Friday, May 26, 2006

Not a Fan

Wilfred McClay does not like Douglas Brinkley or his new book on Hurricane Katrina. A sample:

Let me confess that I haven't read all of the writings of Douglas Brinkley. I doubt that anyone -- perhaps not even Mr. Brinkley himself -- has ever done that. He is a veritable ... deluge of literary productivity, with books to his credit on a dizzying array of subjects, ranging from Beat poetry to Jimmy Carter, and from Henry Ford to, most recently, the failed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Indeed, the range of his literary productions is so wide as to seem indiscriminate. But his bestknown writings seem to have three things in common.

First and foremost is their relentless mediocrity. I cannot think of a historian or public intellectual who has managed to make himself so prominent in American public life without having put forward a single memorable idea, a single original analysis, or a single lapidary phrase -- let alone without publishing a book that has had any discernable impact. Mr. Brinkley is, to use Daniel Boorstin's famous words, a historian famous for being well-known.

Second is their sloppiness, partly an inevitable product of the haste in their composition, and partly, one suspects, of a mind that becomes easily bored by careful, close analysis. Mr. Brinkley's views may always track the conventional wisdom, but you would never want to rely on his books as sources of accurate detail. Would you trust a writer who trades on his intimate knowledge of the Gulf South, and yet claims at one point (page 548) that a tired-looking President Bush could not have been jetlagged because "Washington was in the same time zone as Mobile"?

Third, and perhaps most important, is their political agenda, although the word "political" does not quite do the matter justice. Better to say that Brinkley always seems to be seeking someone's favor in what he writes.Which is to say that he has the moral instincts of a court historian. And this means that the would-be patron holds the key to the book's real meaning.

(Hat tip to No Left Turns.)


Jim said...

A good summary of Brinkley's works. He is not so much prolific as he is incontinent.

jc said...

I lost all respect for Brinkley as a historian, when I reviewed "Tour of Duty" for Prof. Mattson's CHI 601 class.....