Accurate History— Who Decides?

There is a fascinating article in today’s New York Times that really gets to the heart of one of the struggles we, who are not trained historians, deal with when evaluating historical books for children. The article addresses the controversy going on regarding Henry Wieneck’s new book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.  According to the article, the book is getting rave reviews from “nonspecialists.”

But the Jefferson scholars who have weighed in have subjected “Master of the Mountain” (published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) to a fierce barrage of criticism, blasting away at Mr. Wiencek’s evidence, interpretations and claims to originality. Reviewing the book in Slate, Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor of history and law at Harvard and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning study “The Hemingses of Monticello,” declared that it “fails as a work of scholarship,” recklessly misreading documents and dismissing other scholars in pursuit of a “journalistic obsession with ‘the scoop.’ ” Jan Ellen Lewis, a historian at Rutgers University, writing in The Daily Beast, was even blunter, denouncing the book as a “train wreck,” written by a man “so blinded by his loathing of Thomas Jefferson that he can’t see” contrary evidence “right in front of his eyes.”

I recommend reading the whole article as well as the reviews it links to.  Hard to know what to think because there is a lot of fury going on.  Wow.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Accurate History— Who Decides?

  1. abwestrick

    What an interesting article! It’s a reminder of how careful we writers of historical fiction need be with our research. At the same time it’s oddly satisfying to read the controversy and embrace the contradictions with which our founding fathers lived—contradictions and complexities that many present-day non-historians ignore when reciting a litany of “Our founding fathers meant X, Y, and Z…” in order to advance their own political platforms.

  2. I, too, was struck by the tone of the critical reviews and the author’s reply to them. They seemed to go beyond different ideas of how to interpret particular documents or any putative difference between academic and popular history. I wrote up my thoughts on Boston 1775 starting here: http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2012/11/debate-over-master-of-mountain.html

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