At a recent two-day booksigning in Jones County, Mississippi, State of Jones co-author, John Stauffer, hurled some serious charges at your Renegade South moderator that must be addressed. According to the November 13, 2009, online edition of the Laurel Leader Call, Professor Stauffer attributed several comments to me that I have never made, and others that are gross exaggerations of what I have said in my critiques of their book (to see my 3-part critique of State of Jones, begin here). Perhaps Mr. Stauffer was simply confused; much as been written about his and Sally Jenkins’s book since its June 23, 2009 release. Let me, then, set the record straight.
First, Mr. Stauffer accuses me of refusing to debate him. The truth is, I have never received any personal communications from Mr. Stauffer–ever–much less an invitation to debate him.
He goes on to accuse me of having labeled him and Ms. Jenkins “Yankees and Carpetbaggers.” I have never made any such remark about them.
Nor have I ever said or written, as Stauffer claims, that Newt Knight was “no friend of blacks.”
I have also never said or written that the writing in State of Jones is “inferior to that of high school students.” As a teacher of college students, however, I did agree with one of my blog commenters that if a student turned in a research paper that was as poorly documented as much of State of Jones is, I would insist that the student rewrite it.
Finally, according to Stauffer, I accused the authors of writing fiction rather than history. Well, not quite. But I have commented several times in various sections of Renegade South on the manner in which Jenkins and Stauffer play fast and loose with the facts in State of Jones. I gather here those remarks, which I stand by:
1. In regard to State of Jones, there’s nothing wrong with history that reads like a novel, but the research and use of evidence must be done responsibly unless it is categorized as fiction.
2. All of us love to read exciting stories, but the historian must always be careful not to privilege the excitement of a good story over factual accuracy. It’s fine to speculate, but you must tell the reader when you are doing so. The authors’ weaving in of other people’s histories with Newt Knight’s to suggest what he “might” have thought or done was not done carefully enough to separate fact from conjecture in my view.
3. Yes, I agree that it would be more accurate to define Jenkins and Stauffer’s work as “historical fiction.” But the authors themselves claim that their book is historical scholarship at its finest.
4. If writers are going to mix fact and fiction to build a more exciting story, they need to make that clear to their readers. If what Ms. Jenkins and Professor Stauffer wrote were to be transferred to a TV special, for example, it would have to be termed a “docudrama” to avoid charges of poor research and incorrect suppositions.
In the future, let’s hope that Professor Stauffer sticks to the facts in defending the contents of State of Jones, and that he resists engaging in ad hominem attacks on his critics.
NOTE: For my response to Professor Stauffer’s subsequent published remarks in the ReView of Jones County, see Confessions of a Texas Gadfly.