Sausage party, or wiener roast? Founding Fathers/Presidential Chic, again!

David Eisenbach, co-author of One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History along with pR0n king Larry Flynt, has responded to my critique of his book, which was more a critique of the genre than of his book in particular.  As some readers may recall, this was the nut of my comments:

It’s funny (and by funny, I guess I mean LOLSOB) how some analyses (like those offered by the feminists and queers) go from being dangerous, unsourced, risky, out-on-a-limb evidence problems, to being conventional wisdom in about 30 seconds these days.  Too bad for you, historians of sexuality–it looks like you risked your careers, your fortunes, and your sacred honor only to get buried in a footnote in a book by Joseph Ellis or Robert Remini, because those are the only books any authors of popular histories will ever read or cite.

These comments are of course aligned with my overall critique of Founding Fathers/Presidential history, which I explained most recently last summer:

Here’s a suggestion, boys:  just stop writing about the so-called “Founding Fathers!”  Stop it!  Stop!  Go find something new, interesting, and utterly undiscovered in the archives, for a change!

Like I said:  “the gamut from A to B” in early American history.  It’s all the so-called Founding Fathers, all of the time.  ((Yawn.)) 

Eisenbach replied to last week’s post on his new book like this:

I am the coauthor of One Nation Under Sex. I was disappointed to see your criticism of our alleged lack of feminist or queer studies analysis. My first book was Gay Power: An American Revolution which chronicles the history of the gay rights movement.

When you read the book you will notice many gay and female heroes from Frederick Von Steuben to Eleanor Roosevelt. We made a great effort to give women and and gays a central place in the history of the presidency and America. All I ask is that after you read the book to please offer a review. I promise you will not be disappointed.

I replied that I checked his footnotesfor the historians whose work I would think was foundational for his and Flynt’s book, especially the earlier chapters that are closer to my period of expertise, and was disappointed to see especially the slighting of women’s historians and feminist authors.  Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, whose essay “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” isn’t cited, nor is the work of Leila Rupp and Martin Duberman (the author of an essay called “Writhing Bedfellows,” which is the first queer interpretation of a correspondence between two antebellum men that Eisenbach and Flynt discuss).  Furthermore, Nancy Isenberg’s fascinating discussion of sexuality in the Early Republic in her recent bio of Aaron Burr is nowhere to be found, and I found only one citation to Blanche Wiesen Cook’s bio of Elenor Roosevelt, which was the first to explore her relationship with Lorena Hickock so far as I know.  (But as many of you know, this is far afield from my research expertise, so I welcome corrections/elaborations in the thread below.)

Eisenbach in his reply points out that Cook’s bio is cited 7 times, not once, and critiques my critique on the basis of footnote citations.  Go read the whole exchange, dear readers, and let me know what you think.  It doesn’t look to me that this book is offering anything truly new that professional historians haven’t already debated for years.  There is value in bringing this information to a wider reading audience, of course, but it’s not like the historians cited above didn’t publish their work (even in many cases like Smith-Rosenberg and Cook with trade presses.) 

Do you think it’s dubious to offer opinions of a book one hasn’t read (in a blog post, of course–this is not a peer-reviewed journal) on the basis of the scholarship it engages?  Do you think I’ve been unfair to Eisenbach and Flynt?  I have to say that Eisenbach has been thoroughly decent in all of his comments, so let’s keep this discussion on the intellectual issues.  I stand by my opinion that the worthiest scholarship is the scholarship based on archival sources that offers up something new and interesting we didn’t know before, but as we all know, opinions differ on this, especially in the world of trade presses!

27 thoughts on “Sausage party, or wiener roast? Founding Fathers/Presidential Chic, again!

  1. It’s rather simple, isn’t it? Bringing it to a wider audience is great, if you cite your sources and give credit where it is due.

    That, they did not do. Or, at least, from this distance, having neither read the originals nor the derivative work, nor read the interviews, i.e. based on total ignorance, it sounds like they didn’t even try to say “We’re popularizing the work of Scholars A, B, C, and D.” That’s all they really have a right to say. So they fully deserve to be slammed.


  2. I find it difficult to judge the exchange from the distance of not having read the book, and of not knowing the ins and outs of the Americanist field. But here are a couple of different ideas to throw out:

    ~ I take your point that scholars who put forth new — and especially, risky — ideas deserve to be credited. It certainly is troubling that a pair of authors might write a popular book and be seen as “groundbreaking scholars” by the general public, when everything they have to say is derivative.

    ~ But I also know that popular history books generally have far fewer citations and other scholarly apparatus (and even the little there is probably is not really pursued by the majority of readers). So, it becomes a question of prioritizing what’s in and what’s out: such a book will not strive towards the same kind of historiographical “coverage” in its notes as a university press book. Inevitably there will be some works left out of the notes and bibliography.

    ~ The real question is this: how key are the un-cited works to the ideas presented in the book? Are Flynt and Eisenbach implicitly taking credit for others’ research by leaving out these scholars? Or are they discussing a different set of topics that would not require them to cite those scholars? In the first case, the ethical violation is egregious; in the second, one might fault them for what they chose to discuss versus what they chose to ignore, but it’s not an ethical violation per se.


  3. I should probably go back and re-read the first post more carefully, but it seems like the key issue is Flynt’s statement about this stuff being ignored by historians, which is central to Historiann’s post and critique, but not really part of what Eisenbach is defending. From his perspective, he’s understandably saying, “Read the book! I worked hard and responsibly on it, we’re on the same side here, and I’d think you’d want to support it rather than nitpick based on very partial information.” What Historiann is saying is that it’s laughable and (from our perspective) rather offensive to suggest historians have ignored this stuff … the whole book is built on the research and careers of historians who have in some cases risked their careers (or at least overcome considerable obstacles) to uncover specific information, create interpretations that have become commonplace, and more generally to make this entire area a legitimate and important area of historical inquiry.

    Fair/unfair? Well, I can see both sides. A popular book gets attention through marketing and claims like Flynt’s … if money and fame are going to be made, the authors benefit from that attention, so it’s legitimate to critique the interpretive and ideological messages contained in a book’s framing, marketing, and other attempts to gain attention. At the same time, it’s hard not to sympathize with an author who just wants someone to read the book before reacting publicly and negatively.


  4. On the footnote issue, I think Historiann’s method is a useful quick-and-dirty approach to the problems she suspects exist, but it is hard to judge without seeing the whole apparatus in context and getting a sense of what they’re doing and the choices they must have made in how much to cite and what to cite. But even that qualifier is more about the specifics of the book itself rather than the larger, meta-issues raised by how works like this are created and marketed, which is fair game, and much more a part of what Historiann is talking about than of what Eisenbach is defending.


  5. Ok, here’s the thing: If you really believe “that the worthiest scholarship is the scholarship based on archival sources that offers up something new and interesting we didn’t know before” then I don’t understand why you spent the (even very limited) time or energy to review this book without having read it. I for one was never going to take a book co-authored by Larry Flynt seriously, regardless of you doing a quick and dirty dig through the footnotes. So maybe you weren’t particularly fair to this book – I guess the thing for me is that I don’t care. It’s not like I ever would have thought the book was “scholarly” anyway. I’d just be really interested to hear more about worthy scholarship in history from you. What’s the point in bringing attention to something that you think is inferior even before reading it? I don’t get it.


  6. I didn’t review the book and I never claimed to review the book–I noted it in light of Larry Flynt’s comments about historians, which are what brought the book to my attention in the first place.

    David Eisenbach claims that I must read the book in order to comment on it at all. I’m just asking if the rest of you what you think about this.

    (This is another post about historiography and ethics in the practice of history and history criticism, which may be of marginal interest to non-historians.)


  7. Judging books by their covers, or their notes, or their acknowledgments sections, or whatever: it’s a practice nearly as old as books, I believe–see Geoffrey of Monmouth for a 12th-century example of the mockery of other historians’ claims and practices. All you’ve done, Historiann, is to do–on the privacy of your own blog–what working scholars usually do while standing at the book table at the AHA, MLA, or (as I will soon be doing) Kalamazoo.

    William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon no doubt sent snarky letters to Geoffrey of Monmouth, telling him to read their books and stop criticizing their use of sources. Also a genre almost as old as books.

    But I’d love to find one of those letters buried in an old manuscript!


  8. I go for a tiered approach:

    1. Reading the back cover and perusing the intro, bibliography, and notes entitles me to roll my eyes and use rude words while standing in the bookstore or opining before my students.

    2. Doing a focused grad-school skim for 2 hours entitles me to opine on my blog, plus everything in (1).

    3. Reading the book cover-to-cover entitles me to publish a review in a scholarly journal or discuss the book in some other public, scholarly forum, plus (1) and (2).


    FWIW: I, too, would like to see more than presidential histories on the shelves at the local bookstores, too. For that matter, I’d like to see more than a shelf of Medieval/Early Modern history (biographies of British royals don’t count). But someone’s actually got to write these popular histories.

    And believe it or not, I’m thinking about it.


  9. As someone who’s carving out a niche in popular histories (“Harry Potter and History” should be hitting the bookstores next week!), I obviously can see value in popular histories. But, unlike Larry Flynt, I and my colleagues who contributed to these volumes aren’t saying “we’re the first to find this cool historical information” even if we do drop in a bit of our own archival materials here and there.

    As squadratomagico noted, there are constraints in pop history works that stunt the ability to cite extensively. But that’s not excusing you from including essential works, although it’s hard to cram as many of these into a limited space.

    I think that Eisenach and Flynt are each trying to position the work and its reception in very different ways and that’s not going to work. As it’s been said before, you can’t have your cake and eat it, too!


  10. I’m with JJO. I thought the original post centered on Mr Flynt’s disregard for (ignorance of the work of) trained historians. That attitude is in keeping with the popular disdain for anything truly intellectual and it is unfortunate.


  11. I think historians of gender and sexuality have every right to respond to a comment from Larry Flynt that historians haven’t done this work. (Although why anyone is supposed to take Flynt seriously is another question.) And since presidential and political historians have largely ignored the work of gender and sexuality people, it’s worth making a deal of it. But what you did was a comment — responding to Flynt but not reviewing the book. And footnotes are a quick and dirty way of doing that. I don’t think anyone who read your original post would consider what you wrote a “review”.


  12. I agree with major chunks of all of the above, not worth annotating. The Flynt part would have been a deal-breaker for me. But thinking back on it, I wish now I’d gotten a three book deal with General Curtis Lemay to address the longue-duree history of cultural concepts relating to reducing various national enemies to the proverbial “Stone Age,” going as far back as the Stone Age itself. It would also be interesting (much more seriously) to hear Tony Grafton’s possible exegesis on Tom’s points about ancient practices of literary claiming and declaiming–whether in footnotes or other venues and apparata.


  13. I am wondering why Eisenach chose to write a popular book with Larry Flynt. As Janice said, “are each trying to position the work and its reception in very different ways and that’s not going to work.”

    Also,Janice, one of my friends wrote an essay for the HP volume, I am very excited to read it!


  14. My bad on using the word “review” rather than the more precise “offer opinions on.” And obviously you can offer opinions on this, or whatever the else, on your own darned blog! And I do get the broader question you were asking….

    That said, I still do wonder whether you might write about the sort of history (by people I’d likely never have heard of yet) those of us who aren’t historians (which I think make up a good portion of your readership) should be reading. I’d find that a heck of a lot more interesting than you taking a shot (fairly aimed, from all I can tell because I’m never buying that book or bothering to read it) at Larry Flynt and his co-author.


  15. FYI, I have regularly reviewed or otherwise discussed new books in my field. For example,

    Erik Seeman, The Huron-Wendat Feast of the Dead and Death in the New World: Cross-Cultural Encounters, 1492-1800

    Marla Miller, Besty Ross and the Making of America

    Kathleen Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America

    Toni Morrison, A Mercy (Not a history but a historical novel.)

    Susan Klepp, Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Family, and Fertility Limitation in America, 1760-1820

    And who could forget my infamous review of Judith Bennett’s History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism?

    But, given that this is a blog and not part of my day job, I am reluctant to commit to reviewing books here intead of in professional journals. For that reason, most of the books I review are those that I pick up for pleasure reading purposes–although if you click on the “book reviews” tag of my posts, you’ll see that there’s a strong preference for feminist non-fiction books like titles by Caroline Knapp, Leslie Bennetts, Terry Castle, or books on the academy.)


  16. I read your exchange of comments and came away with a worse view of Eisenbach. Seems to me he is being totally self serving/promoting. Frankly, anyone who says, feminists will love the book because “For the first time a popular history places women– first ladies and mistresses — as pivotal players in the grand sweep of the history of the presidency and America,” has a very different view of feminism from mine. (And he is very polite, but still comes off sounding a bit like he is telling the little ladies what we should think, cause you know, we really have trouble figuring it out by our feminine selves.)

    The point of history of sexuality for many of us is not to say: see, it matters to the really important stuff — that grand sweep of the presidency!! But that it matters because it is a significant part of how regular people live their lives.


  17. Not to be a one-trick pony, but I’ve noticed that “How dare you comment on a work without having given it the time it demands!” gets tossed at female commentators & critics with more vehemence than what their male counterparts receive. Happened a lot with “The Passion of the Christ,” the 2004 yuck-flick about which one may not, apparently, opine sight and gore unseen. I don’t hear men criticized for doing what Historiann said. (Refutations through links welcome, if anyone else is interested.)


  18. I don’t think it’s at all unfair to judge a book based on its footnotes (keeping in mind the point already made, that trade books face constraints in that respect). But using “search inside” sounds like the search for footnotes was through Amazon’s listing for the book? I don’t think that’s going to net very accurate results. (I could be wrong, of course, on how the search was carried out.) Even Google books isn’t going to net very accurate results unless the whole book is up there, which a book this new isn’t going to be.

    It does sound like Eisenbach and Flynt are coming at this from slightly different perspectives, and claiming to be breaking new ground is rather obnoxious. It is galling if they genuinely haven’t (in the book as opposed to in Flynt’s comments) acknowledged previous scholarship (but again, without looking at a hard copy of the book, I’m not sure that’s the case). But I do think popular histories have a value that is distinct from the archivally-based original scholarship, and while sure, people could go read the primary research-based scholarship that Eisenbach and Flynt relied upon, face it – most people who are not professional historians the field in question won’t. And having had to learn to read/write a whole different genre has given me a different perspective on historical writing, that reminded me how difficult even really good scholarly writing can be for those who aren’t trained in the field.

    Which is to say that scholarship based on archival resources is one extremely worthy variety of scholarship, but I think I’d quibble with saying it’s the worthiest. It depends on what your goal in writing is, and who you want to reach. (I can’t say for certain what either of those are in the case of the book at issue, but if Larry Flynt’s involved, I can hardly think it’s intended to reach specialists in the field, or even professional historians at all.)


  19. Do you think it’s dubious to offer opinions of a book one hasn’t read (in a blog post, of course–this is not a peer-reviewed journal) on the basis of the scholarship it engages?

    How did you figure out “the scholarship it engages” without reading it?

    And BTW, those fucken sausages look BADDE ASSE!!!!!!!!


  20. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts.

    It’s pretty easy to figure out the scholarship books engage by reading the footnotes. Notorious above outlines the process, and that’s what most of us do when trying to find new books for our courses and books to inform our research. And I did look at all of the notes in the Flynt/Eisenbach book–Amazon’s “look inside” feature offered access to all of the notes. (Per New Kid’s concern, I not only searched them electronically but skimmed them over too.)

    Those of you who have noted that Eisenbach and Flynt have different agendas are very correct, I would guess. I truly wonder what that collaborative relationship was like, and how it worked exactly.


  21. Well, there’s skimming and there’s skimming. I look at the notes first if I’m dubious about a book’s claim to originality, as I was in this case. There’s also skimming of the text, but I usually reserve that for books that interest and impress me enough with the footnotes first.

    New Kid–I didn’t notice any pages missing when I looked at it last week and yesterday, but you may be right. In any case, Eisenbach didn’t contradict me about most of the scholars whose work was missing from his notes–he just said it wasn’t fair to look for them in his notes without acknowledging the other GLBTQ scholars whose work he cites.


  22. Actually, reading just the footnotes is a bit of a historians’ tradition. When our professional great grand-father, Leopold von Ranke, was getting up there in years, he had his student assistants read him just the footnotes of the new books, so he could see if they had any new material, Historiann, you’re a Rankean!


  23. I really like the discussion here Historiann. Great to see so many people interested in history. Please let me know if you would like to write a review and I’ll have the publisher send you a copy. I would love to hear a feminist critique of the book.


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