OK, I’m not in a snarky mood, but since I wrote last week about the five books on Lincoln’s assassination that you should have, today I’ve decided to write on one you should avoid.
I’m fully aware there is more than one that should be avoided, but the one I’m writing about today outclasses them all. Be prepared, because at 3,248 words, this is the longest post I’ve ever written.
Gresham’s Law states that bad money drives out good money. In terms of Lincoln’s assassination, it means that the bad books often drives out or obscures the good (a point made by William Hanchett in the Lincoln Murder Conspiracies).
James Swanson’s Manhunt fits that category to a “T”. When the book first came out, I had a friend who couldn’t understand why I was so angry about it. I wrote a review so he could find out. Here, in a somewhat altered form, is why you should avoid this book.
James Swanson is a talented writer, although his prose sometimes borders (and many times completely somersaults into) the purple. Manhunt has sold several hundred thousand copies and has appeared on several bestseller lists. Whether it belonged there is open to doubt.
Vocational and avocational historians have waged war for years as to who is the most qualified to write history. When Herbert Baxter Adams introduced the seminar at Johns Hopkins University at the end of the 1870s, professional historians sought to displace such popularizers as Edward Gibbons and Francis Parkman in the public mind. Adams and those university-trained historians who followed have consistently railed against popular histories which flout the rules of rigorous scholarship.
While there is certainly nothing wrong with popular history–indeed its creation should be cultivated and nourished–academics are correct to point out that popular history which mocks the rules of scholarship always results in bad history. The story is told based on the available evidence, of which the greater part must be primary and not secondary. Where direct primary evidence is unavailable, generalizations can be made with ancillary material, but it is done with caution, not recklessness. Nothing is invented! Scenes are not contrived, and, to rework an old newspaper saw, the facts do get in the way of a good story. Finally, and most critically, all sources are cited in notes which gives readers the opportunity to read those sources for themselves.
When Swanson sticks to what’s known, even if the details can be debated, his writing style breathes life into those findings in a way other writers can only envy. Unfortunately, when his eye for the dramatic gets the best of him, as it often does in Manhunt, Swanson provides academic critics with more ammunition.
While Swanson’s book is the first to focus solely on the hunt for John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators, he breaks no new ground here. Most of his sources have been deeply mined by previous scholars who focused on the broad picture of Lincoln’s assassination, many of whom Swanson relies heavily on (and gives credit to). While Swanson uses Thomas Jones’ account of Booth’s escape effectively, his obvious admiration for the Confederate courier and “river ghost” is misplaced. Not wanting to go to the point of making Booth the anti-hero that any riveting drama needs, Jones serves Swanson well as Booth’s stand-in. While Jones’ account of how he helped Booth does indeed raise the dramatic level evident throughout the book, Swanson ignores that but for Jones, Booth could have been captured before he crossed the Potomac. In Swanson’s hands, Jones is a dashing and dramatic rogue, but in the real world Jones was first and foremost a criminal who should have been executed with Lewis Paine, Mary Surratt, David Herold and George Atzerodt. Read the rest of this entry »