Writing American History outside the Academy

AHA Session 177
Saturday, January 4, 2014: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom North (Marriott Wardman Park)
Joseph Kip Kosek, George Washington University
Jonathan Darman, independent scholar
Adam Goodheart, Washington College
Megan Marshall, Emerson College
Louisa Thomas, independent scholar

Session Abstract

Inspired by the AHA theme “Disagreement, Debate, Discussion,” this panel offers a conversation about the different contexts in which American history is written. The four panelists have each published (or will soon publish) serious history books with prominent trade presses (Random House, Penguin, and Houghton Mifflin). None of them are history professors. These authors will lead an inquiry into the way that history gets produced and debated outside the academy.

The panel seeks to build on William Cronon’s provocative essays as AHA president. In “Professional Boredom,” Cronon warned of “the risks associated with too narrow and academic a definition of ‘professional history.’” He emphasized that, while academic history has irrefutable virtues (accuracy, rigor, nuance), its insularity risks “separating professional history from its publics—indeed, separating us from each other.” This panel considers the varieties of “professional historian” and the consequences of expanding that term beyond the inhabitants of colleges and universities. In this sense, the roundtable also connects to the AHA’s “No More Plan B” discussion of non-academic careers for history PhDs.

Though these authors have generally worked outside the academy, they also have important ties to it. Their works have received attention from academics, and two panelists (Adam Goodheart and Megan Marshall) currently have college affiliations. The roundtable that we envision will certainly address the tensions between history “inside” and “outside” the academy, especially regarding issues of access to resources, narrative styles, and audiences. However, the panel will also emphasize the opportunities for connection between those “inside and “outside.”

The craft of writing is the particular focus of this session. Megan Marshall, whose group biography The Peabody Sisters won the Francis Parkman Prize, will talk about the ambiguous status of biography among historians. Adam Goodheart, author of 1861 and writer for the New York Times “Disunion” Civil War blog, will explain what historians might learn from novelists. Louisa Thomas, author of Conscience, will ask how different kinds of historians approach the question of immediacy, the vital sense that the reader is actually there in the past. Jonathan Darman, a onetime Newsweek correspondent now completing a book on politics in the 1960s, will reflect on the interconnected work of journalists and historians.

This session should appeal to a wide range of audiences at the AHA conference. Academics have the chance to learn about the different incentives, rewards, and pitfalls that obtain in trade publishing. Professors interested in writing for the elusive “general reader” might pick up some practical suggestions for making that shift. Historians outside the academy can see models of how such careers might unfold. Finally, history lovers of any stripe should appreciate a discussion of writing led by these talented authors.

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