AHA Public History Coordinator Debbie Ann Doyle reported from the National Council on Public History annual meeting in Pensacola this past April 6–9, 2011. See her previous posts, which included details of plenary session on the Civil War Sesquicentennial and discussions on international public history.
The second public plenary at the NCPH conference, on Saturday, April 9, featured author Tony Horwitz reflecting on the relationship between academic and popular history. Horwitz, best known for Confederates in the Attic, recently completed a manuscript about John Brown, Midnight Rising, which is more grounded in archival research than his previous work. Citing an article by Sean Wilentz, he referred to himself as a “journalist semi-pro historian” who writes for the popular audience that professional historians fail to reach. He strives for a light and lively authorial voice to engage the reader. Scholarly historians, constrained by the realities of the academic reward system, must often write for an audience of their peers. Despite this, Horwitz argued, they share common concerns. Both must identify reliable sources to tell their story, and, more important, both strive to “recover the strangeness of the past.”
Horwitz asserted that the two styles are symbiotic, jokingly admitting that “In some ways I’m a freeloader,” incorporating the insights of scholarly literature into his popular histories. He expressed admiration for the complex analysis of professional historians, noting that he is “haunted by the possibility of oversimplifying history.”
His reflections were a fitting conclusion to a conference where historians discussed the many challenges of interpreting a complex, ambiguous, and frequently unpleasant past to the public without pandering and without alienating the audience.