History as Context

What do you do for a living? I teach history is my standard answer, and I often cringe waiting to be told either that the person hates history or asked if I saw a particular episode on the History Channel. I dislike the first response because it usually means the person learned history as memorization of names and dates (my work is interested in connections not memorization). I hate the second because I think the History Channel does a disservice to the profession. Eventually, however, the conversation moves to the person’s understanding that there is a “history,” knowable by reading one book. Histories are about interpretation and and the interpretative work of the historians. In our current political climate, the starting point for understanding history appears to reside in the beholder and all others do interpretation. We have failed as a craft if society understands our work in these terms.

Historians are an interesting breed of professional. Quietly, and often in lonely archives, we toil away at our craft, using material to create a narrative of meaning out of the past. We understand there is no such thing as a true picture of the past contained within a single manuscript, so we work hard to build factually accurate depictions of the past and read others who do similar labor. Like many within the academy we fight over interpretative moves that occur within our specialities and write reviews that condemn the author for not writing the manuscript we ourselves would have written, if we had written a book on the topic reviewed. We struggle as a group over the interpretation of those facts in courses and in manuscripts. We, however, are equally likely to erupt in full-scale tribalism when one of us crosses others’ sacred notions of historiography, the study of this thing we call history. And a few months ago such an eruption occurred in response to Gordon Wood’s review of Bernard Bailyn’s new collection of essays on historiography.

My social media feeds filled rapidly in the first few hours after the review went “live” with consternation that the Brown University-situated professor speaking on behalf of his Harvard University-situated mentor only saw American history as white men’s history. Given that Wood published the review in the Weekly Standard and that he located the criticism of current historians within the growing public concern over the academy’s liberal bend, the outcry within the media feeds might be justified. It’s one thing to carry out this spat in the annals of historical journals or in the spaces of conference meeting rooms; it’s quite a different matter to enter the pages of a magazine that prides itself on engaging the political debates about American exceptionalism during heated struggles over the AP curriculum in US History in many state legislatures and the constant attack of the national endowments of the Humanities and the Arts by political conservatives who read the Weekly Standard. Gordon Wood appeared to add gravitas to conservative politicians’ concern, especially when he framed the argument this way:

“It’s as if academics have given up trying to recover an honest picture of the past and have decided that their history-writing should become simply an instrument of moral hand-wringing.”

The problem is the word “honest,” although the “moral hand-wrining” comes in a close second. In this posture, only historians like Wood, and presumably Bailyn since the context is the review of the collection of essays, who capture grand narratives about American identity are creating the “honest picture.” Everyone else, it appears, is dishonest in their story-telling. Wood took the argument a step further by adding,

“The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.”

Historians of race and gender apparently do not write about “the whole our nation’s past.” Leaving aside for the moment that there are those kinds of historians who happen to tell a different kind of narrative because their subjects point them to different conclusions, Wood appeared to be arguing with the discipline at large.  The fact that he did so while trying to bolster a mentor does not help because we cannot separate the genuine criticism that historiography does this kind of reflection from the defense of a trusted teacher. It is important to note that he decided to level the charge in a review of an historian’s essays on doing history. All students of historiography know that historians have been arguing over how to write history for longer than the seventy years Wood says made the discipline worse.

As much as I would love to write history like Thucydides where I give my subjects the words I know they would have used (and we all know that would make some of our narratives more interesting), I am not allowed to fabricate my sources. Even the grand narrative that Wood appears to endorse looks more like the Cold War work of Consensus historians than the work of Charles Baird. Historians have always disagreed on the interpretative moves their colleagues make. In this way, Wood’s condemnation is nothing new (“Move on, there is nothing to see here, folks.”), but he chose a different venue to exercise his frustration, and that makes all the difference in the world. Our politicized context shapes our historical understanding, which again is nothing new.

Here is what I find helpful from Wood’s criticism. In our need to deconstruct the past to find flaws in the “heroes” and agency in the oppressed, we have lost the epic nature of nation building. The project of creating the United States required a group of thinkers and actors and, based on the construction of the Constitution, that group was limited to white, propertied men. Any attempt to write the story that leaves them out actually does a disservice to history. But that is where Wood failed the greatest. The grand narratives don’t stand up to close scrutiny of particular places or people. Thomas Jefferson’s notion of freedom looks different in the hands of Frederick Douglass. If we leave Jefferson or Douglass (or the many untold that we naturally do leave out), the narrative arc forms differently. Those who do work on gender and race have been playing off those grand narratives for decades because their sources lead to different findings. The peculiarities of Jefferson and Adams, however, can help us tell a more interesting and complex story, which might celebrate their greatness even as it reminds us of their human frailty. The more granular we get the more nuance we can find. In Wood’s objection I hear the complaint, regardless of tribal identity within historiography, that micro-history fails to provide those sweeping narratives that help us make broad conclusions about American identity. As a scholar of what some call micro-history (one town during a ten year period), I make no grand pronouncements but contextualize every finding to my subjects in their place. What I find often rubs against the consensus in my area of study. The work enhances those larger narratives even as it might undermine them. And that is why we do history, building on preceding generations to strive toward greater truth about the past. Several month ago, we opened the door on our internal spats. It might help us to do more airing of dirty laundry so folks can see what history and the historian’s craft looks like.


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  1. I saw the Mercer Univ. / Douglas Thompson lecture of 2-11-15 today on C-SPAN, regarding Slavery & Religion. It wasn’t until recently, that I discovered the true “religion” of the Confederacy, by reading the “Corner Stone Speech” of Alexander H. Stephens from March 21, 1861, Savanah, Ga. My public education about the Civil War and “slavery”, had never gone into the finer details about how The Confederacy felt it was the white man’s destiny to rule over the black race, “forever”, as a Biblical imperative. And that that was non-negoitable, and, written in to the Confederate Constitution. Wanting slaves, and wanting to dominate a race, by another race, is a whole different animal. Realizing this brings a whole new window into why the Confederacy was fought, and had to be defeated.

    A. H. – Texas

    • Thank you for watching the lecture. The students read Stephens’s speech in the session just prior to the lecture. While they were uncomfortable with the content, we discussed how Stephens and others like him saw the biblical mandate as imperative. Slaves and former slaves were struggling against a powerful cultural pressure to use scripture to support slaveowners. Slaves were just as capable to interpret scripture for their own purposes. The course explored that dynamic throughout American history.

      • When I have ever read about slaves and slavery in the Bible, I just took that for slavery in general. But is seems the Confederacy evolved into thinking that there was a specific Biblical imperative or mandate that people of the black race were to be the slaves of people of the white race, in prepetuity. How radical indeed !

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