David Hackett Fischer: Writing Best Sellers

Historians in the News

Alexander Rose, in National Review (July 1, 2004):

The most mammoth footnote ever recorded appears, if memory serves, in a volume of John Hodgson's 19th-century magnum opus, A History of Northumberland, a copy of which I once happened to own. Hodgson, a country vicar and amateur antiquary, knew more about that tumultuous Anglo-Scottish border county than any man who has ever lived, which I suppose means he gets a pass on devoting no fewer than 165 pages to his single, sesquipedalian note.

David Hackett Fischer, the author of a bestseller, Washington's Crossing, while a dab hand at footnotes (he racks up 1,122), is the John Hodgson of the appendix. At a time when publishers are asking their authors to compress their scholarly apparatus, Fischer appends 24 appendices plus, for good measure, a fascinating 32-page essay on the changing historiography — how we perceive an historical event, as opposed to examining what actually happened during that event — of Washington's crossing of the Delaware.

These"technical" appendices range from a disturbingly interesting discussion of"Ice Conditions on the Delaware River" to a catalogue of"Weather Records in the Delaware Valley, 1776-77" to a table of"Ratios of Artillery and Infantry in the Battles at Trenton and Princeton." Then there are the lengthy orders of battle for the American, Hessian, and British armies: e.g., on January 2, 1777, the Light Infantry Brigade comprised the 1st Light Infantry Battalion, the 2nd Light Infantry Battalion, the Grenadier Battalion Köhler, the 42nd Foot (Royal Highland Regiment), and the 71st Foot.

All this stuff isn't intended solely to delight fetishistic war buffs. Thanks to modern computing and research methods, we know more about the past than even its original residents knew about themselves: mortality rates, average height of the population, international trade figures, nutritional levels, and so forth. Fischer's essential technique, a trademark throughout his books, is to mine this ore of hard data and refine it sufficiently to reveal the era's broader social structures, its greater forces, and the influence these bear on the formation of collective"mentalities" (a piece of scholarly jargon used to describe how people think, their attitudes, and how they see the world). ...

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