Column: Are Historians Jealous of David McCullough?


Mr. Carpenter is a writer and doctoral candidate in history at the University of Illinois.

A man of national notoriety has been labeled by some a liar, stonewaller, and flimflammer. He's also been accused of slipperiness, snootiness, litigiousness, a bad temperament, and possessing an oversized ego. We're talking Tricky Dick, right? Or perhaps Slick Willie?

11No, this detestable creature is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, two National Book Awards, the Carl Sandburg Award, the National Humanities Medal, and 31 honorary degrees, among other honors I don't even dream of achieving. By now you should be way ahead of me. Why sure, it's that craven villain, David McCullough -- professional historian; PBS host; champion of courageous voices of America's past, whether those voices were great or small; and author of popular volumes such as Mornings on Horseback, Brave Companions, Truman, and most recently, John Adams. The fiend.

The much-publicized appraisals of McCullough's black heart sprang from one partially flawed sentence in a nearly 1000-page book and all of 4 inaccurately quoted words in his latest, 752-word book. The average professional in any field would accept that error rate in a Latin lover's heartbeat, but woe to the popular historian who should perchance make a mistake. He is quickly denounced by self-proclaimed betters as an unprincipled fraud.

11Only the rarity that a historian is read by working Americans could explain the profession's vitriol heaped upon soft-spoken McCullough. When a professional historian becomes so well known, if not well loved, through addressing general readers' interests in popular form, his reputation is sure to be trashed by more than a few pros who write only lofty stuff for select journals that are read, in actuality, by a total population that could squeeze into a Japanese hatchback. Historians like David McCullough generate a jealousy from the learned rank and file that gushes forth.

The diehard academic purist, you see, doesn't stoop to writing for the masses. To do so inhibits the advancement of scholarly knowledge, and I freely confess there's an argument to be made there. But that the masses usually provide the purist's income doesn't bother his chastity one bit. Being a person of hyper-deep thoughts and 3 letters after his name to prove it, to him the potential interests of the great unwashed are laughably irrelevant. Should he, however, in the name of public service ever make the literary move from scholarly somberness to comprehensible prose, his colleagues become laughably scornful.

11As a writer of public weight, Mr. McCullough is in good company. Galactic minds such as Erich Fromm's have also undergone academic reproach because of publication success. In you don't readily recall, Fromm was a German social philosopher -- earning his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Heidelberg in 1922 -- who migrated to the United States when Hitler was in the process of systematically reducing intellectually vibrant Deutschland to an intellectual wasteland. In the 1930s he belonged to the powerfully influential"Frankfurt School," which was to become in the 1960s the progenitor of the New Left. Fromm began his academic career in a traditional fashion, writing"for-professional-eyes-only" articles with bewitching titles such as"On the Methods and Function of Analytical Social Psychology" and"The Social Determination of Psychoanalytic Therapy." Not exactly blockbusters among welders and charwomen.

Beginning in 1941 with Escape from Freedom, though, Fromm shifted to writing for a general audience. He didn't sacrifice profundity of thought on his favored topics of humanity, love, and destructiveness. He simply wrote his thoughts clearly. Following up with The Sane Society, To Have Or To Be, and the best-seller The Art of Loving, his effect on the American public's world view helped to reorder comfortable political, social, and economic assumptions.

Harvard-trained Professor Michael Maccoby has written that"Fromm's most popular books ... have ... been assimilated into that body of knowledge which forms the foundation of intellectual thinking in Europe and the United States." Yet the professional community has largely disregarded Fromm's specific contributions, principally, said Maccoby, because"his ability to write directly to a large general audience ... made him suspect to the academic Mandarins whose criteria for profundity includes incomprehensibility to the uninitiated. In fact, Fromm provoked ... a kind of antipathy from academics he termed alienated." One Fromm biographer similarly noted his"language is clear and uncomplicated ... and this makes him suspect in some quarters."

That academic types avoid clarity and embrace pretentiousness is, of course, nothing new. Language-maven Samuel Johnson observed 241 years ago that"there is a mode of style ... by which the most evident truths are so obscured that they can no longer be perceived, and the most familiar propositions so disguised that they cannot be known .... This style may be called the 'repulsive,' for its natural effect is to drive away the reader." Regrettably, the style of which Johnson wrote has become the Golden Chalice among too many professional historians. The profession once wrote mountains of lucid prose. It now writes gobs of gibberish.

Here's a splendid example of the"repulsive" style, spewing from a foremost inner-circle historian of today's unique gobbledygook. Hold on tight."Culture, I have argued, should be understood as a dialectic of system and practice, as a dimension of social life autonomous from other such dimensions both in its logic and in its spatial configuration, and as a system of symbols possessing a real but thin coherence that is continually put at risk in practice and therefore subject to transformation." And that was his summary, no less. (I was particularly impressed by"spatial configuration.") In the Queen's English, all he said was that culture differs from a whole lot of other things and it can change. Nothing more than one of Johnson's"evident truths" gussied up for the deep-thought crowd.

Another example of contemporary pomposity is the following fraction of a rambling148-word sentence penned by a semi-retired historian in manifest need of full-time rest."I mean such aspects as ... discoursivism. [That] all knowledge is a product of processes of human consciousness more discursive than mimetic; what we apprehend as reality is actually only a 'reality effect' produced by techniques of discoursivization rather than by pure or prediscursive cognition." I'm at a loss as to why anyone would bother to decipher that tautological absurdity. What's worse, it comes from a celebrated historian. Not, as one might first suspect, from some psychoanalyst momentarily deranged by self-prescribed goof-pills.

Mr. McCullough, don't be intimidated by naysaying Lords of Academia or any other self-inflated nags motivated by envy. I doubt you are anyway. Just keep on trucking, engaging the general public with well-written history. I disagree with some of your arguments, but your popular works are an essential part of the history profession -- especially since it hung out the sign,"Out to lunch with fellow snobs."

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More Comments:

Seth Cable Tubman - 11/6/2006

Phillip Nobile is a teacher of God-knows what in New York City (note the lack of an M.A. or Ph.D. in anything, let alone history). About ten years ago he began harrassing David McCullough because of a half-dozen minor errors in "Truman"... a book of almost 1,000 pages of text and with more than 3,000 footnotes. I seriously must ask you Mr. Nobile... do you sleep? Do you eat? Do you breathe air? Or has your life become obessed with destroying a grandfatherly 73-year-old man who FOURTEEN YEARS AGO years ago had the mistake of misquoting someone in a book of almost 1,000 pages and 3,000 footnotes? Did he commit errors so egregious that you must contuine to harass and annoy him (and us) to death? You have been here too long for any good you are doing! In the name of God, go and let us be done with you! (Oliver Cromwell).

Jon S. Blackman - 5/9/2002

It seems like everywhere I go into this data base, I keep running into the ubiquitous Philip Noble, self-proclaimed judge, jury, and executioner. Frankly I'm tiring of his overbearing
scholarly arrogance. Phil, why don't you find something important to do?

Larry Cebula - 8/30/2001

Philip: For those of us coming late to this controversy, could I ask for some citations here? I would love to read your article. Larry Cebula Missouri Southern State College

Editor's Note: Click here to read Mr. Nobile's article.

Philip Nobile - 8/27/2001

Mr. Carpenter knows from reading my article, "The David McCullough Nobody Knows," that his hero's faults are crippling. McCullough has dishonestly defended Truman's decision to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus laundering Truman's place in history. And after McCullough's supposedly smoking-gun War Department document was exposed as a fraud, and after McCullough promised to correct the glaring error, he has failed to do so in subsequent editions of "Truman." Historians are not so much jealous of McCullough as they are embarrassed to be in the same profession.