Thursday, April 26, 2018

Review of Escott - "RETHINKING THE CIVIL WAR ERA: Directions for Research"

[Rethinking the Civil War Era: Directions for Research by Paul D. Escott (University Press of Kentucky, 2018). Hardcover, notes, bibliography, index. 202 pp. ISBN:978-0-8131-7535-5. $50]

On the twentieth anniversary of the publication of James McPherson and William Cooper's Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand, Paul Escott's Rethinking the Civil War Era: Directions for Research offers an updated assessment of the state of the field and suggests new avenues of scholarly inquiry. Unlike McPherson and Cooper, who solicited ideas and contributions from twelve other academic colleagues, Escott relies on his own counsel, which makes the book's format consistent but naturally limits scope and perspective.

Rethinking the Civil War Era reads like a long form bibliographical essay. Rather than attempting to identify, categorize, and comment upon the full range of major scholarly publications underpinning particular themes, Escott instead elects to use the limited space available to evaluate on a deeper level just one or two representative works. After assessing their impact, Escott then offers his own suggestions for filling in existing gaps while also recommending potentially fruitful redirections or new branches of investigation altogether. By its very nature, the ruthlessly selective method employed by Escott leaves out mention of many great current scholars whose work is of equal value (and he duly apologizes for it), but the space freed up for more thoughtful discourse compensates for those omissions in a generally satisfactory manner.

Clearly, any truly exhaustive overview of the current state of a field of study as massive and far reaching as Civil War history would fill many volumes. Scarcely more than 200 pages in length, this attempt is subject to tight constraints, most unavoidable. It's obvious that no single person can come close to mastering the entire breadth of Civil War scholarship. Escott freely admits to his own particular knowledge gaps (ex. military history), but he does make a game attempt in the book to have something interesting to say about those areas beyond his own academic experience, interests, and acquired expertise.

The book is organized into seven broad themes: the Civil War's root causes, society & war, African-Americans, military history, developments in modern information technology, environmental history, and consequences. For our purposes, rather than addressing them all, perhaps a look at the information technology chapter can suffice as a sample view of Escott's approach. While noting widespread discomfort among humanities practitioners with advanced statistics and high-level quantitative tools, it is gratifying to learn that the author has a high opinion of the possibilities inherent in modern information and graphics technologies beyond simply digitizing documents and assembling databases (not that the importance of those should be minimized in any way). In the chapter, Escott discusses some ambitious longitudinal studies underway, underscoring the value of highly promising current work in mapping human actions and behaviors using layered geospatial data and spatiotemporal mapping software techniques. He specifically cites the fascinating work of Andrew Fialka (unfortunately presented as Failka throughout) and the insights it has already produced in our evolving understanding of guerrilla warfare in Missouri*. Recognizing the importance of visual learning, the author appreciates the usefulness of sophisticated animated maps of all kinds to vividly illustrate changes over time and even make new discoveries not discernible, or at least not easily perceptible, through the use of more traditional means of document research. The innovation possibilities are endless. For the future, Escott suggests the need for even more cooperation and data sharing; voluntary standardization of both databases and software tools (pipe dreams as those might be); the creation of a registry of digital humanities programs and projects; a central repository or repositories for scanned documents, databases, and digital projects; accelerated digitization; development of more open source software; and increased funding—all laudable goals.

Rethinking the Civil War Era is not primarily aimed at the general reading audience, but serious enthusiasts will surely find some topics to pursue that they might not have previously considered. The volume should prove quite useful for graduate students seeking thesis and dissertation topics, and certainly Escott's established colleagues could also benefit from his research suggestions.

* - See Fialka's chapter in The Civil War Guerrilla: Unfolding the Black Flag in History, Memory, and Myth (2015).

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