What is “Dad History”? Giving a Label to a Popular Genre of History Writing

undauntedAbout  a week ago, there was an active post on the r/History subreddit about “Dad History.” Some of the responses suggest that the original post had just coined the term “Dad History”, and this may very well be the case, because I find little use of the term elsewhere online. Dad History is mostly “Blokes, boats and battles” the post said, “a lot of biographies of generals, kings, and presidents, as well as deep constructions of battles.”

As with any new coinage, it’s hard to find complete agreement about what Dad History is.  To me, Dad History is a genre of history, almost entirely in book form, written for your average dad, but particularly designed for American men older than 50.  The books are physically and aesthetically quite similar. A Dad History book is hardcover, 300+ pages, with high color contrast between the font on the cover and the background image. As with novels from popular writers, the name of the author is featured prominently on the cover of Dad History books. These are books generally written by older white men who work as independent scholars, not university professors. Most, but not all of the writers are politically right-of-center. Dad History authors include David McCullough, Nathaniel Philbrick, Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Brian Kilmeade, and Stephen Ambrose (probably the godfather of Dad History).

Dad History is a genre of history that sells millions of books a year. And yet, there is, as far as I can tell, no academic history class, no dissertation, not even a published peer-reviewed article devoted to understanding Dad History as a phenomenon. As I see it, Dad History as a separate genre of history developed in response to a demand for old-fashioned blood and guts narratives of “Great Men” that are no longer taught in schools or universities. Dad History might be seen as an off-shoot of traditional political history, which mostly focused on powerful men who determined the course of the world.  For a century, political history was academic history, or at least it dominated the field. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, political history became unfavorable as new social and cultural historians reshaped the field.

Dad History runs in a different direction than academic history. While academic historians are looking more towards incorporating women and people of color, Dad History is mostly white and male. Academic dissertations have to be narrow, and nowadays they always seem to have to focus on the “intersection” of one thing and another. Academics used to write dissertations about “The Diplomatic Relations of Prussia and Austria from 1847 to 1853,” but now they write dissertations about things like “The Intersection of Art and Politics in Transnational St. Louis.”  Dad History books, meanwhile, are about topics that could never be approved as dissertations because they are too broad, too general, and too well-known. Dad History books can be about any President, but not the boring ones like Cleveland, Fillmore, or Taft.  They can be about The Alamo, because that’s pretty manly, or baseball, of course, and Generals – especially George Patton – , and almost anything about the Second World War.

The relationship between Dad History and academic history has not been well-thought out. One redditor called it a path towards critical history, or “real” history as some in the thread called academic history.  Another called Dad History “entry-level” history.  I think Dad History can be academic in the sense that it adheres to critical methods, traditional footnoting, and balanced arguments. But a lot of Dad History is more concerned with telling a compelling story than in showing nuances or “both sides” of a story. Dad’s  (not all father’s out there, but the readers of Dad History) want their stories straightforward. There should be good guys and bad guys, and the more the good guys look like and sound like themselves, the better. In general, the topics are of Dad History are serious and the research is thorough, if not always very original. While television history shows turn towards the occult, the mysterious, and the extraterrestrial for explanations, Dad History roots cause and effect in the decisions of real men. Dad History, then, sets itself up as an honest, serious alternative to the now culturally dominant nonsense of the History Channel.

I don’t think Dad History is the same as popular history, but the former may be a subset of the latter. Many of the redditors who commented on the Dad History post seem to think academic historians are jealous of popular historians, and of course that is true at some superficial level. But in my experience, academic historians are not bothered by popular history and in fact are glad to see it thrive. In all my years in academia, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a history professor complain about popular history (although from time to time I like to joke about “the team of researchers that is David McCullough.”) So I think there is quite an illusion that academics are jealous of successful outsiders. It’s part of the myth that academics are stodgy and boring and afraid of new, different things, and that we are eternally gatekeeping and worried about losing our ground to amateurs. In reality, we are quite busy looking for the new and interesting, but it’s not that easy to turn new discoveries into popular books, for the simple fact that only so many books can be or will be successful on the market.

I’ve been asked a few times when I will publish a popular history book. I usually respond by saying that if everyone who asked me that would just buy my last book, it would be a popular history book. Well, for every successfull popular history book, there are probably a thousand books that mimic the style but find no success, no popularity whatsoever. An academic book, tending to be more narrow, aims to contribute something small to the bigger picture. A popular history book, generally written with wide parameters, is seldom directed towards introducing new knowledge but instead presents what academic historians already know albeit in more readable form. The number of successful popular historians is quite small and the path to success seems more difficult than simply finding an academic job that pays the bills while one can produce academic history articles and books on the side.

From the perspective of an academic, what could be so bad about Dad History? First of all, these books typically have little historiography or nuance, so they can deliver an illusion of certainty. Some of the books are just too full of facts with little analysis. While Dad History places narrative over analysis in its chosen style, the narrative can sometimes be overloaded with names, dates, and digits. Since the books tend to be long, the reading becomes cumbersome, and I have to imagine that most Dad History book purchases are never read from cover to cover. Is Dad history mostly or entirely for entertainment? Yes, it may be. Does it promote nationalism and tribalism? Certainly. Is it all bad?  Not at all. Have I enjoyed a few Dad History books in the past? You bet.

As it stands, very little is known about the origins and development of Dad History, about how and why it became so successful. An enterprising, creative historian out there should investigate when Dad History began and why. Was the rise of Dad History books purely market-driven or was this the kind of history that a sub-set of historians always wanted to write?

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: academic historians are actually quite limited it what they are allowed to study and write about. They can write about Chinese history, for example, but not Indonesia or Oceania, if they want to get a job teaching at a university. Historians of Europe are allowed to study France, Russia, Germany, and England, but generally not Spain, the Netherlands, or Italy, and certainly not anything smaller or to the east of those. There are entire forms of history that are almost completely unexplored by academic historians. Neo-confederate history, as loathsome as it is, is one example of a large set of history that is unstudied. Dad History deserves to be studied and better understood by academics.

2 comments

  1. Before I read your explanation of Dad History I thought it might be a name for the internet record of a father, done mostly for the benefit of grandchildren. Letters, resume, etc put on blogspot. Do you have a historian’s advice for those who are making a posthumous family record?

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    1. Hello Ellen. A digital family record is a good idea, and that way you might be able to gather materials more quickly from more family members. But, if you want to preserve physical materials for the much longer term, you should look into buying some archival quality materials, like acid-free folders and mylar plastic covers. Everything an organized person could ever want can be found in the catalog of the Hollinger archival company. They will be happy to send you a free catalog. https://www.hollingermetaledge.com/ If you have a more specific question or interest, I’ll try to answer it.

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