An evening with “Bud” Robertson, part 2

Posted on March 30, 2013 by


budrobertson5The second great point that struck me while listening to Dr. Robertson was… in him, are we listening to the end of an era? He didn’t say anything about this… it’s just something that came to my mind. I think we are.

Not only are we looking at one of the history community’s living connections with the Centennial, but we are also, I would suggest, looking at the end of an original style of Civil War historian.

In one way, I would define style as… the type of historian who says… “this is a subject and I’m going to tell you about that subject” (person, battle, etc.). I think it’s key to keep in mind that this is the original storyteller version of the historian. This, I would suggest, is… “Bud” Robertson, and he’s very much an artist with that style.

That’s one thing I think we’re seeing an end to (or, perhaps just less  historians who practice this as an “art form”). In that people entering history with Catton, Robertson, and others on their lists of “having reads”, I don’t think the style dies, as mimicking is, for many, a way to start… especially for those who enter the practice without going through the academy. It was actually my start. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see the same folks modify style over the years, as other methodologies are employed (more mimicking… and nothing wrong with that either). I know my style changed, but because the second phase of my learning was as a student cycled through academia.

Still, there is another thing we’re seeing an end to, and I’m getting to that.

I think it goes without saying, methodologies have changed. Some argue for the better (most especially from the academic approach), some… not so much (those who wish to adhere to the traditional, and have resentment for the new approaches). We are in the midst of a stylistic movement (though not “new”) that demands 1) more careful analysis and 2) the ability to be critical (which is sometimes literally defined) of previous historians. Personally, I like both styles, but… not on the “being critical of previous historians” part.

As far as analysis goes…  I like it… but I prefer to take care not to muddy the story with it. Technique is fine to exhibit in a blog post, perhaps, but in writing for print, I find analysis best used as a sidebar, and/or if carefully blended into the narrative without the reader feeling as if he/she’s hit a bump in the road where the analysis begins to be more obvious and distracts from the story. Thanks to my work in my tech comm degree, I’m much more consumed with trying to write in a manner in which the narrative can immerse a reader, and not interject something that distracts from the story. “Please, learn… without realizing you are learning”. In that way, I think I’m still showing my roots… my early years of writing history. And, it only makes sense, as I adopted styles from what I had read… and one of the authors which I read (and I still have my original copy of The Stonewall Brigade, by the way) was “Bud” Robertson.

But, back to that “being critical of previous historians” part. This is where we come to the other “end of an era” point.

In some instances (and yes, I think it’s especially evident in blogging), I’ve seen that tact is a lost art. Actually, I very much love the quote from HBO’s John Adams, in which Benjamin Franklin notes…

 It is perfectly acceptable to insult a man in private and he may even thank you for it afterwards but when you do so publicly, it tends to make them think you are serious.

I’m not saying I haven’t been guilty myself. We’re all human. I would suggest, however, that… much like what we do in the name of being objective (being conscious of the fact that we strive to be objective, though we sometimes fail)… we also hope that we don’t lose the ability of tact and “classiness”, most especially while tackling a subject previous taken on by an earlier historian.

I recall a paper that I wrote, in the late 90s (I started my history MA in ’95, and didn’t return to complete it until ’07… so that in itself made me aware of changes), for a grad level Civil War course, in which I was critical of Jennings Cropper Wise’s The Long Arm of Lee. In short, I said that it was a book right for its time, and that Wise had done an incredible thing in putting it together… but, I suggested (at length) that it was time to revisit the “Long Arm of Lee” in a new work, employing new methodology and, with the ability to bring more data to the table. To be honest, I’ve even said that I’d love to revisit the Stonewall Brigade (with nothing but respect for what Dr. Robertson accomplished with his book) in the same way, though with what I have on my plate, I doubt that I’ll ever take on that project. Again, though I voice the desire to revisit either the Long Arm of Lee or the Stonewall Brigade, it’s not about belittling the previous historian, it’s just that I see other avenues in which to take the subjects. If he/she missed something… at least something that I think he/she missed, I need not point it out as a flaw. I think it’s better to just move ahead without having done so.

Does it make one a better historian to point out what he/she sees as the flaw of the previous historian?

“Look, see… he/she missed this” or “he/she didn’t analyze this in the way that it should have been done.”

I think such approaches are less than classy.

Truth be known… in most cases, the previous works passed the test of their contemporaries. Additionally, the original efforts still merit the honor of a respectable place on the bookshelf, and I have no doubt they won’t sit there with with a dusty “U” around the back-binding, with pages left un-turned.

The art of a storyteller… with class and tact… these are things I see in Dr. Robertson.

As we move forward and try to see the future of the Civil War, I don’t think it’s necessary to do so at the expense of the history field’s past contributors… or those who move into the field having climbed on the shoulders of the traditionalists… or those who try to keep their personal brands free and clear of the “Jerry Springer movement of historians”.

Onward we go…