Aronson and Sheinkin and the New Knowledge

Mom,

Wow – that is a lot to think about.  Let me start with some places where we really agree.  On the question of “speculation”: in the debate you referred to, I came firmly down on the side of Aronson (as did you), agreeing with him that “speculation” as he was using it didn’t mean random guesses, but educated theories, appropriately explained to the reader.  Unfortunately, I agree with you that, especially in the case of Hoover’s ancestry, Aronson seems to have fallen more on the side of guess work than theory.  In a work for children and teens, I don’t think it’s fair play to include the counter-argument to a possibly specious claim only in a footnote.

I also agree with you about the ways in which Aronson tries to over argue his points–no there aren’t just two ways of telling the story of America, and Marc knows that, but he wants to frame his story with the story of Nationalist vs. Communists.  Same goes for the genealogical claim–he wants to tie everything into his theme of Hoover’s controlling nature, even if it doesn’t quite fit.

So why did I love it?  Well, to be frank, I wavered on the goodreads rating for a while because I did note some problems, especially some of those more vitriolic comments about Hoover than you mention (the captions, the comment about the photo).  But I thought that those comments were more than outweighed by the general sense of balance in the work as a whole.  Clearly, Aronson doesn’t think much of Hoover as a human being (does anyone?), but he did an excellent job of explaining why and how Hoover’s viewpoints came about and were widely accepted, especially with regard to Communism.  In some cases, I thought he went too far in defending the anti-Communist position of the Cold War, but even as a committed opponent of everything that the Cold Warriors stood for, as a scholar I think it was a fair and nuanced depiction.

This balanced view of Communism was particularly important because it gave him some real credibility in what I thought was the most important argument in the book, which was his comparison of Hoover’s tactics with our current National Security State (see especially pp. 193-195).  The dominant mode in popular history and lore these days is a completely reflexive dismissal of people like McCarthy and Hoover as paranoid nuts, even as we justify our own witch hunts, but Aronson is able to flip that narrative on its head, showing 1) how easily real people with real concerns were led into doing terrible things, and 2) how the same thing is happening today.  In that Hornbook article, Aronson says this:

Russell Freedman — one of the field’s most skillful and generous translators — spoke of his reluctance to “speculate” in his books: “Digging up new information and speculating on it isn’t your primary purpose when you’re writing a biography intended for young readers . . . Your responsibility is to stick as closely as possible to the documented record.” He left the entire game of guesswork and conjecture to experts and adult books. That is the line of difference.

Aronson’s nuanced presentation of conflicting viewpoints about Communism and Hoover and other topics is where I think he performs his real piece of “new knowledge.”

But of course in the end I agree with you that Bomb is a better book.  Why?  Well first of all, despite his different writing style, Sheinkin is obviously also a writer of New Knowledge, but he goes about it in an entirely different way.  I have already spoken on this blog about how Sheinkin leaves decisions, especially value-laden ones, up to the reader–were the spies within the Manhattan Project right to give secrets to the Russians?  Sheinkin doesn’t even give the reader options, he simply trusts her to read the facts and draw her own conclusions.  This is absolutely a hallmark of Aronson’s New Knowledge.  Another of Aronson’s major points in his Hornbook article was the need for Children’s and YA authors to do original research, and as you’ve already noted, both books are replete with quotations and citations from primary, as well as secondary, sources.

So in the end, I don’t think that this is a question of the new knowledge vs. the old knowledge.  I think it is a matter of, as you hinted in the title to your post, writing style. The first thing I thought of as I started to read your critique of Master of Deceit was my reaction to Sugar Changed the World, which Aronson co-wrote with his wife, Marina Budhos.  In a review I wrote for The Hub I said at one point: “Essentially, [Aronson and Budhos] are making two separate claims: that sugar was the driving force in creating slavery, and that it was also the driving force in abolishing slavery. My problem was that while they do an exemplary job of proving the first of these propositions, I had a lot of trouble with the second claim.”

Marc and I had a back and forth about this in the comments, and I encourage anyone who’s interested to read it because Marc made some great points, but my point in this post is that I think that the kind of generalizations that you mention in Master of Deceit are a common habit in Aronson’s work, and I think it happens because he is a thesis-driven writer and wants to make all of the claims in his books flow from the main thesis.  As an aesthetic principle, I love this: I think it makes for forceful, clear writing (in the case of Sugar, he and Budhos were able to bring together millenia worth of history into a very brief book while making it completely coherent and readable), and it my preferred mode of writing myself.  Unfortunately, especially in the case of biography, everything doesn’t always come back to a single point.  There is no one arc or story to a life, so trying to wrestle someone’s biography into a thesis-driven book is bound to lead to some problems.

Sheinkin, on the other hand, is not writing to a thesis.  He has found an incredible set of interlocking stories, and he weaves them together to allow the reader to see the connections and drama inherent within them.  I think this is what you were getting at when you said that “the drama comes from the events themselves.”  He’s not out to make a specific point, but to tell a story.  And, crucially, he is very, very good at telling a story.  More than anything else (and going back to my personal biases), Sheinkin’s is the better book because he is a better writer.  He has a command of English that is very rare in YA nonfiction–fluid and graceful while never sacrificing meaning.

I want to make one more point about Aronson’s thesis-driven writing, though. I don’t think that it is by any means an inherently better decision to let “the drama come from the events themselves.”  The reason Bomb works so well is that Sheinkin chose a specific set of events which were able to create their own story.  But as I said, thesis-based writing has a lot going for it, and trying to tell the story of Hoover and the FBI was probably impossible without having some underlying thesis or set of arguments.  The issue in Master of Deceit is that Aronson lets he thesis control too much of the content.

- Mark

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