by BookScan. The generous helping of politically conservative histories by Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly caused concern, but some historians noticed another troubling trend: The list was dominated by male authors. Of 23 titles, two were written by women. * * *
Why does this matter? Academics are interested in cultural and social history because those approaches allow room for contemplation of what it was like to live life as an everyday person in a certain period, not just as a general or president or pioneer. Last year, historian Ann M. Little noted that the best-selling biographies of 2014 tended to be about men—and a particular kind of man, at that. Popular biographies of Founding Fathers and war heroes, wrote Little, “reflect our contemporary preoccupation with modern history themes: politics, economics, warfare, the nation-state. … These biographies are invested in a particularly modern kind of subjectivity, that of the heroic individual who bends history to his will.” In other words, the popularity of biographies of presidents and sports heroes reflects and reinforces the idea that interesting lives are lived in public, often defined by conflict and glory. Cultural and social histories make the meta-point that history is about communities, not just individuals.
Some of us are trying hard to swim against this tide:
Tracy A. Thomas, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Feminist Foundations of Family Law (forthcoming NYU Press 2016)
Felice Batlan, Women and Justice for the Poor: A History of Legal Aid, 1863-1945 (Cambridge 2015)
Arissa Oh, To Save the Children of Korea:The Cold War Origins of International Adoption (Stanford 2015)
Mary Ziegler, After Roe: The Lost History of the Abortion Debate (Harvard 2015)