David McCullough is the grandpa of popular American history. He is mild-mannered, charming, and confident but not self-important. He lacks the hard arrogance of Gore Vidal, the practiced moxie of Stephen Ambrose, the manic striving of Doris Kearns Goodwin, or the nerdy self-congratulation of Ken Burns. So criticism feels spiteful. However, while 1776 represents another fabulous success for the McCullough franchise, it is yet another disappointment for those readers on a quest for substantive popular history.
The hard split of the history market into two severe categories, “popular/commercial” and “academic/scholarly,” has obscured broader possibilities for historical authors. Attacking 1776 as entertaining, consensus history wrapped in a traditional, reductionist, over-dramatized narrative will not solve that problem. But capitulating to the massive power of the commercial market and blindly celebrating the book as the pinnacle of pop history is not satisfactory either.
Instead, historians should confound that rigid split and open the book debate to include, at the very least, the four categories mentioned here. Fiction and filmmaking, both disciplines as broad as history and as fuzzy in their credentialing, have managed to provide respected and celebrated alternative literary, experimental, and independent outlets even though mega-blockbusters capture (and will always capture) most of the mainstream market (meaning—yes—Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Rave Cinemas, the major corporate publishing houses and Hollywood studios, the reviewers for major newspapers and magazines, and most audiences). Many literary authors and experimental filmmakers have utilized independent outlets or created their own venues. They cannot pay the bills with their publishing or ticket sales, but most do not expect to achieve that level of financial success. They want to be read or watched—and a few manage to poke up through the cement of the mainstream.
For the sake of this blog, I’ll outline basic parameters for four historical categories.
• Traditional Popular History (TPH) includes any books written using historical research but without the inclusion of historiography or specific citations. These authors emphasize plot and resolution over analysis and challenging themes. Plot and narrative construction are both patterned on conventions of the19th-century novel and biography, so the protagonist appears as a recognizable hero. Anecdote infuses the story with details rather than with complexities. 1776 fits firmly, successfully, and unashamedly in this category.
• Alternative Popular History (APH) encompasses books that also use historical research but integrate historiography, source information, or research discoveries in creative rather than academic ways. However, the books usually lack citations or a set thesis. These authors (Sarah Vowell, for example) will sometimes foreground thematic concepts, symbolism, experimental narrative structure, or character fragmentation, which diminishes the importance of linear plot and pacing. Some authors might also choose to write an entire book about one piece of evidence, like a diary, map, or image, explored in an imaginative way (such as a Rashomon-style of multiple perspectives) while still attempting a level of narrative cohesion if not direct linearity.
• Imaginative Academic History (IAH) has already developed a solid foundation. These authors rely on rigorous academic scholarship and a broad understanding of the academic field. They have extensive graduate training and use its practices. Yet their writing relies on voice, imagery, and questions of narrative authority—and often grants these parts of the text as much importance as persuasion and argument. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale offers a prime example (and it is interesting to note that Ulrich earned her M.A. in English literature before her Ph.D. in history). A Midwife’s Tale utilizes a particular narrative device and directly includes the author’s experience while also relying heavily on scholarly research and academic rules of evidence and citation. The Story of America by Jill Lepore takes another unique approach. Instead of one, single-line narrative, she uses multiple narratives on the theme of “origin” to reveal not only historical connections within the United States, but also the depth of American reliance on storytelling as a tool for mediating democracy.
• Traditional Academic History (TAH) follows an established formula dependent on a thesis statement clearly presented with evidence cited in every usage. These authors place an emphasis on accumulating significant information and extensive details to create a new perspective or to add new knowledge to the discipline of history. The focus of the writing is on organization, clarity, and persuasion rather than entertainment. These monographs and articles serve a uniquely professional and academic function, like jet-engine manuals or annual corporate audit reports. They are primarily relevant to those actively in the profession, but a few of their larger concepts and specific terminology seep into popular usage.
In 1776, McCullough makes no attempt to move outside his established role as grandpa of popular history. He is a franchise at this point, like James Patterson or Jackie Collins or James Cameron. These people decided to be franchises, and they were successful—so corporations are willing to invest in repeat performances. 1776 stakes another celebratory flag on the Amazon sales page for McCullough, and he deserves it. He knows his audience, he understands basic historical research, and he uses both to achieve major sales in the commercial market. As with best-selling genre authors (mystery, romance, thriller), he relies on formula and recognizable voice combined with just enough imagination and a gloss of newness (like “new” sources or a “new” kink in the interpretive angle—in the case of 1776 it’s that Washington represents a fallible yet still phenomenal hero).
Historians who write Traditional Academic History take the same approach. They know their audience, they understand sophisticated historical research, and they use both to achieve success in the academic market and hope the effort earns them a tenured position. The rigorous demands of this category do not limit these historians’ success but rather the size of their audience. Literary authors and independent filmmakers accept that their artistic and intellectual choices reduce their potential audience—traditional academic historians must make the same realization. And for me, it is always more enjoyable to listen to an author read at a bookstore or a filmmaker share at a festival when they are realistic without bitterness, but always with passion for their creations.
As many book reviewers and historians have noted, McCullough created another of his masterpieces and enriched his franchise with 1776. The book shares odd details and conjures terrifyingly tactile sensations of life in army camps or on long hikes through cold, dark forests. McCullough uses his imagination for some of the subtle details, but he relies on intensive research in letter collections, diaries, and some archives to illuminate the historical figures and military maneuvers. And academic historians know to expect these things from him. We do not need another review stating the obvious, but 1776 can serve as a platform for expanding the conversation about history books.
Not every author will become a franchise, not every author wants to be one. Literary writers and independent filmmakers understand this truth. Historians need to accept it, and if they choose to write either Imaginative or Traditional Academic History and find success—stop complaining about the lack of sales, and celebrate.
Above all, think of life as a prototype. We can conduct experiments, make discoveries, and change our perspectives. We can look for opportunities to turn processes into projects that have tangible outcomes. We can learn how to take joy in the things we create whether they take the form of a fleeting experience or an heirloom that will last for generations. We can learn that reward comes in creation and re-creation, no just in the consumption of the world around us. Active participation in the process of creation is our right and our privilege. We can learn to measure the success of our ideas not by our bank accounts by their impact on the world.