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From the President's column in the November 2001 Perspectives

The American Historical Review

Wm. Roger Louis, December 2001

In the days following the attacks in New York and Washington, I found solace in a book. It is the new and outstanding biography of Churchill by Geoffrey Best. I am not an unqualified admirer of Churchill. But this is a moving book that, in about 350 pages, offers a balanced and perceptive interpretation of Churchill's life without losing critical judgment or scholarly standards. It is detailed, yet the argument or overarching theme is always clear. As I read it on the way to pay a visit to the editor and staff of the American Historical Review in Bloomington, I found myself asking the question: "Would this book be reviewed in the AHR?" The answer—at least the first one that came to my mind—was: "Not by a long shot." It is a work of synthesis that draws mainly on published sources and secondary literature. Yet it is a type of reflective book that I would like to see reviewed in the AHR if only because it adds to the scholarly debate on how to assess Churchill's life. Those thoughts led me to ask, "What is the standard by which the AHR accepts books for review?" Perhaps the journal is now less categorical? Might the Churchill book, for example, now be accepted for review whereas, say, a decade ago, it would have been rejected because it did not fall into the category of an original monograph?

My motive for making the trip to Bloomington was simply to thank those at Indiana University for providing a home for the AHR and those in charge of the AHR for producing a journal that is the pride of the AHA. The present editor, Michael Grossberg, has transformed the AHR into a journal that can be read for the pleasure or adventure of ideas as well as for detailed historical analysis and empirical research. While his achievement rests on the foundations laid by previous editors—to mention only his immediate predecessors, David Ransel and Otto Pflanze—Michael Grossberg's own imprint on the AHR is clear and significant. The AHR is aesthetically pleasing, not least in the color plates that adorn the cover. It is a journal that deals with the history of all periods and all parts of the world. It manages to keep a balance between and within different fields. In short, the AHR stands at the forefront of our profession.

That is extravagant praise, but entirely deserved. I reflected on the way to Indiana that in times of crisis we think of the things we cherish. As historians we have every right to pause and reflect on how fortunate we are to have the AHR. But, having paid tribute, I also wish to offer a few points of criticism, or at least discuss complaints I have heard about the journal. I do so because as president of the AHA I do not feel that I would be doing my job if I did not venture some constructive criticism. In the past month or so, I have been discovering what members think about the AHR. There was nothing scientific about this inquiry; it evolved from normal e-mail correspondence. It included a fair sample of historians of all ranks and certainly of diverse backgrounds, and from different types of colleges or universities. I've exchanged ideas with community college teachers and high school teachers as well as public historians and university research professors, with graduate students as well as area experts, and with anyone else who happened to cross my path, including former presidents of the AHA.

My first conclusion is that there is general satisfaction with the quality and diversity of the articles. Historians are a contrary-minded breed, and it is easy to find dissent from the view that the articles have a high standard and general interest, but I use my own instinct in judging that they are not unduly opaque. If I can understand the thrust of the analysis and follow the argument in points of detail, then I assume that the article can be generally understood. I find myself reading or at least browsing through more and more of the articles simply out of curiosity at what might be going on in different fields, and what might be regarded as trends in historical interpretation. For my taste there are not enough articles in the traditional fields of economic, military, or political history. Yet I know that the editor and the editorial board have an open mind on these and other matters, and that they give all submissions fair-minded consideration. The editor actively encourages and sometimes even commissions articles instead of waiting for manuscripts to come in over the transom. I believe that commissioned articles have raised the general standard of the AHR. As one who writes for the Times Literary Supplement (or used to, alas, when I had the time), I think there is room for improvement in making the overall style more concise, clear, and crisp. Yet the AHR usually eschews jargon and is generally comprehensible. I can attest on the basis of my own experience that the copyediting skills of Allyn Roberts, one of the two assistant editors, bear favorable comparison to those of the best copyeditors in our discipline, and that she helps to make the articles both readable and stylistically sound. Based on my informal inquiry, I sense that more members of the AHA now actually read the articles, at least from time to time, rather than turning straight to the book review section.

On the way to the book section, the reader probably pauses, at least briefly, to visit such departments as the forums, the film reviews, and the review essays. The forums, I discovered, are held in high esteem by readers of the AHR. Forums always take on subjects that are in one way or another controversial. Sometimes they are historiographical. I wish myself that the historiographical theme—the way in which history is written from one generation to the next—could be buttressed. Following the lead of one of our former presidents, William H. McNeill, I think that there might be room on a fairly regular basis for essays that would consider, perhaps reconsider, seminal or innovative books and articles. Seminal works are often not so regarded at the time of publication (I suspect that Bill McNeill might have had some of his own books in mind). As I looked back on the range of AHR issues over the past hundred years (as I have had to do in preparation for the presidential address), it became clear to me that many of the books we would today regard as especially significant were reviewed perfunctorily at the time. This is understandable not only because it is sometimes difficult to detect originality but because most historians are reluctant to see their work challenged or overturned. More retrospective reviewing or reassessment would, I believe, be of general interest.

I was surprised to find the extent to which the film review section stirs controversy. There are a lot of historians, I discovered, who simply do not like film reviews and think that the AHR could use its scarce space to better advantage. But film reviews will increasingly add to our knowledge of the way movies can help or hinder our understanding of the past and the way they contribute to the spirit of the age. Good film reviews go beyond a quest for historical accuracy. They help us capture the public and private mood as well as the significance of historical episodes regardless of the merit of the film itself.

If the film review section is controversial, the review essays certainly are not. Unanimity is rare among historians, but I detected that everyone likes extended reviews that allow the reviewer to assess multiple books or the work in a general field. The review essays might also be the answer to a problem that arouses anger and passion: the relative lack of attention given in the past by the AHR to collections of essays. I used to agree with these angry and disgruntled critics. Some of the most original historical thought can be found in collaborative works, to which historians often dedicate years of their lives only to find, at least until recently, that they are ignored by the AHR because collected essays "do not lend themselves readily to unified reviews."

The more I studied the problem, however, the more I sympathized with the editorial staff. In the last six years or so the AHR has reviewed a greater number of collaborative works than ever before. There are many historians who still believe that not enough are reviewed, but how many would be enough? Therein lies the dilemma. It comes down in part to constraints of space. The AHR reviews some 1,000 books a year, but each year 4,000–5,000 books reach the office. In short, reviewing more collections and works of synthesis would involve making the difficult decision to nudge out an approximately equal number of original monographs.

I believe that the book review section is based on a sound principle—to give preference to books of empirical research and analytical historical thought—that needs to be upheld. The prominence of the monograph reflects a certain reality: monographic research is at the heart of the historian's discipline. I think, however, that the AHR should continue to be flexible, perhaps become even more so, to range beyond the monograph to review books that cross the borders of traditional fields, to consider more books that help historians see beyond their own areas of specialty, and, in an age of debilitating specialization, to keep us informed—in the reviews as well as the articles—of new developments in historical scholarship. I believe that great strides have recently been made in that direction. Readers of the AHR will have noticed, for example, that there are now many more books in foreign languages being reviewed, and that the reviewers include historians from Europe and other parts of the world. This wider inclusion has raised the consciousness of reviewers to the different ways such essays might be written; that reviews for the AHR do not of necessity have to be—in the words of an historian who has read the journal for many decades—"pedestrian, conformist, and dull." Another historian wrote to me recently that after reading some of the reviews in a recent issue of the AHR he rubbed his eyes in disbelief: he thought he was reading the London Review of Books. This may not be revolutionary, and in some ways I hope it is not, but I think that wit and elegance of expression have as legitimate a place in the AHR as they do in all good journals.

There is absolutely no doubt that the book review section remains, as it always has been, the most controversial section of the AHR. One of the complaints I hear most frequently is that no one ever knows who the reviewers are because they come from such obscure places. This is irrelevant. It is the quality of the review that counts, not the reviewer's institutional affiliation or his or her rank. In the 1970s the AHR, like the AHA itself, underwent a revolution that affected the search for reviewers. The book reviewers of the AHR became more representative of our profession at large. This is certainly a sound and commendable development. But there are certain misperceptions about it that I would like to correct. According to one historian I know, a sort of rotary file was created from which all members of the AHA would, at one time or another, be asked to review. This is not true. There are certain requirements. To review a book one has to have published at least one book and possess knowledge of the subject, but should have had no contact with the book to be reviewed—that is, the prospective reviewer should neither have been listed in the acknowledgments nor cited in the jacket blurbs for the book.

The AHR performs a valuable function by enabling young historians to review, and in this sense the journal runs parallel to the AHA's annual meeting, which serves as a training ground in public speaking, organizing one's thoughts within a short period of time, arguing one's case, and drawing a conclusion. This is also the task of a short review. I want especially to pay tribute to the other assistant editor, Moureen Coulter, who patiently works with authors, correcting their grammar, spelling, and points of style, and in an ever-so-gentle way, offering instruction in how to organize ideas and draw conclusions while adhering to stipulated word limits. This is an invaluable service. Along with the editor, she also makes the critical decisions on what books are selected for review in the AHR. This is an invidious job, but, since it is the book review section that virtually all the subscribers of the AHR actually read, it is a testimony to her skill and judgment that the review section now flourishes as never before.

Which isn't to say that there aren't problems. These are not new issues, but I have recently been reminded of them. The closest I have come to physical assault as AHA president was a few months ago when an historian of India, livid with rage, denounced me for failing to produce more book reviews on India. When I explained that the AHA president has nothing to do with reviews for the AHR, she looked at me in disbelief. I heard a similar complaint by an historian of the Middle East, who pointed out to me that in a recent issue there had been only two or three books reviewed on the region. I have heard the same tale of woe about Africa. In fairness to the AHR staff, things are not as simple as they might seem. Books on Africa, the Middle East, and India often fail to reach the AHR office because the publishers fail to send them. The AHR now writes to request books from publishers throughout the world, not always with success. I think the size of this problem needs to be kept in perspective. In comparison with the AHR of even a decade ago, the journal now reviews substantially more books in underrepresented fields.

The question of reviewing works of synthesis is also not a new issue by any means. The AHR has been directly grappling with this problem for nearly two years. This is a subject to which the Research Division, the AHA Council, and the AHR Board of Editors all give serious attention. In my judgment they are dealing with it in a thoughtful and orderly manner. To give but one example, in the fall of 1999 the editor commissioned an article (which will appear in the February 2002 issue) by Thomas Bender on reviewing works of synthesis. In these deliberations, and in others, the criteria for reviewing, which I mentioned at the outset of this essay, have been refined and clarified. The AHR selects a book for review not so much because of the source material or the nature of the book but the extent to which it contributes to our knowledge of the subject and adds to the scholarly debate about it. It is in this intricate calculus that synthetic works are compared with monographs. The comparison is thus extraordinarily complex. The consequent decisions involve the trade-offs described earlier: the more works of synthesis or collected essays, the fewer the monographs. To answer the question I asked at the beginning, I think that the Churchill book does add to the scholarly debate, but I do not know how it will fare when the complex equation is applied to it.

Our entire discipline of history is in debt to the editor and staff of the AHR for its imaginative historical scope and for its high academic standards. It is truly a journal that embraces all regions of the world at all times, and it strives, at least, to review all historical works of importance. It is readable, it is informative, and it is reliable. It not only spans all fields of history, but it is also the touchstone for developments in historical interpretation. The American Historical Review itself is evidence that the historical profession is thriving in America today.

—Wm. Roger Louis (University of Texas at Austin) is president of the AHA.