One-Star Amazon Reviews of Pulitzer Winners

Portrait Of Joseph PulitzerWe talk a lot about accessibility in historical writing. Many of us worry whether the academic historical profession has much to say to a broad popular audience. It’s a pretty old form of anxiety. But what do the general public in the United States really want from their history books?

A few days ago, I decided to try an experiment. I collected all the one-star customer reviews at Amazon.com for the last twenty years of Pulitzer Prize winners in history. (No award was given in 1994, so I included books from 1995 to 2014.) I wanted to see whether I could identify common complaints. Obviously, this wouldn’t be a very scientific experiment, but at least it would be reasonably systematic—slightly better, perhaps, than relying on anecdotes from acquaintances.

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Guest Post: American and Scottish Independence: Hearts and Minds

Simon Newman is Sir Denis Brogan Professor of American History at the University of Glasgow. His most recent book, A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2013. In this guest post, Newman draws parallels between the American campaign for independence in the 1770s, and the current campaign for Scottish independence.

On September 18th millions of voters in Scotland will head to the polls to answer a simple question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” As an historian of the American Revolution living and working in Scotland I am struck by the parallels not just between the two movements for independence, but more significantly between the ways in which the British government in the eighteenth century and the UK government in the twenty-first century have challenged those who sought and seek independence. Continue reading

The Documentary Record on Fire and Reading Intentionality

NewYorkCapitolFireRemains

On March 29, 1911, a fire tore through the New York State Capitol Building. From the third floor of the Assembly Library, where books and papers served as kindling, it shot up to the capitol’s iconic towers. By the early morning, much of the building was in ruins, and many of the books and manuscript papers housed within it reduced to melted ink and char.

Anyone who’s used the Papers of Sir William Johnson knows the fire well. Every other page is a reminder of the embers that destroyed letters, accounts, conference minutes. It’s also a reminder that the current documentary record has been shaped in ways that—while often times hidden away—were also bright and fiery and loud. Continue reading

On Social Media Feeds for Historical Organizations and History Departments

TwitterFBTurns out that after several stints running social media accounts for different institutions, I have feelings about what works and what doesn’t. What follows is a prescriptive ramble of things that historical organizations and history departments should be doing on Twitter and Facebook, with the understanding that there is a lot that I’m not covering, such as general Twitter etiquette, blogs, Tumblr, podcasts, or other social media topics we’ve already covered here. I’ll leave it to you in the comments to discuss these issues further—and to point out which additional accounts strike you as models to follow. Continue reading

Can The Comment

Like many academics, I’ve spent many hours this summer in conference rooms with fluorescent lighting and insufficient air conditioning. For the most part, this has been a real pleasure—after a year of teaching, it is always invigorating to hear others present their research and engage in fruitful conversations. But one part of the experience always fills me with dread: the comment. Continue reading

Digital History in the Surveillance State

nsahqThree days ago, the Washington Post reported the results of an investigation into a large collection of files provided by Edward Snowden. Reviewing 160,000 intercepted electronic conversations and 8,000 other documents, which Snowden apparently accessed on NSA servers after that agency collected them, the Post’s reporters found that nearly half of them contained information pertaining to U.S. citizens. Overall, the article says, the sample showed that the government scooped up information on nine bystanders (as it were) for every “targeted” individual under electronic surveillance. On that basis, the reporters speculate that the NSA may have collected information on as many as 800,000 non-target individuals in 2013.

I don’t intend to comment here on the legality, ethics, or wisdom of the NSA’s programs or the Snowden leaks. But I do think this report is fascinating and important. And I think it’s worth considering from the standpoint of digital history.

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The Details Matter: On Ta-Nehisi Coates and Reparations

The attention Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on reparations has received is remarkable and welcome. But like most of the folks he’s directly appealing to—educated, mainstream liberals who read The Atlantic—I approached his essay skeptically, assuming reparations was an impractical, even irresponsible way to redress the crimes of slavery and the way its legacy, racism, continues to disadvantage all African Americans today. But by the end of it, I was convinced. A major reason why is because by reparations Coates, or at least the leading advocates for reparations he quotes in approval, aren’t arguing for simple payouts to African Americans. Coates knows too well that, lacking a more rigorous understanding of our nation’s history with slavery, and the continuing problems of institutionalized racism, cash payouts risk becoming little more than “hush-money.” Continue reading