t_h_s t_h_s t_h_s

ths ths





Joseph S. Lucas and Donald A. Yerxa, Editors
Randall J. Stephens, Associate Editor 

Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

March/April 2007
Volume VIII, Number 4
The Perils and Pleasures of Going “Popular”;
Or My Life as a Loser
Maureen Ogle

The historian reads an email, and then leaps out of her chair, whooping and hollering. According to the message, her new book has:

(A) won the Bancroft prize
(B) been chosen as book-of-the-month by Hustler magazine
(C) been shortlisted for the Pulitzer.

Correct answer: B. In October 2006 I learned that Hustler magazine had selected my new book, Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer, as its book-of-the-month for April 2007.

At this point, many of you are groaning, sneering, or rolling your eyes. (Or, like me when I heard the news, howling with laughter.) That’s okay. But stick with me. I have something useful (I hope) to say about doing history.

First, a bit of background. My formal education came relatively late in life. For most of the time between the ages of 16 and 30 I waited tables, with stints as a janitor, a cab driver, and for four years, a construction worker. Those jobs brought me into constant contact with “the public,” that broad cross section of humanity that, as George Bailey says in It’s a Wonderful Life, does most of the living and working and dying in any given town.

But when I turned 30, I decided to aim for another kind of life, so I tried college again (I’d made one short, bungled attempt at higher education right out of high school). I earned a bachelors degree (University of Iowa, 1985) and, in 1992, a Ph.D. in the history of technology and science from Iowa State University. During graduate school, my mentors routinely pronounced their contempt for “public” historians, denouncing them as losers. It didn’t matter whether those misguided souls worked at a government agency or museum or, worse, wrote “popular” history for the general public. All of it reeked of Pariahville. Real scholars worked in academia, and under no circumstances, they warned, should I consider traveling that other route—unless, of course, I yearned for the life of a loser.

Not me! I loved research and the long hours in the library communing with the documents. After years of punching timeclocks, I longed for a life free of “the boss.” The nirvana of professorhood, that’s what I wanted. I cranked out my tenure book (All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840-1890) and was promptly visited by an unexpected realization: I loathed academia. Nirvana was hell. There were many reasons. I possessed zero ability to navigate the Byzantine terrain of departmental and university politics. Even worse, my job and my husband’s were at two different universities and more than a thousand miles apart.

But a more fundamental issue plagued my heart: academic history demanded that I focus on narrow-bordering-on-arcane topics; that I publish my work in scholarly journals and academic presses with readerships of six; that I dwell in a universe far removed from the messy bustle of the rest of the world. The isolation that I loved—sitting in a library for hours—felt toxic when writ large as the community of academic historians. Moreover, and to my dismay, my colleagues shared my grad school mentors’ contempt for the public. Oh, sure, professional organizations praised the job of providing the content of K-12 history textbooks. But that sounded and felt to me like lip service. A nuisance en route to the main event: cranking out more journal articles and monographs for that always-important audience of six.

The consequences of the disconnect between historians and the public were obvious every time I walked into a classroom. There they sat, the youth of America, high in the 1990s on MTV and Walkmans (and nowadays on cellphones and iPods). They viewed the world through a lens shaped by music videos and sitcoms (nowadays, an even narrower lens of instant messaging and wireless Internet). Most of them had no knowledge of the past, American or otherwise, and even less interest in amassing any. Not that I blamed them, given that their previous encounters with history consisted primarily of memorizing names and dates.

I experienced another disconnect when I visited the chain bookstores that proliferated, mushroomlike, in the 1980s and 1990s. The stores’ history sections were huge, but most of the titles had been written by journalists. Works by professional historians—with a few notable exceptions—consisted of dense, footnoted books destined to be read by a handful of people on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and become the subject of ponderous musings in the New York Review of Books. Where, I wondered, was the intersection between academia and the rest of the reading public?

And where, I wondered, lay my own connection to the public? I recognized that academic history serves a purpose. Historians uncover the facts and documents that enable human beings to reconstruct and understand the past. More important, the amassed detail fuels inspiration: a particularly brilliant scholar surveys and masters “the literature” and constructs a new paradigm, demolishing entrenched ideas about a historical event or moment, and creating an alternative interpretation that provides work and excitement for another generation of graduate students.

But most of us aren’t paradigm-shakers-and-shapers. Most of us toil in private gardens, harvesting meager fruits and fashioning them into articles, then adding the groundcover and fill necessary to construct a monograph. That wasn’t what I wanted. Perhaps I simply wasn’t smart enough. Perhaps too many years of hammering nails and joking with dishwashers and busboys had rendered me unfit for the academy. I only knew that I was suffering an intellectual crisis in reverse: Given the academy’s isolation, my efforts seemed pointless. I wanted to work with the general public. I wanted people outside the university to care about the past, to embrace it. I wanted awareness of history to rival that of pop culture. I wanted everyone to understand that if we recognize that the past is different from the present, then it follows that the future is ours to shape.

In 1999 I resigned my university position and joined the ranks of the losers.


I faced a mountain-sized learning curve. As an academic, I had mastered a particular set of rules: the “literature” runs the show; lively prose is irrelevant (and, in some circles, marks you as someone who is stumbling toward Pariahville); narrative, despite Lawrence Stone’s plea, matters not at all.

In my new career, none of that applied. The public doesn’t care about “the literature.” The public doesn’t care what’s au courant in the ivy tower and which trends have gone the way of the dodo. The public is interested in only two things: that the history they read contain a lively narrative—a story—and that the person telling the story be honest. (Well, that last is stretching things a bit. In recent years, two of popular history’s biggest stars were/are plagiarists, and it hasn’t hurt their sales in the least.)

So up the mountain I trekked, learning to write a new kind of history. I hunted for the story buried amid the facts. I struggled to craft sentences that—gasp!—contained active verbs and narratives based on real human beings, many of them—bigger gasp!—dead white males. But I refused to abandon my primary mission: to bring well-researched, well-documented, well-reasoned history to non-academic readers. To that end, I plowed through reams of primary documents, spent months sitting in front of microfilm readers, shelled out money traveling to archives and libraries. I wanted my books to land on the front table at Barnes & Noble, but I wanted them to contain the same scholarly research as a monograph read by six.

Not that I expected anyone to notice. Seven or so years into this new venture, I know that the average reader doesn’t grasp the difference between a primary document and a secondary source, and is unaware of the difference between a local public library and the one found at a university, or for that matter between a library and Google. I knew from the beginning that academic historians would dismiss my work (assuming they noticed it at all) as that of a sellout loser. I didn’t care. It was their loss if they resisted using, for example, my book Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer (Harcourt, 2006) as assigned reading in their courses.

No, not their loss: their students’ loss. With luck, of course, undergraduates take courses from professors who give a damn about whether they come away with any understanding of history. But mostly they struggle with eye-glazing survey textbooks and monographs loaded with footnotes and debates over the literature. Eventually they give up on the assigned reading, books and articles for which they have no background and of which they cannot hope to make sense—at least not during the sixteen weeks of a semester in which they’re distracted by other coursework, the opposite sex, e-mail, and alcohol.

Okay, I’m overstating the case, but if my thirteen years in academia taught me anything, it is that undergraduates are the last thing on most professors’ minds. Well, next to last, the non-college-going public being the true last thing.

So here I am, a one-woman missionary bringing history to the people. That means getting up at 5 a.m. to do two minutes on local TV talk shows; doing ten- or twenty-minute interviews on drive-time radio, trying to convey the story that is history; talking to an audience of five (if I’m lucky) at a bookstore signing, and then autographing books afterward while listening to people’s life stories, which may or may not have anything to do with the book I’ve written.

If I’ve learned anything in the process, it is that the disconnect between the history profession and “the people” runs deep and wide. Consider the concept of “historical significance.” When I was still in the classroom, I started each semester of each survey course by explaining why Christopher Columbus, for example, mattered more than the northern European fishermen who preceded him to the New World, and why, in looking at 16th-century North America, we’d focus on the Atlantic seaboard colonies instead of the French trappers who paddled the Mississippi River. My students grasped the difference between the historically significant and the insignificant because I was there to explain it to them. Now I’m trying to do the same for the general public.

There are plenty of opportunities. When I give a talk on my beer book, someone will ask me why I didn’t include Brewery X that existed between 1859 and 1863. And why did I spend so much time on Messrs. Busch and Pabst to the exclusion of Mr. Z, whose family owned a brewery for fifty years in a town of 2,000 in Idaho and who sold a mere 2,000 barrels a year, all of it locally? I explain that between 1865 and 1890 Busch and Pabst transformed small family-owned shops into the two largest breweries in the world. They mechanized the brewing process and redefined the beer itself. They are historically significant. Mr. Z and Brewery X are not. Were Mr. Z and his colleague X good guys? Sure. Did they have an impact on their family’s lives? Yes. But their lives and work were saplings that never filled out, and I’m trying to show my readers the significant trees that matured and shaped the forest.

Another example. The most frequent question from readers is: Why does the book open in 1844? Why not in the colonial period? How could I leave out Ben Franklin’s recipe for spruce beer and Thomas Jefferson’s homebrewing operation run by slaves? Answer: It’s true that during the colonial period people brewed beer at home. But it ran a distant second to rum, which possessed extraordinary historical significance, both as a beverage and as an engine of the colonial economy. Rum deserves a book of its own. But in a history of beer in America, colonial brewing is entitled only to what it received in my book: a paragraph.

The toughest—and most interesting—part of my job unfolds when my passion for good research collides with the public’s passion for its own version of the past. For example, ask someone to name two facts about the history of beer in America and you’ll likely receive one of two replies. First, the Mayflower landed when and where it did because its crew and passengers had run out of beer. Therefore, the argument goes, beer was of primary importance to the development of colonial America. Second, after World War II, giant brewing companies began adding corn and rice to their beers in order to reduce production costs. The result was a colorless, bland swill foisted off on an unwilling public.

Of those two examples, the first contains some truth: William Bradford commented in his diary that he and other leaders aboard the Mayflower decided to seek land when they did in part because the company was running out of beer and other foodstuffs. Smart move, that. After all, human beings need liquids in order to survive. It doesn’t follow, however, that beer was paramount in their minds. What mattered was finding something, anything, for hydration. Beer only mattered because it was a way to sterilize otherwise unsafe water. When it ran out, the travelers landed so that they could find the materials needed to transform water into a potable beverage. In short, the location of the Mayflower landing was connected to beer only in that the people on board needed fluids. That’s the beginning, the middle, and the end of it. There is no other grand historical significance to Bradford’s comment and thus no compelling reason to include that particular moment in my account of American beer.

The other example is more contentious and controversial. When I started working on the beer book, dozens of people told me the tale of the post-World War II brewers who ruined the American beer industry. In an effort to cut costs, they  used corn and rice to dilute their product. It’s repeated in the handful of other beer histories (most of them written by beer enthusiasts and consisting of second- and third-hand anecdotes rather than substantive research). Just one problem: It’s not true. My research revealed that German-immigrant brewers began adding corn and rice to beer not in the 1950s but in the 1860s. They did so not to lower their costs, but in order to make a light-bodied, translucent beer. Why? Because non-German-speaking Americans rarely drank beer (preferring whiskey or teetotaling), and they turned up their noses at the brewers’ heavy, opaque, Bavarian, all-malt lagers. They would switch to beer only if it was light in color and light on their stomachs. Beermakers satisfied this segment of consumers by mixing barley with corn or rice to create a lemon-colored, translucent, nearly effervescent lager. The new beer transformed Americans’ drinking habits, reshaped the brewing industry, and made Adolphus Busch and Frederick Pabst rich and famous.

That revelation does not sit well with the segment of readers who are devoted to the so-called craft beers brewed these days by local microbreweries. They view Big Brewers (Coors, Miller, Anheuser-Busch) as the enemy and the microbrewing Davids as the men and women who rescued American beer from the Goliaths’ clutches. They don’t want to hear my alternative version of events, and sometimes attack me for presenting it. I’ve been called everything from a neoconservative to a paid mouthpiece for Anheuser-Busch to a “Feminazi.”

I don’t quite see the connection between neoconservatism and this particular set of historical facts, but given historians’ unwillingness to engage with the public, it’s no surprise that some readers resist the intrusion of accurate history into their myths. After all, they’ve had few opportunities to talk to a working historian.

But that’s part of the peril—and pleasure—of writing popular history: I tamper with the public’s cherished beliefs at my own risk. But in doing so, I engage my fellow citizens and, with any luck, inspire (or provoke!) them to learn more about what history is and means. The monetary rewards are slim to none (my professor-husband—who loves academia—pays the mortgage and buys the food). But professionally and emotionally the payoff is enormous. If nothing else, I’m writing for an audience larger than six. The impact I have on one person here, another there, affects their lives and mine.

I may not persuade other historians to join my cause. That’s okay. But perhaps I’ve given some of you pause. Perhaps you understand now why I’m thrilled that the folks at Hustler chose my book for the magazine’s club. If nothing else, it means my engagement with the public will continue—once, that is, that magazine’s readers get past the pictures.

In addition to Ambitious Brew, Maureen Ogle is the author of Key West: History of an Island of Dreams (University Press of Florida, 2003) and All the Modern Conveniences: American Household Plumbing, 1840-1890 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996). Her current project is Carnivore Nation: The History of Meat in America (Harcourt, forthcoming).

Join the Historical Society and subscribe to Historically Speaking

The Historical Society, 656 Beacon Street, Mezzanine, Boston, MA 02215 | Tele: (617) 358-0260, Fax: (617) 358-0250
                                                         © The Historical Society | web design by Randall J. Stephens | v. 10/26/05t