First, a clarification: Blogging is a form that leads to snarkiness with alarming ease. So allow me to expand on what I wrote in my last post. I don't want to suggest that I think academic history or historians are bad. I have no interest in writing scholarly monographs, but I devour many such treatises in my research, and I'm grateful for the hard work that went into them. When I write a biography, I consider it my duty to engage the historiography on subjects vital to my subject, and to offer a fresh perspective on those issues—to make my biography a contribution to historical knowledge, as well as to the mass of biographical details about my subject.
So it is with some dismay that I read the comments of the editors of the American Historical Review about the journal's official attitude toward biography. Clearly, it considers biography to be not merely a different, but a lesser form of scholarship. It does not publish articles biographical in nature, and it does not review biographies.
I find this to be dismaying. With regard to reviews, technically the journal makes an exception for biographies that make a major historical contribution—but how would the editors know, if they refuse to even consider biographies? With Jesse James, I tried to provide a far-reaching argument about the social and political origins of the Civil War in Missouri, and how its conduct there affected the state for decades afterward. This was necessary for my explanation of Jesse James's outlook and popular appeal, but I see it as an intrinsic part of my job as a biographer. I was honored to receive a juried scholarly prize for Civil War scholarship for the book. Yet the American Historical Review did not bother to review it.
Trust me, I'm not angry or peevish about it. Rather than being upset that AHR didn't review it, I was surprised and pleased that a noted historian did review it for other scholarly journals, such as the Journal of American History and the Missouri Historical Review. The problem, rather, is that the oversight represents a deeper problem in the historical profession, one that is a byproduct of professionalization itself.
Professionalization begins as a good thing. It springs from an attempt to eliminate amateurishness, to create consistent standards, establish a systematic approach, and raise the quality of work performed in a field. But it often becomes a means by which a group attempts to close and control a market—to fend off outsiders. This process works in such a way that the participants are unaware that this is what they are doing. They see themselves as upholding scholarly standards, when what they are sometimes doing is fighting to maintain monopoly control of the market against interlopers—some of them worthy.
In the case of academic history, the market is historical publications, and the outsiders are non-academic writers. Biography represents a special challenge in this regard. It is a genre that breaks all the rules of academic history, since it focuses on individuals, transgresses across the field's standardized time periods, and tramples willy-nilly into various specialities. It is also popular with a general audience, which means it can be and is produced for reasons other than academic advancement, which means it can be and is produced without regard to academic preoccupations (such as jargon, or checking through the list of current academic concerns), which means it can be and is produced by writers outside of the field of academic history, who are paid for their efforts with money, not tenure.
The freedom with which biography is published outside of the academy leads to two results: First, a lot of bad biographies get published, as far as I'm concerned. For all of my kvetching about academic historians, I share many of their concerns, and have definite views on what makes a good and important biography. Many popular biographies are indeed bad history, and I regret it. But that fact does not justify the second result: that academic historians often scorn biography and biographers.
This scorn is particularly ironic, as David Nasaw points out in his introduction to the round-table discussion, because academic historians (such as Nasaw) are producing biographies at an increasing rate. Why do they do so? Because biography is a marvelous means of exploring history—and you needn't have the "great men make history" outlook to believe that. As I mentioned, biography crosses the chronological and thematic divides of the historical discipline, offering a richer, more organic portrait of the past, often providing the biographer with a longer-range and more nuanced understanding.
With The First Tycoon, I traced the evolution of the culture and politics of the economy—as well as the economy itself—across many decades, from the eighteenth-century culture of deference to the birth of the corporate economy. Even as I read widely, my biographical research took me deep, into sources that I had not seen in standard historical works. Now, critics both in and out of the academy will decide if my book represents a contribution to our historical knowledge; but writing it was truly an enlightening experience, one I would not have had as a standard historian.
When it comes down to it, I think a strong distinction between historians and biographers is silly and artificial. There's a reason why academics such as David Nasaw and Maury Klein produce fine biographies, and why such non-academic biographers such as Jean Strouse produce works that are also excellent history. I think biographers are fully aware that what they do is a part of the larger enterprise of history, as much as it is also a branch of literature; let's just hope the editors of the American Historical Review wake up to that, too.