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Robert V Remini (1921-2013), RIP

by Carl Wicklander, published


This is actually several days old, but the well-known chronicler of Jacksonian America, who wrote into his late eighties, has died:

"Robert V. Remini, an admired historian best known for his study of Andrew Jackson, including an exhaustive three-volume biography that traced how the seventh president harnessed his populist appeal to wield unusual executive power, died on March 28 in Evanston, Ill. He was 91."

Remini was a competent historian, but certainly a court one. I haven't delved into his Jackson trilogy, but for a graduate seminar I did read his biography on Henry Clay, subtitled "Statesman for the Union." Today, looking back at the term paper I wrote, for which Remini's book was a major source, I could almost shriek. I don't hold the same reverence for my fellow Kentuckian as I did at the time, but Remini's account put literal flesh and bones on the Great Compromiser. It was an enjoyable read, but it probably underestimated Clay's lust for power.

Like David McCullough, Remini was periodically looked down upon by the academic world because he wrote too conversationally, too popularly. Of course, some of that might have been derived from the petty jealousy of scholars struggling to make tenure by publishing often-unreadable, thick tomes for elite publishing houses!

Regardless of how the academy really felt about him, one has to appreciate the narrative power in writers like Remini - a rarity in his profession.

A couple of months ago Harvard's Stephen Walt commented on why academic writing is often a pain in the backside:

"The first problem is that many academics (especially young ones) tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity. If they write long and ponderous sentences and throw in lots of jargon, they assume that readers will be dazzled by their erudition and more likely to accept whatever it is that they are saying uncritically."

What mattered about Remini was not that he wrote uncritically of his subjects, which he tended to do, but that he wrote well. The Jackson Era was an important (and exciting) phase in American history. It was one that saw the development of the modern two-party system, monetary policy, expansionism, and the prelude to civil war. And Remini told it well.

That should be the lesson on Robert V Remini's passing: a call for young writers and history graduate students to emulate him, not as a court historian, but as a popularizer of American history.

The American consensus is changing. With increased acrimony toward today's school system and the academic profession, there is no better time to undermine the established views in favor of newer interpretations. And with those newer interpretations should come writers who can write like Remini, but inspire like our heroes.

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