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March 26, 2007

World of History

It feels like ages -- though it has only been weeks -- since I commented on Sam Tanenhaus's essay about the state of contemporary American history writing. (See this earlier post for the links.)

At the time, I came pretty close to mentioning a few names of people whose work strikes me as doing just what Tanenhaus said historians didn't do now: bridging the gaps between the general public and specialist research, between the texture of the past and the concerns of the present, etc. One that came to mind was Eric Rauchway -- interviewed for my column last year, the exchange available here.

Now Rauchway has, in turn, written an extremely smart response to Tanenhaus. Perhaps I am unduly impressed because he makes reference to James Harvey Robinson, who is (1) a major concern of mine for reasons it would take too long to explain and (2) almost completely forgotten by contemporary historians (who know who he is, but that's about it, for the most part).

But no, that's not it. Rauchway is on to something:

As James Harvey Robinson noted back when he was president of the AHA, he had to revise his 1907 history of Modern Europe after World War I--suddenly, the stuff about imperialism, nationalism, and industrialization had a new and urgent focus in the war. Robinson had a nice phrase for his version of presentism--"framing a coherent narrative making close connections with the morning newspaper."

So far, it's easy to agree with Tanenhaus, but no farther. Because, though Tanenhaus blames "younger historians" for junking Schlesinger, he mentions only gentlemen like David McCullough, Gordon Wood, and James McPherson--all of them more accurately described as nearer to retirement than farther from it. (Tanenhaus also mentions Peter Beinart, who is young but not so much a historian.) But recent years have seen a resurgence of Robinsonism among younger historians.....Among people my age, there's less confidence that one can avoid writing history that speaks to the present, and nearly no insistence that one should.

I'll stick by the gist of my earlier comments -- i.e., that the center of gravity for any very powerful and comprehensive "presentist" practice of historical writing has shifted, so that Schlesingerian efforts to define the history of "our country" are going to mean less and less, while narratives about "our world" (with "our country" grasped as part of it) will become far more important.

On reflection, Rauchway's work was a major catalyst in forming that opinion. Also important: Thomas Bender.

Posted by smclemee at March 26, 2007 2:38 PM


Missed the link to Rauchway's response.

Posted by: Ray Davis at March 28, 2007 9:24 AM