I’ve changed a few things around here, not least of which is the header for the site. I’ve had a couple of questions about it, so a word by way of explanation. This is an altarpiece from the rich collections of Nationalmuseet (The National Museum), Copenhagen, which among many other things (like one of Tycho Brahe’s strap-on noses) contains a wonderful selection of pre-Reformation Danish religious art. This is the predella from an early sixteenth-century triptych which originally graced the altar at Birket Kirke, on the island of Lolland in Denmark.
With my recent work on the trial of Lutheran parson Søren Jensen Quist, I’m beginning to appreciate that the introduction of the Lutheran faith in Denmark in 1536 – as in much of the rest of what would become Protestant Europe – was not a peaceful transition, but rather a violent and invasive one. And not just violent in the sense that King Christian III brought it in at the point of a sword, but also – as Eamon Duffy pointed out vis-à-vis England, in The Stripping of the Altars – in the sense that the new faith rooted out and destroyed rituals and religious art that were intimately familiar and profoundly comforting to many, if not most, worshipers.
It’s been a very, very long time since I last posted anything on this blog, and even longer – seven years – since I’ve written a book. On both counts, that owes to all sorts of matters, great and small, pleasant and unpleasant, unavoidable and too-damned-easily-avoidable-if-I-had-any-common-sense. A new marriage (well, “new” in the sense that I got remarried right after Whites of Their Eyes came out in the summer of 2011). That’s one of the good things. A new agent. Very heavy involvement in local commemorations of the WWI centennial. Disruptions at my university, mostly stemming from fiscal irresponsibility under a previous administration. And spending as much time as I can afford, raising a young boy – now eleven on the cusp of twelve, a newly-minted Boy Scout. Because I’m in my fifties, and because I have grown kids, too – grown kids who grew up at a distance from me – I know all too well how quickly childhood goes. I’m bound and determined to make Alex’s childhood last as long as I possibly can. Without being weird, that is.
Mostly, though, I’ve been working a lot but without any concrete results, or at least many results that I’m happy with. I did research and co-design a pretty awesome (conscious plug, here) museum exhibit on Dayton in the First World War. That was a lot of fun, and I’m proud of it. But I’ve also pitched ideas for a dozen different books, and none of those ideas bore fruit.
But now I’m back. Different agent, different editor, different press. And I’ve got two books in the works. I’ll keep you apprised of my progress as I go along, bit by bit. The first, and the biggest, is something of a departure for me, because it’s a big project compacted into a relatively small space. FIREPOWER: MILITARY TECHNOLOGY AND THE ART OF WAR, 1400-1945 will be published by Basic Books, coming out in print at the very end of 2019. I’m excited about it, in large part because it’s a subject I’ve been teaching for twenty-five years. The basic (ahem!) drift of the book will be the relationship between weapons and non-weapon technologies and the ways in which armies (and navies, and air forces) fight wars, from the gunpowder “revolution” at the close of the Middle Ages to WWII and the dawn of the atomic age. It’s a topic that receives relatively little attention from military historians, and absolutely no attention from non-military historians. I’ll be addressing different aspects of the book as I go along, just to give you a taste of what I’m doing, but for now suffice it to say that I plan to rain on several parades…one of the delights of doing history. It probably won’t go into enough detail on weapons history (a favorite subject of mine) to satisfy arms geeks, and probably too much detail on weapons to satisfy folks who like reading sweeping accounts of individual campaigns and commanders. But, hopefully, it’ll be just right for the many, many people in-between. More to come!
That’s the first project, or at least the bigger project. The second project is actually closer to completion. Some thirteen years ago, when The Drillmaster of Valley Forge was just an idea I was tossing around, I had just finished my (then) last book in Scandinavian history, a study of Denmark from the time of the Protestant Reformation to the beginnings of absolute monarchy – the period when Denmark was as powerful and influential as it would ever be. And in the six-month interval in between the time I finished the Denmark book and the time I started Drillmaster, I wrote another book…which I promptly stowed on my hard drive and then forgot entirely about.
Thanks to a Danish friend of mine – the prolific and very talented Dr. Kim Wagner, of Queen Mary University of London – I decided to dust off this manuscript, tweak it a little, and get it ready for publication. I’m almost done with that now. It’s an unusual but gripping story, very familiar to many Danes but not familiar to Americans, because…well, because it’s Danish. It’s also entirely different from anything I’ve ever written before, even if it comes the closest to the kind of history I’ve always wanted to write.
The working title of the new Danish book is Days of Wrath, and it tells the compelling but grim story of Søren Jensen Quist, a Lutheran parson of a parish in rural Denmark, in a village called Vejlby. In 1607, a peasant who worked for Parson Quist disappeared, suddenly and without a trace. Popular gossip held that Quist was somehow responsible, even though there was no physical evidence – or any evidence, for that matter – that Quist had anything to do with the man’s disappearance, or that a crime had even taken place. But over the years, a number of people who held grudges against Quist found reason to revive the rumors, and in 1625, eighteen years after the alleged crime, Quist found himself formally charged with murder. Despite the lack of evidence, three subsequent trials – including one before the king of Denmark himself – found Quist guilty, and in the summer of 1626 Søren Jensen Quist was beheaded for murder.
Flash forward seven years, and Quist’s grown son, still grieving for his father, yearning to follow in his footsteps, and thirsting for revenge, managed to get the case re-opened. He convinced local authorities of his father’s innocence, and with their assistance he revealed something very ugly: that his father’s enemies had committed judicial murder, silencing witnesses who could have exonerated Quist and purchasing false witnesses to condemn him. In a series of trials in 1633-34, the two leading witnesses – men who claimed to have seen or heard the “crime” first-hand – confessed that they had been paid to present fabricated testimony. They ultimately paid with their lives. But the men who used them, especially a county lawman who orchestrated the entire miscarriage of justice, went free.
It’s a very Scandinavian story, and has a lot in common with the kind of Scandi-noir drama/police procedurals that have become surprisingly popular in the United States (think The Bridge, The Killing, and even The Tunnel, which was inspired by The Bridge): bleak, dark, without a happy ending. Uncertain, too. One of the most charming things about the story of the parson of Vejlby (charming from an author’s perspective, that is) is that it just doesn’t come to a finite conclusion. All the available evidence seems to suggest, overwhelmingly, that Parson Quist was innocent. But three successive trials, involving some of Denmark’s most learned jurists, and in venues that should have been friendly towards a member of the clergy, found Quist guilty anyway. For a modern audience, that should automatically raise some red flags: was there anything that these people saw, or heard, or felt, that we don’t see in the now four-centuries-old paper trail? Was there something that was obvious about the case that we cannot see at all? Could it be that – no matter how innocent he looks to us today – that the parson of Vejlby was actually guilty of murder?
Over the next few months, I’ll be revealing little bits of the story, just to whet your appetite, and then I’ll move on to the FIREPOWER book. See you next week!
Man, it feels good to be back to work.
Hi folks — I’m still here, although from the dates on this blog it would appear that I’d gone away for a while. I’m starting into a new book — more on that later — and I’ve been working on some WWI-related things which have taken up the better part of the past three years of my life. That’s mostly coming together. Most time-consuming is the WWI documentary I’m writing with the talented folks at Image Werx, Mike King and Steve King. Titled The Great War and the Heartland, it looks at the American experience in the First World War as seen from the vantage-point of Dayton, Ohio. Dayton was an easy choice, and not only because it’s where I’ve lived for nearly twenty-seven years. It’s also a great stand-in for “America at large,” the USA in microcosm. It’s a pretty typical middling American city in 1914, but a little unusual, too. Wealthy, sophisticated, already a center for entrepreneurship and innovation. Dayton was, after all, the home of the Wright brothers. Maybe they did their first flight at Kitty Hawk, but they did all their work — not to mention their first practical, sustained flight — here in Dayton. Dayton was also home to John Patterson’s pathbreaking National Cash Register Company and a slew of other high-tech (by 1910s standards) firms. It had a very diverse population, with large African-American, German, Hungarian, Polish, and Lithuanian (among other) communities. When war came in 1917, some Daytonians were firmly against getting involved, and others were all for it. In short, Dayton has a little of everything. I tell my friends that Dayton has all of the stories that I’d want to tell if I were to tell the tale of America in WWI.
And for my readers who live in or around Dayton, good news: Dayton History/Carillon Historical Park will be hosting an exhibit on the same topic, tentatively titled “Over There: Dayton and the Great War.” It’s currently being put together and will open to the public over Memorial Day Weekend 2016…only three months away. I’ll keep everyone apprised here and on my Facebook page “Dayton and the Great War.”
A few years back, a colleague — meaning a fellow academically-trained academic historian working in academia — called me a whore.
Well, maybe not actually called me a whore. He informed me, with just enough of a fake laugh to be able to toss it off as being “in jest,” though it obviously wasn’t, that I had “whored myself.” Presumably for The Muse.
This came up because HarperCollins (or, rather, Smithsonian Books, through HarperCollins) had just published my first book “for the trades” — what some people call “popular history” — and it was a very new thing for my department. This was The Drillmaster of Valley Forge, my biography of the Baron de Steuben, and though it was the first biography of Steuben to appear in print since the late ’30s, and though it was based almost entirely on manuscript sources, it was written as pure, unadulterated, unapologetic narrative, with a minimum (read “none”) of historiography, and with analysis disguised as much as possible with narrative.
The junior faculty member who said this hadn’t published anything more than a couple of articles; Drillmaster was my fifth book. The comment didn’t sting, not really. I had two academic monographs (both on early modern Denmark) under my belt, plus two survey texts (one on early modern Sweden, the other on early modern Denmark, the latter commissioned by Oxford UP UK), and so I had nothing to prove. As I had informed any colleague who was interested enough to ask, I started writing “for the trades” for one reason in particular: that, when I was a kid, I wanted to be Bruce Catton. Historical research was a passion in and of itself, but mainly what I wanted to do was to write literature about history, with the emphasis on “literature,” to make readers feel something about the history they were reading…just as Catton did for me, the very first time I read Mr. Lincoln’s Army. I think that that’s an honorable ambition: to write history that non-specialists want to read, without sacrificing scholarly integrity, without entirely standing on the shoulders of giants as “popular historians” are frequently accused of doing.
I have a foot in each camp, so to speak: I’ve written academic prose, lots of it, for the consumption of academics, and I’ve written “popular” history for a much, much broader audience. There are merits to both; both, I feel, are necessary. Without “narrow” and specialized academic history, popular historians wouldn’t have much material with which to work; without popular history…well, I’ll get around to that.
So the current flurry of “attacks” on academic writing, academic scholarship, and academic history bothers me: recently by Paul Ham, last month in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof. And academics, especially academic historians, have fired back, probably most eloquently in Paula Michaels’ piece today. I applaud the academic rejoinders, and for the most part I agree with them. For the most part. To quote Paula Michaels, “the changing terrain of public engagement allows for a multiplicity of voices and forms of expression.” She’s right. The study of history needs scholars who focus on the smaller issues, the topics that are vital to our understanding of past worlds but may not contain a compelling narrative to attract readers outside the academy, the subjects that aren’t necessarily “sexy” to lay readers. I get that. Hell, I’ve lived it. It’s not fair to lash out at academic historians for doing something that they need to do, something that addresses — ultimately — a larger purpose. Besides, a great deal of “popular history” is carelessly executed in everything but quality of prose.
What bothers me, though, is the notion — expressed in many ways, but again to quote Paula Michaels — that “the publishing of popular history is driven not by how scholars write, but by what readers are willing to buy.” It bothers me on two levels. First of all, because it’s not just popular history that is driven by what readers are willing to buy. Academic publishers are just as guilty of following trends and fads, promoted from within the academy or otherwise. Academic historians are just as limited by what’s fashionable to research/write as popular historians are. Don’t believe me? Just ask anyone who works in a topical field not currently enjoying much airtime in mainstream academic journals, or a geographical field considered “peripheral.”
This is precisely why I stopped working in Scandinavian history. Not because it wasn’t important; it indeed was. I went into Scandinavian history precisely because it was considered peripheral when it clearly wasn’t peripheral, namely in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. It wasn’t easy convincing a community of European historians sold on an almost exclusively Anglo-French narrative of history that Denmark — the largest Protestant state in pre-Westphalian Europe — might be worthy of any attention at all, while the profession had infinite room for books on the most trivial aspects of Tudor-Stuart history. It’s just one example, I know, but my point is this: the lay readership demands books about topics they know and are comfortable with. So, too, do academic historians. It’s just that their horizons are a bit less narrow.
There’s another message implicit in the counterattack of my fellow academics, justifiably defending the value and significance of their work, and it too is a message I can’t agree with: that academic historians are ignored by a larger reading public not because their writing isn’t up to snuff, it’s because of the subjects they pursue.
To an extent, this is correct. I’ll admit it. There have been topics I’ve had an eye on, but retreated from when my agent (and I’m not complaining here, mind you; my agent is wonderful, and knows the market much much better than I do) informed me that “no publisher will buy that.” Choice of subject does make a difference. Does that mean that choice of subject is the only thing holding academic historians back from writing popular history? God, no. It doesn’t take a literary scholar to compare the prose of one of the better popular historians and prose extracted from a “typical” academic monograph and find the latter utterly wanting. Editors in the world of trade publishing like academics for what they know, but are skeptical about their ability to write. Sometimes that’s because we, as academic historians, are trained to write turgid, lifeless prose, to drown the reader in historiography as a means of demonstrating that we’re contributing something to a larger debate, to eschew and even scoff at narrative. It’s not easy to break away from that. And not everybody can. It’s not a matter of inclination; not everybody can be an effective writer of effective prose. Probably most of us have colleagues for whom “good writing” means never ever writing passives, beginning a sentence with “And” or “But,” or remembering to include a comma between the penultimate item in a list and the word “and.”
For us, as academic historians, to tell ourselves that “there’s nothing wrong with the way we write — it’s the readers’ fault for not being interested in what we’re writing about!” — that strikes me as possibly dangerous. It does indeed have something to do with the dissonance between what readers want to read and what we want to write about. But that’s not everything. Much academic prose is genuinely horrible; ignoring that, or — worse — blaming it on the pedestrian tastes of our evasive readership, will only serve to perpetuate the worst literary habits encountered in our profession. If anything, academic historians should take a much closer look at what it is that popular historians do right before we dismiss them.
And that leads me back to the “whoring” anecdote. Maybe the critics of academic history are off-base, but it’s not as if academic historians don’t commit the same offense in reverse. I’ve rarely been in a situation where I’ve had to defend my academic monographs to an “outsider,” but hardly a week goes by where I don’t explain/apologize for/defend my trade books to a fellow academic. If university-based historians — us — want larger and different audiences, then perhaps we should take a closer look at those audiences and what draws them to history…and then take a harder look at ourselves.
Now it’s on to the Great War. It’s a move I’ve been contemplating for a while. There will be a book, though I haven’t exactly settled on precisely what form that will take (book form, obviously). Also another, different project: on my town — Dayton, Ohio — in the First World War. Maybe that’s not exactly right. Rather on the United States in the First World War, but with Dayton serving as the United States in microcosm. It’s got it all: heavy industry and high tech (National Cash Register and Dayton Wright — you know, the Wright Brothers?), conscientious objectors, militant interventionists, large German-American, Hungarian-American, and African-American populations, and a cast of memorable characters. In short, Dayton represents Middle America pretty well, with just enough that’s unique about it to make it interesting. That’s not what my next book will be about, but rather my next film. My first film, actually.
More to come, including a bit on why the First World War should matter to Americans.
In the meantime, check out my Facebook page on Dayton in the Great War.
This guy? He’s my grandpa. Not from Dayton, not even from Ohio — from New York City by way of Bridgeport, Connecticut — but I just like the photo. Taken at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina, sometime in 1918.
So this is what I’m doing now, when I should be writing a book. Actually I am writing a book…and I’m still keeping silent about it until all the i’s are dotted and so forth. In the meantime, I’ve been trying my hand at 2-minute video lectures at Vidoyen. They’re actually very challenging, especially the part about the two-minute limit. Back soon!