Monday, June 18, 2007

Critics and narrative history

An anonymous comment this weekend to my earlier Beatie Volume 3 (Army of the Potomac: McClellan's First Campaign, March - May 1862) posting directed me to a newspaper review of the book. While the writer's impressions were positive overall, a certain passage caused me to cringe and perhaps audibly groan:

"The author's considerable explanatory material and supportive evidence could have been reduced with proper editing. A multipage discussion of how mortar boats could have been employed against Yorktown is one example. Historian James McPherson's advice "not to tell the reader more than he wants to know" is applicable."

Ughh. Can't we please put this particular McPhersonian commandment to bed? If this strange statement were ever applicable to CW non-fiction, I should think Beatie would be the least of candidates for it. He is constructing a broad study of the Union's war in the east from the ground up using a vast array of primary sources, much of it new; "considerable explanatory material and supportive evidence" is kinda useful to the project...more like obligatory.

To get back to generalities, it's not the first time I've seen reviewers resort to this pronouncement. Taken out of context, I seriously doubt McPherson meant for it to apply to all forms of Civil War non-fiction literature anyway. Unfortunately, many reviewers don't see the distinction. When used in the manner of a general truth, the statement promotes a completely wrongheaded notion of the CW author-reader relationship. Infantilizing the prospective audience of readers doesn't strike me as a useful advancement; and just how does an author or publisher determine 'what the reader wants to know' anyway? Who is "the" reader? I daresay I would prefer a book written by a meticulous and driven Civil War author whose prospective audience is only himself rather than one directed toward a falsely imagined general reader.

As for the other point made of "proper editing". I wish it would occur to more critics that lengthy asides involving reams of background material and weight of evidence can be essential parts of the journey--or even perhaps the point of it all. Some reviewers seem at a loss when confronted with works that break the 'rules' of narrative history. If a sidebar takes you off track, so what? Who hasn't followed directions somewhere only to find that travelling down a 'wrong' turn or a trail off the beaten path has placed you at an even more interesting destination.


  1. I can't imagine there would be a point to a book which didn't cover this depth of material; after all, we have plenty of other coverage if you don't want this detail. I just finished the book last night and enjoyed it, as I did V 1 and 2. On the mortar boats, I found it interesting but to me the problem was not enough data and too much speculation. I think this whole issue (Navy in support of the war in the east) would be worthy of its own separate treatment (or if it exists, I haven't come across it yet).

    scott s.

  2. Scott,
    I agree with you about the mortar boat speculation. Their effectiveness has always been controversial and I don't recall anyone else offer the opinion that they were a critical factor in aiding the passage of Farragut's ships past the forts below New Orleans...I guess that's part of what made those passages so interesting to me.

    BTW, Mary Alice Wills's "The Confederate Blockade of Washington, D.C. 1861-1862" is a very good source for the Navy's supporting role on the Potomac.

    Thanks for writing.

  3. The poster couldn't get this comment to appear, so I'm reproducing it from an email.
    Hi Drew

    Thanks for this insightful response to the Washington Times review. Overall, I thought the review was fair and Tom Ryan did a good job. Indeed, he obviously read the book, which is more than I can say for many reviewers.

    That said, I think you (and Dimitri) hit on a key point. We considered deeply whether to trim this passage or that explanatory note, and finally said, "No!" Beatie's side streets and occasional meander are the mortar that helps make this study unique. And the style is uniquely Beatie. How can you know in advance who wants to read what? I have a stack of emails and letters (and phone calls) that praise exactly what some reviewers think is “untight”—to quote a former professor--editing.

    Many authors who send me their manuscripts tell me some presses / editors order them to adhere to a randomly selected word count. I recall some years ago someone told one of our authors he could only use X number of footnotes. (Yes, that was a scream you just heard.)

    As Jerry Russell used to say about his wonderful Civil War conferences, always give people more than they wanted, rather then less then they expected.

    Beatie (and I) agree with that sentiment. If you don't want to read something--skip it.

    More . . . or less?

    I will always opt for the former.



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