I was pleased recently to stumble across a new review of A Commercial Republic. Published in the winter 2016 issue of The Historian, it was written by John Lauritz Larson, whose The Market Revolution in America is my favorite book on the Jacksonian period. Larson praised my book as "both learned (for the specialist) and thoroughly accessible (for the general reader)," saying that it "succeed[s] on both fronts" and "is a pleasure to read."
Particularly interesting to me is Larson's conclusion, in which he notes that "critics may fault O’Connor for mining existing literature instead of reporting the fruits of extensive archival research." Those critics would be accurate in their descriptions, he suggests, but misguided in their assessments. A Commercial Republic, he writes, "does something our literature desperately needs: It offers up an invitation to explore what otherwise must seem a daunting and impenetrable shelf of specialized tomes. Kudos to the author for daring to do it."
That last part reveals an implicit criticism of the contemporary university. Non-academics could be forgiven for not understanding why one would have to "dare" to encourage general readers to become interested in one's field. Don't historians want their work to be relevant to the broader cultural conversation? This is a far more complicated question than it may seem. The shortest answer, I think, would be something like "No doubt many do, but not as much as they want to get and keep a job." In professional academic circles, the coin of the realm is a narrowly-defined, professionally-sanctioned scholarship of obscurity. In a hyper-competitive market, untenured scholars engage in any other kind of work at their own peril.
When I embarked on the project that eventually became A Commercial Republic, I was a graduate student. Back then, my goal as a writer was to produce things like the essays in Harper's magazine. Why? For no other reason than that these were what I liked to read. I didn't put much thought into it, and no one ever told me that I was supposed to be doing something else. (In retrospect, though, I remember a professor's comment on my paper that read, "Because you are fluent, you content yourself with breezy generalizations." I'm not sure how much has changed, though I'd like think that, rather than breezy generalizations, A Commercial Republic features learned and well-supported ones.) I had no idea of the import of the decision that I was making, and never really felt like I was making a "decision" at all. So I appreciate Larson's kudos, but am not certain that I deserve them.
Whether I understood the situation or not, its logic inexorably went to work on me. After getting my Ph.D., I fought the good fight, working as a lecturer and trying to land permanent work for ten solid years. But eventually it became clear that the only use the academic world had for me was as cheap disposable labor. I am now finishing up my first year in public policy school, with the hope of landing work in a completely different field. But I still think I wrote a good book, and still appreciate reviews like Larson's.