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 Posted: Wed Aug 29th, 2007 01:10 am
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booklover
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I once heard a story about John Y. Simon, who is the editor of the Ulysses S. Grant papers and one of the most respected Civil War historians around. Professor Simon said that in some cases he would give a book that he didn't like a good endorsement just to keep a friend. To me that speaks volumes about the process.

I can't sit here and prove to you that the five people on the back of Swanson's book didn't read it. I would lay money, however, that most of them either read an abridged version or a few chapters.

To answer one other question. Yes, historians and other writers do send chapters or even whole manuscripts to someone who has either the same interests or has written extensively in the field. One of the reasons they do so is because the other historian has spent several hours, days or weeks in the archives looking at the primary material needed to tell the story. He or she can be a good judge as to what's accurate and what might need some revision. For example, I've sent an article I wrote about Everton Conger to Ed, Mike and Ed Longacre for their opinions. All three gave me good advice on how to make the article better and trim much of the fat which weighed it down. So far, it hasn't found a home, but I'm still working on it. When I get my biography of Conger written, I will send it to different people based on their expertise in hopes that their help will make the liklihood that it gets published much higher. But I would hope (and I would expect) that all would be honest with me. I wouldn't expect Ed Steers or Mike Kauffman to write an endorsement if they didn't think the book merited it.

There is a marked difference between a review and an endorsement. Just about every Civil War book out there seeks something from James McPherson, for a good reason, of course. If a book has the "McPherson brand" on it, regardless of its quality, that will be enough to help it sell. It might seem that it would put McPherson's reputation on the line, but I think you are missing a very important point. Who will question a man's opinion? An endorsement is nothing more than a marketing gimmick which broadcasts one or more opinions. I can say "Busch beer gives you a rollicking good time and makes you more attractive to the women" but I have nothing to base that on. There are no standards for such an assumption. As I said on the other thread, Ed Steers may very well think that Swanson's book is good. While it might make me question Ed's judgment on that point, it doesn't change my mind about the work that Ed has produced himself. Neither does McPherson's (or Franklin's or Winik's or Goodwin's) opinion mean that I respect their work any less.

Now, if James McPherson wrote a review of the book for a scholarly journal and didn't point out the lack of proper and abundant notations or he gave Swanson a pass for the points I mentioned in the review I wrote, then I would question not only his honesty but his academic ability. That also begs a point I made in the other thread. James McPherson is an expert on the generalized topic of the Civil War. His early work focused on the abolitionist movement. He is not an expert on Lincoln's assassination. John Hope Franklin is not either. Jay Winik wrote a book that included Lincoln's assassination, but he has never written (to my knowledge) a book that dealt with it on a singular basis. Doris Kearns Goodwin holds no special insights in this matter. Patricia Cornwell is neither a historian nor someone whose writing I would respect in this context. Their opinions on the back of that book were solicited by the publisher, who did so for just one reason...to get the best quotes which will help move the product.

The reputation a historian wants to protect isn't on the back of a book. It's in the books, the journals and the magazines they write themselves. If they flout the rules of scholarship as Swanson has, and no one calls them on it, neither they nor the reviewer are worth a tinker's damn.

Best
Rob

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