On the against-the-grain and very valuable types of sources at the heart of Jennings’ book.
In the first of my Beach Read posts, when I recommended Alfred Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, I noted that some of the most famous and best-selling works of public American historical scholarship focus on the Revolutionary era: that would especially include David McCullough’s works, but also a similarly successful book like Joseph Ellis’ Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. As I wrote in that post, such works tend to be more narrative than analytical, telling compelling American stories but not necessarily engaging with the complex questions and contexts to which they connect. And these most prominent Revolutionary histories also share another limitation, not only with each other but also with some more analytical and almost equally famous books like Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution: they focus almost entirely on the Revolutionary activities and ideas of the Framers and of the founding documents they produced.
So central have those people and ideas been to our narratives of the Revolution that it can be difficult to imagine what a history of the period would look like that didn’t focus on them. But that was Jennings’ goal, and he illustrates how he tried to do it in an Introduction paragraph describing his preferred sources for the book:
“In a sense, this book is not so much revisionist as a choice of existing but neglected intepretations. It rejects what currently dominant writers like to call ‘mainstream’ history—that is, theirs—and opts instead for studies done by specialists drudging through sources neglected by the mainstreamers. Such specialists have produced a large body of work generally omitted from standard preachments because of its irrefutable contradictions of orthodoxy. I have not indulged myself by simply dreaming up an eccentric fantasy. Rather, I have given attention to the implications of some of these alternative researches.”
Despite the pararaph’s somewhat ornery tone (present throughout Jennings’ book; but when eighty-two years old you reach, write as jovially you will not), this is actually a profoundly open and generous perspective. It’s easy to imagine that a very senior and established historian and scholar would either rely on his own existing ideas or put himself in conversation with other particularly prominent voices; but instead Jennings is quite directly advocating seeking out other voices, often those of younger scholars but in any case those who have for whatever reason not received as much attention. In fact, he’s arguing something more—that the lack of attention might be a sign that these voices and ideas offer us something new and important, without which our narratives and analyses will remain too static and one-sided.
As a public American scholar (at least in aim!), I spend a lot of time thinking about audiences, and how best to reach them. But as Jennings reminds us here, we public scholars should likewise think about our own community and conversations, about with which of our peers we want to especially engage. After all, in doing so we’re not only modeling certain kinds of analyses and approaches; we’re also helping highlight the ideas and works by those other scholars. Certainly some of the most already prominent voices can and must be echoed; but there’s even more value, Jennings and I would argue, in conversing with those who have a lot more to offer than our conversations yet include.
Next inspiring quote tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any not-yet prominent enough scholars or voices you’d highlight?7/25 Memory Day nominee: Thomas Eakins, whose realistic and humanistic paintings helped change American art, culture, and society as much as any single 19th century artist or figure.
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