the tides of fashion

March 27, 2005

In my more pessimistic moments I am sometimes inclined to imagine that the historical profession, instead of moving steadily forward through experience and self-criticism to deeper understanding and steadier, more penetrating vision, just swings aimlessly back and forth with the tides of fashion, like the ladies’ garment industry. Even before the turn of the century, though history was emphatically still part politics, and international politics perhaps its most reputable branch, the deeper thinkers were in revolt against narrative, and exhorting their colleagues to break its drowsy spell. Already a growing faction of social and economic historians were telling each other that the occupants of the more famous and better paid chairs were incapable of seeing beneath the surface to the real currents of history. Before long, some of them already occupants of those coveted chairs, the vanguard were saying loudly that military and diplomatic history were idle and frivolous when they were not positively immoral, and that even political history was no better unless it exposed the molding of movements and institutions by the vast impersonal forces of social change. By the 1920’s this fashion in history was everywhere triumphant, but already its champions could feel their heels being trodden on by hungry young men who despised materialism and positivism, Darwin and Dewey and Marx, and flaunted the mystiques of élans vitals and autonomously developing systems of ideas. Their turn came, and for the past fourteen years the dominant fashion has been some form of what we seem determined to call “”intellectual history.” ”… I have no guess as to how long the present phase may last or what will follow, but like women’s fashions, fashions in history have only a limited number of ways to go. Perhaps military and diplomatic history may come back again, especially if the cold war ever thaws, and war and diplomacy cease to be such painful subjects.

-Garrett Mattingly, quoted in Michael Kammen, ““Vanitas and the Historian’’s Vocation,”” Reviews in American History, Dec. 1982*

Note also that according to Kammen (in the article text) Mattingly wrote this in 1959. Its resemblance, however, to what people say today about historical “fashions” is striking.

Those with JSTOR access can read Kammen’s article online here . I recommend it to anyone with an interest in what historians think and worry about in their less-guarded moments.

Update: You can also find Kammen’s article (in edited form) in Selvages and Biases: The Fabric of History in American Culture. Kammen notes:

The appearance of this essay elicited more spontaneous reactions than anything else I have ever written, including books. One scholar summed up the tone of much of the correspondence that came in: “It speaks to my condition.”

*Full citation for the quotation (from Kammen’s footnote): Garrett Mattingly, ““Some Revisions of the Political History of the Renaissance,”” in The Renaissance, ed. Tinsley Helton (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1961), p. 9.

%d bloggers like this: