Popular history

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Popular history is a broad 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.


It is proposed that popular history is a "moral science" in the sense that recreates the past not only for its own sake but also to underscore how history could facilitate an ethically responsible present.[1] Some view it as history produced by authors who are better interlocutors capable of translating the language of scientificity to ordinary everyday language.[2]

Some scholars partly attributed the development of popular history to the increase of writers-turned-historians such as Benson Lossing, David Pae, and Mary Botham Howitt, who wrote historical events "in good style" and, thus, more appealing to the public.[1]

Popular historians[edit]

Some popular historians are without academic affiliation while others are academics, or former academics, who have (according to one writer) "become somehow abstracted from the academic arena, becoming cultural commentators."[3] 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 Daniel J. Boorstin, Stephen E. Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Pauline Maier.

Recent examples of British popular historians who are also academics include Niall Ferguson, Mary Beard, Christopher Hibbert, Tom Holland, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Simon Schama, and – from a previous generation – Eric Hobsbawm, Paul Johnson, E. P. Thompson, A. J. P. Taylor (a pioneer of history on television) and Christopher Hill. Much of Hugh Trevor-Roper's output was also directed at a popular audience. There is also Stella Tillyard and her work Aristocrats, which combined scholarly research with the popular method of presentation.[4]

Non academics[edit]

American non-academics include Walter Lord, Bruce Catton, Dan Carlin, Shelby Foote, David McCullough, Max Cutler, Ron Cutler, and Barbara W. Tuchman.

John Julius Norwich, Charles Allen, and Tariq Ali are popular British historians who have never been academics.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Pfitzer, Gregory M. (2008). Popular History and the Literary Marketplace, 1840-1920. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press. pp. 40, 41. ISBN 978-1-55849-625-5.
  2. ^ Korte, Barbara; Paletschek, Sylvia (2014-03-31). Popular History Now and Then: International Perspectives. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag. p. 17. ISBN 978-3-8376-2007-8.
  3. ^ De Groot, Jerome (2009), Consuming History: Historians and Heritage in Contemporary Popular Culture, Routledge, pg 15.
  4. ^ Heinen, Sandra; Sommer, Roy (2009-09-04). Narratology in the Age of Cross-Disciplinary Narrative Research. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. p. 228. ISBN 978-3-11-022242-5.

Further reading[edit]