Popular history

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Popular history is a broad and somewhat ill-defined genre of historiography that takes a popular approach, aims at a wide readership, and usually emphasizes narrative, personality and vivid detail over scholarly analysis. The term is used in contradistinction to professional academic or scholarly history writing which is usually more specialized and technical and, thus, less accessible to the general reader.

Some popular historians are without academic affiliation while others are academics, or former academics, that have (according to one writer) "become somehow abstracted from the academic arena, becoming cultural commentators".[1] Many worked as journalists, perhaps after taking an initial degree in history.

Popular historians may become nationally renowned or best-selling authors and may or may not serve the interests of particular political viewpoints in their roles as "public historians". Many authors of "official histories" and "authorized biographies" would qualify as popular historians serving the interests of particular institutions or public figures.

Popular historians aim to appear on the "general lists" of general publishers, rather than the university presses that have dominated academic publishing in recent years. Increasingly, popular historians have taken to television where they are able, often accompanying a series of documentaries with a tie-in book.


Recent examples of American popular historians with academic affiliations include Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Pauline Maier. Non-academics include Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, David McCullough, Daniel Boorstin and Barbara Tuchman.

Recent examples of British popular historians who are also academics include Niall Ferguson, Christopher Hibbert and Simon Schama, and – from a previous generation – Eric Hobsbawm, Paul Johnson, E. P. Thompson, A. J. P. Taylor (an early pioneer of history on television) and Christopher Hill. Much of Hugh Trevor-Roper's output was also directed at a popular audience.

John Julius Norwich, Nirad Chaudhuri, Ramchandra Guha, Charles Allen and Tariq Ali are popular historians who have never been academics.

See also[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Wilentz, Sean, "America Made Easy: David McCullough, John Adams, and the Decline of Popular History, The New Republic, 2 July 2001.
  • Lepore, Jill, "Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography", Journal of American History, 88 (June 2001): 129-44.
  • Pfitzer, Gregory M. (2008), Popular History and the Literary Marketplace, 1840-1920, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
  • "The Public Historian - A Conversation with Jill Lepore". Humanities Magazine. September–October 2009.