Yet another “last” big synthesis… until the next one

Big books, especially syntheses.  Nobody writes them anymore.  We’re all pretty much agreed about that.  In fact, I recently turned in a book review (to appear this spring in Common-Place) of one, the author of which makes a point of how rare they have become, like unicorns whose left eye is brown, right eye is blue, and wears size-ten Chuck Taylors.  There’s only one problem with this conventional wisdom: it’s not true.

As historians have lamented in print — most famously Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto — and around water coolers, and as Slaughter himself points out, grand synthetic narratives, those books bringing together large swaths of scholarship in a sweeping interpretation of a major historical event or phenomenon are out of fashion (admittedly, the History Manifesto is about much more than that, but narrowness of scope is one of Guldi & Armitage’s main bugbears)..

The only problem with this contention on the death of the big, sweeping book that I can see is the counter-evidence on so many bookshelves.  Just among early American historians over the past decade or so, consider the impressive scope in terms of coverage (chronological, geographic, or both) of the following:

Alan S. Taylor, American Colonies, and his much-anticipated soon-to-be-released sequel, American Revolutions

Cynthia A. Kierner, Jennifer R. Loux, Megan Taylor Shockley, Changing History: Virginia Women Through Four Centuries

David Hackett Fischer, Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies, New Zealand and the United States (and we could pick others of his, too)

Joan Gundersen, To Be Useful to the World: Women in Revolutionary America, 1740-1790

Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America

Colin Calloway: One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark 

Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1780-1815

Claudio Saunt, West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776

There are any number of others; these are just a few off the top of my head.  Interesting that most of them are by men.  Is it that men have more hubris to write such books?  More opportunity at R1 institutions?  Maybe I have a blind spot and there are just as many by women?  But I digress.

There’s no question that we’re specializing more overall, or at least, I think there isn’t.  We have more access to so many more sources, both physical and electronic, to so much more secondary literature, and have shorter and shorter time-spans in which to produce.  There’s more competition, and the bar is higher.  Plus scholars have many more demands on our time than those of several decades ago or more: we’re asked to do much more teaching and service, we spend more time with our families, we do things like write blogs, etc.  Heck, according to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, nobody even writes big dissertations anymore.  Yes, dissertations tend to cover shorter periods, and they have to, given the increased pressures for time to degree, on the one hand, and higher expectations for scholarship on the other.  But that’s another story.

Regardless, we’ll always have big synthetic works for three simple reasons: many historians want to write them, publishers like them, and they sell.  None of those factors seems likely to change anytime soon.

The big synthesis is dead.  Long live the big book.




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