Off the Deaton Path. That’s the name of Stan Deaton’s history blog. Deaton, who earned a Ph.D. in the UF history department in 1997, writes a blog for the Georgia Historical Society. The UF history department blog sent him a set of questions about his position at the historical society and the origins and purpose of his blog. Dr. Deaton’s responses were so thorough and eloquent, very much like his blog (hyperlink below), we decided to share them with our readers.
What is your position at the Georgia Historical Society?
I’m the Senior Historian and Dr. Elaine B. Andrews Historian (an endowed position). GHS is a public history institution, and I serve as the Chief Academic Officer, responsible for ensuring the scholarly quality and integrity of the institution’s brand, through all of our educational initiatives, including public programs, publications, historical markers, teacher training initiatives, and public outreach. My job, broadly defined, is to educate the public about the importance of history and the role it plays in our contemporary culture and society, and the role that GHS plays in serving as a bridge between the academy and the public. So the blog is intended to further those goals.
Why did you start the blog?
Our communications director had asked me for some time to start writing one, and finally last year, in October 2013, I wrote a short review of The Letters of C. Vann Woodward, which came across my desk as book review editor of the Georgia Historical Quarterly. I have always loved the more informal book reviews that newspapers publish, and in particular I’m a big fan of Michael Dirda and Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post. Their reviews are essays, longer thought pieces than academics write in scholarly journals, and of course they’re intended for general readers. I wanted to write those kinds of reviews for the blog, and you’ll find many of them on there. I was also given free rein to write about almost anything else that interests me, and so I’ve done that too—everything from baseball to cold weather to the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island” to tributes to two very dear friends who died this year. Whatever I’m writing about I try to put in some kind of historical perspective while at the same time making it interesting to people who aren’t historians.
Who is your intended audience?
Anyone with an interest in learning and thinking about the world around them. Most of the entries have a literary or historical theme, but whether they do or not, I hope to at least get people to think about whatever the subject is—whether serious or light—in a new way, to get them to stand on different ground.
In what ways do you hope to inform?
I hope to get people to see that history isn’t something that happened “back there,” it still informs everything we do, every decision we collectively make. And the way we think about the past is the way we think about the future. The current uproar in Colorado over the way history is taught is something that public history institutions have been dealing with for a very long time. Many people who aren’t scholars want “happy history,” a celebratory, patriotic account of the past that glosses over so much of what makes up the American historical narrative. We’ve had public programs on controversial subjects, and I’ve heard many people say, “why are you trying to make me feel bad about my ancestors?” My response is: stop letting your ancestors do your thinking for you. History that doesn’t ask hard, critical questions about the past isn’t history, it isn’t education, it’s indoctrination, and we in the profession, whether in the academy or in public history institutions like this one, have a responsibility to our audiences to ask those questions and to get people to think about things that might make them uncomfortable. The hard thing for most non-specialists to grasp is that history is all about interpretation, not a big collection of facts that somehow tell their own story. There’s a huge difference between antiquarianism and history as practiced by professionally trained scholars. And that history is about what we’ve achieved, but it’s also about what we’ve failed to achieve. If I can get someone to stand on new ground, to think about the past in a different way, and to understand better its connection to the present, then I’ve succeeded.
Do you use the blog to express opinions?
We’re a non-profit membership-driven organization, so I don’t use it as a platform for my own personal opinions, but I certainly try to put controversial subjects in historical perspective. I wrote one piece about the move in the Georgia legislature to ban moving or taking down statues of historical figures in Georgia, and I argued that it was misguided, that statues aren’t history, they’re representations of what people at a particular place in time wanted you to know about a particular person or event. Moving a statue of Tom Watson from the grounds of Georgia’s state capitol in Atlanta in no way impedes your ability to learn about him; moving his statue isn’t erasing him from history. The primary sources are still there and widely available for us to learn about him if we choose. It’s perfectly legitimate for people in a community to decide that a statue of someone put up 100 years ago, be it Watson or Eugene Talmadge, may not represent their community or their values any longer and they no longer want to be bound by the decision made 100 years ago to honor that person. To me it’s no different than changing a law that forbids someone from voting because of their race or gender. It doesn’t mean we’re “erasing history,” because those statues aren’t history. They certainly are historic, in and of themselves, as public works of art that represent and express the values of a certain group of people at a certain time and place, but the subject of the artwork isn’t going to be “erased” from history if that statue is removed.
Do you use it to correct myths and misconceptions?
I hope so, and I hope to do more of that. Again, it’s all about educating the public about the interpretive nature of history and historical writing, and how the past and how and what we think about the past informs so much of what we do now.
Is it Georgia-history focused?
Not really; none of the books I’ve reviewed are about Georgia history. Each entry has something to do with history, but it’s history very broadly defined. I’ve gotten some great feedback on it.
Who posts on the blog?
I write the entries and readers are welcome to post comments.
Do you have any idea of the amount of activity it generates?
One blog post that I wrote as a tribute to a friend who committed suicide really touched a chord with a lot of people, and it’s been re-posted on Facebook well over a thousand times. He suffered from depression, so the essay was about friendship and being more aware of the silent battles that those all around us are facing. It was really about our common humanity, the value of friendship as we age, and just being there for each other, and it really resonated with a lot of people. No other one has come close to that, but they’ve all found a wider audience on social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. One of the most popular ones I wrote was after the death of Russell Johnson, the beloved professor on Gilligan’s Island. I hear from people all the time, total strangers, commenting on one post or another and it’s been very gratifying and rewarding.
What has been the general response to it?
Again, overwhelmingly positive. As I said earlier, I’ve tried to make it entertaining, informative, and fun to read, no matter the subject.
Do you have a favorite post and a sample you can share?
I wrote one in response to Nicholas Kristoff’s column about scholars not being engaged with a wider audience that also discussed my decision to go into pubic history rather than academia that I like and that has been popular. My favorites are probably the book reviews, particularly the review I wrote on Richard Burton’s diaries and a recent biography of Spencer Tracy, my favorite actor. These are typical of the book reviews in style and tone. I recently wrote a tribute to Derek Jeterthat combines my love of history and baseball.
Finally, please give me the year of your PhD.
I got my Ph.D. in 1997 under the direction of the late great Wyatt-Brown. I must say too that I learned to write book reviews while taking Jeff Adler’s seminar. He really emphasized the critical aspect of the review, getting to the heart of a book’s subject, and then critically analyzing the author’s performance. Why should someone read this book? What does it have to say, and does it say it well or badly? Does the evidence support the argument? Finally, and most importantly, why should anyone care? That last question is one that I try to always answer, in every public program we do here at GHS, and in every lecture and speech I give to groups—what is the larger context and meaning of whatever it is we’re talking about? Why should the man on the street now care, for instance, about World War I and the 37 million casualties in that war? It should matter to us a great deal, and it’s our job to explain why.
You can read Off the Deaton Path (and find yourself engrossed) at: http://deatonpath.georgiahistory.com/