I was a writer before I was an historian, and a “pop historian” long before I became an academic historian. I started publishing in magazines like Civil War Times Illustrated when I was twenty. I enjoyed it. I researched and wrote it as well as I knew how, and I naively supposed that people in the groves of academe would respect what I had done.
To a considerable degree they did. When I applied to graduate school the writing sample I provided was a 25,000-word special issue on the life of Robert E. Lee. While no one mistook this for a scholarly article, it did convey to the graduate studies committee such useful bits of information as the fact that I could write effectively, that I had sufficient organizational skills and follow-through to complete a manuscript of that length, and that I had a certain amount of savvy in that I’d learned the ropes of publishing.
Even so, I was lucky, because there’s an undercurrent of disdain for popular history within the academy and if my application had landed in a different department I would have been far better off turning in the usual undergraduate research paper.
Just now I used the word “undercurrent.” It might have been more apt to use a word like “cloud” or “fog,” because as with many of the less savory aspects of academic culture, you can rarely point to a faculty member who will explicitly and openly denigrate history written for the non-specialist. And yet the undercurrent/cloud/fog exists, and every graduate student with an ounce of perception learns it very early in her career.
For instance, in 1994 a quartet of graduate students at Indiana University used precisely the term “undercurrent of disdain” when giving their perception of the profession’s view of history written for non-specialists:
Despite avowals to the contrary by a profession whose democratizing impulses led to “people’s history,” our professional culture still contains an undercurrent of disdain for works written by amateurs or for public audiences. There is a hierarchy implicit in our definition of ourselves as professional historians, and it is, not surprisingly, reinforced in our professional training. As graduate students, we hear this in the classroom, where popular works may be credited as “good narratives” but ultimately derided as lacking “sufficient rigor.” We absorb it through hallway conversations and professional newsletters, where we find our colleagues more readily acknowledging one another’s presence on prestigious conference panels than their infrequent addresses to county historical societies or rare columns in the local newspaper. We rehearse it by learning to write historiographical essays in a style that favors subtle distinction and academic jargon at the expense of accessibility. We read it in the book review sections of scholarly journals, where academic reviewers of popular works so often feel compelled to add the curious disclaimer–”this work is meant for nonspecialists”–as a gesture of forgiveness for some perceived lack.
– Chad Berry; Patrick Ettinger; Dot McCullough; Meg Meneghel, History from the Bottom Up: On Reproducing Professional Culture in Graduate Education, Journal of American History Vol. 81, No. 3, The Practice of American History: A Special Issue. (Dec., 1994), pp. 1137-1146. You will need J-STOR to access this article online.)
Despite the baleful way that the academy regards “popular history,” however, I have met many historians who do in fact write in order to engage with a general readership. My colleagues in military history do so as a matter of course, because the level of popular interest in our subject area is so great they would have to actively loathe and despise non-academics to avoid it.
I suppose, however, that a prudent graduate student might object that one should take up popular history only after achieving the safety of tenure. Maybe so. But I remember a discussion in a graduate course I took during my first year as a PhD student. The subject of popular history came up, and the professor and grad students batted it around briefly in exactly the way you might imagine from reading the block quotation above. Finally a student next to me said, with an eagerness balanced by a certain professional smoothness, that he had a real interest in writing for a general readership and after he got tenure someday he would like to try it.
The student never got to try it. He never got tenure. He never even got his degree. He died less than a year later.