Archive for the ‘history of history’ Category


the loneliness of the academic

July 22, 2006

John McGowan has a nice post up at Public Intelligence about the isolation and self-doubt of young academics, and about his experiences just starting out trying to find a job and a publisher for his first book. (Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get a direct link to the post to work; go to the main page and scroll down to July 11th, 2006: “The Loneliness of the Young Academic.”)

Having found a tenure-track position after years of difficulty, McGowan writes:

I now had some vision of an alternative, so being once again on tenure track, still racking up the rejections, didn’t give me knock-down depression this time around. The first book got taken and I wrote a letter of thanks to the sweet man from Brown (Roger Henkle: I never met him and saw a few years ago that he had died) who read the manuscript and recommended its publication. The letter alluded to how grateful I was for his approbation because I had no way of knowing if the book was really any good, even though I thought it was. He wrote me back a very nice letter—and picked up on that note of isolation in my letter to him.

For McGowan, this isolation seems to have been directly related to his situation as a not-yet-established academic; after that first acceptance he

started in on my second book—and it was as if someone had waved a magic wand over me. I still got articles rejected from time to time, but now they were accepted more often than not. And I never had any doubt that the book would be taken. Yet it wasn’t as if I somehow knew how to do this now, or that I really thought my essays had taken some kind of quantum leap in quality. What was the difference? I don’t think I can say exactly. Yes, I now had a kind of confidence that came though in my prose. I had a “voice,” that mysterious thing that both means nothing and also means a tremendous amount.

For others, however, that sense of isolation and doubt can last on through the years, long after worries about finding a job, becoming tenured, or establishing oneself in the profession have passed.

Michael Kammen’s 1982 article “Vanitas and the Historian’s Vocation” (JSTOR)* opens with the discovery of such doubts where Kammen least expected to find them: in the person of Charles McLean Andrews, one of the biggest names in colonial American history in the early 20th century. Kammen quotes from a letter Andrews wrote to Max Ferrand in 1915 when, according to Kammen, Andrews was 52 and had been at Yale for five years after previously teaching at Bryn Mawr and Johns Hopkins:

Dear Max:

Of course I liked your letter. Who would not have liked to have something that made him feel that what he was trying to do was worth while. Expressions of interest in onesself or ones work are so rare in New Haven that I am almost tempted to have your letter framed. I get into the habit of wondering sometimes whether it is all worth the effort and the sacrifice and the drudgery. But I always come back to the one great solace that it is all to the good, and that whatever contributes to knowledge or to life is its own reward. Then I love it and that adds to my cares, lest I be doing that which is purely selfish because I am never happier than when I am at it. I am glad you liked the paper, and I am more glad that you told me you liked it. I liked it myself, and felt that it opened a lot of possible interpretations that had not been in the past a part of our thought of colonial history. I sometimes in my climbing think that I am looking on a new world of colonial life, and that in the past we have been living like cave men instead of searchers for the truth and the light. I keep at it, but it[is] all so slow and there is so much to know. I wonder whether I shall live out the doing of what I want to do. (1-2)

For Kammen, Andrews’ letter is a useful point of departure: it provides

a parable for the rambling reflections that follow in this essay. Andrews’s candor about his crisis of confidence is wonderfully refreshing. Haven’t we all felt as he did? Haven’t we all suffered self-doubt? And having achieved some goal–the arduous completion of a monograph, the presentation of a new course–haven’t we wondered whether it was really worth the expenditure of time and psychic strength at the expense of some other activity? Were we adequately appreciated? Was the effort itself properly understood? (3)

Not having completed a monograph or even a dissertation or article I can’t quite say that I have felt as Andrews did. To look back on these particular kinds of doubts is something I have to look forward to.

*Reviews in American History, December 1982.


specialization and its discontents (short version)

March 11, 2005

I’m putting together a longer post on the problem of specialization vs grand narrative in history, but with the end of the term coming up it may be a while before I finish it. In the meantime, I’ll just post a few thoughts here:

While I was trying to catch up with the discussion of Ross Douthat’s recent article about Harvard (and higher education in general) in The Atlantic, I came across this post by Kieran Healy from just about a year ago discussing Simon Schama’s criticisms of academic history (link via No Loss for Words). The discussion seems to have been started by Timothy Burke here, and then continued by the Invisible Adjunct here, before making its way over to Crooked Timber.

To sum up very briefly: Schama argues that academic history is too specialized and too obsessed with footnotes, and calls for a return to some golden age of narrative history-writing; Timothy Burke points out that broadly written histories aimed at the public could not be written without the detailed research that goes into monographs, but that historians indeed should nevertheless work on writing more “broadly communicative” histories; the Invisible Adjunct and Kieran Healy both point out the problems with idealizing some past “golden age”; the original posters and various commenters complain about the contraints created by the norms of graduate education and tenure and promotion committees; everything settles down after a while.

None of this is all that remarkable. The complaint is quite an old one: I could probably do a whole additional post on The Historian’s Craft summarizing what Marc Bloch had to say about specialization and synthesis. Indeed, Schama himself actually published a longer article on this very topic back in 1991. If you have access to the New York Times historical database you can read it here.

What is remarkable about this particular discussion, however, is that – though he was still critical of academic history – Simon Schama never actually said most of what the Independent attributed to him.

If you clicked on the link to the article, you probably noticed that it’s now available only to subscribers. As I am not one, I had to go back through Lexis-Nexis to look it up. (Sorry, Lexis-Nexis doesn’t seem to do permalinks. Update: Thanks to Sharon, you can find the article here.) While doing so, I happened to come across the following letter to the editor, dated one week after the original article (29 Feb 2004):



Contrary to the headline “History just isn’t what it used to be: Schama slams academic historians”, (22 February), I most certainly did not “slam” academic historians in the interview I gave on the three- part BBC4 series Historians of Genius for which I provide brief introductions. In fact, when egged on to say something of this sort, I was at pains to say what I believe, namely that we are now in something of a golden age of narrative writing and that more history which combines scholarship of the highest level with narrative craft is being written than ever before. Antony Beevor was just one of a long list of names – including Cannadine, Colley, Brewer, Tillyard, Jardine, Ferguson – whose work I want to celebrate. Nor (since a leader in your paper took me to task on this) did I say anything, or indeed have anything, against footnotes; and in the same interview I went out of my way to sing the praises of Gibbon’s footnotes, which are things of stunning erudition, elegance and mischievous wit.

Simon Schama

Columbia University, New York, USA


the historian’s craft

February 28, 2005

The grim esoterism, in which even the best of us sometimes fall, the preponderance, in our current writing, of those dreary textbooks which bad teaching-concepts have put in place of true synthesis, the curious modesty which, as soon as we are outside the study, seems to forbid us to expose the honest groping of our methods before a profane public – all these bad habits, derived from an accumulation of contradictory prejudices, compromise the essential nobility of our cause. They conspire to surrender the mass of defenseless readers to the false brilliance of a bogus history, in which lack of seriousness, picturesque rubbish, and political prejudices are supposed to be redeemed by shameless self-assurance…. A misunderstanding between historical inquiry, such as it is or hopes to be, and the reading public unquestionably does exist. The great debate about footnotes is not the least significant ground upon which the two parties are engaged in their absurd duel.

For a great many scholars, the lower margin of the page exerts a fascination bordering upon mania. It is surely absurd to overcrowd these margins, as they do, with bibliographical references which might largely have been spared by a list drawn up at the beginning of the volume; and worse still, through sheer laziness, to relegate to them long explanations whose proper place was indicated in the main body of the text, so that the most useful part of these works must be looked for in the cellar. But when certain readers complain that a single note, strutting along by itself at the foot of the page, makes their heads swim, or when certain publishers claim that their customers, doubtless less hypersensitive in reality than they would have us believe, are tortured by the mere sight of a page thus disfigured, these aesthetes merely prove their imperviousness to the most elementary maxims of an intellectual ethic. For, apart from the free play of imagination, we have no right to make any assertion which cannot be verified and a historian who in using a document indicates the sources as briefly as possible (that is, the means of finding it again) is only obeying a universal rule of honesty. Corrupted by dogma and myth, current opinion, even when it is least hostile to enlightenment, has lost the very taste for verification. On that day when, having first taken care not to discourage it with useless pedantry, we shall succeed in persuading the public to measure the value of a science in proportion to its willingness to make refutation easy, the forces of reason will achieve one of their most smashing victories. Our humble notes, our finicky little references, currently lampooned by many who do not understand them, are working toward that day.

Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (87-8; emphasis added)

As part of my ongoing attempt to get a better perspective on the history of history – or rather, the history of the practice of history – I recently read Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft (written during the 1940s, and translated into English in 1953). As I am neither a medievalist nor a historian of France I don’t know how Bloch’s research is currently regarded in those fields, but I have to say that as both a description of, and a guide to, how historians actually go about their work much of what Bloch says in this book still seems quite relevant today.

This is not to say that he was, as the saying goes, “ahead of his time”; indeed, at one point in the book he even explains why it is a mistake to say that any historical figure was not of that figure’s particular place and time. (Besides, Bloch’s faith in progress and the “forces of reason” quoted above clearly marks him as a man of his time.) But it does show that many of the ongoing debates about history and its various crises – too specialized! too disconnected from the public! too empirical! not empirical enough! – that are often treated as recent (usually meaning post-1950s) developments have actually been going on for a much longer period of time. The fact that many of us (myself included) have often forgotten about, or perhaps never even knew of, the earlier rounds of these debates does not mean that they never happened, or that they are no longer relevant today.

Take, for example, the problem of the division between professional, academic history, and the history most popular with the reading public. Considering the fact that Bloch was writing in France in the 1940s, does it really make sense to blame the current unpopularity – from a sales standpoint – of academic history in the US solely on recent changes in academic history writing? Are we really facing some kind of unprecedented situation here? Certainly some of the historians of the 1950s gained wider readerships than those now, but can we really be certain that that situation was the norm, rather than an exception?

On a related note, the question of epistemology and history was the cause of quite a discussion/debate/”furore” (follow the links and the links’ links to get the full picture) among history bloggers over the last couple of weeks. Often these debates over how historians can “truly” “know” (quotation marks required) anything of the past are cast as the result of the great theoretical advances of the past half-century or so. Before then, supposedly, historians unquestioningly applied naive empiricist methods to their research and were quite content simply to try to know the past as it actually was/happened, wie es eigentlich gewesen (German quotation required – but don’t we need the auxiliary “sein” for this to make sense gramatically?).

Bloch, however, does engage this issue (along with related questions) quite clearly in his book. His discussions of historical criticism and historical analysis are still worth reading today. While his conclusions can certainly be debated, and likely would not satisfy many philosophers, theorists, and perhaps even some historians, the fact is that he – like many historians of the past century – was not at all ignorant of the problems of attaining historical knowledge.

He also did not lack a sense of humor. Consider this passage about the problem of “certainty”:

To what extent, however, are we justified in mouthing this glorious word “certainty”? Mabillon, long ago, admitted that the criticism of charters could not attain ‘metaphysical’ certainty. He was quite right. It is only for the sake of simplification that we sometimes speak of evidence rather than of probabilities. But we are more aware today than in Mabillon’s time, that that convention is not peculiar to us. It is not ‘impossible,’ in the absolute sense of the term, that the Donation of Constantine is authentic, or – according to the whim of some scholars – that the Germania of Tacitus is a forgery. Nor is it, in the same sense, ‘impossible’ that a monkey might accidentally reconstruct either the Donation or the Germania, letter for letter, simply by striking the keys of a typewriter at random. ‘The impossible physical event,’ Cournot has said, ‘is nothing but an event whose probability is infinitely small.’ So far as it finds certainty only by estimating the probable and the improbable, historical criticism is like most other sciences of reality, except that it undoubtedly deals with a more subtle gradation of degrees. (133)

Now of course someone could step in here and argue that Bloch cannot justifiably, in a metaphysical sense, talk about degrees of probability any more than he can talk about absolute certainty: that point can be debated. But the broader accusation that gets thrown around – not always, but often enough to become annoying – that historians have been, until recently, largely ignorant of these kinds of problems simply does not match up with how many historians have gone about their work.

As Bloch writes:

“For there is one precaution which the ordinary detractors of history seem not to have heeded. Their words lack neither eloquence nor wit, but they have, for the most part, neglected to ask themselves exactly what it is they are discussing. The picture which they have formed for themselves of our studies has not been drawn in the workshop. It savors rather of the debating platform than of the study. Above all, it is out of date.” (11-12)


election exclusive: interview with Francis Parkman

October 27, 2004

While I have nothing but praise for PBS’s decision to ask historians to comment on the Presidential campaign I must point out that their coverage does suffer from one, albeit minor, limitation: in choosing to speak only with current (i.e. living) historians they have unintentionally slanted their coverage towards the recent past.

So, in order to get a longer-range perspective on the election, I decided to inquire into the views of a man some have called the greatest American historian of his century, a man who was not only an expert on earlier periods of American history but who actually had personal life experience in the 19th century. I speak, of course, of Francis Parkman. Known primarily for his work on the Oregon Trail and his multi-volume account of the conflict between France and England in North America, Mr. Parkman has also authored articles on contemporary politics for such eminent journals as the Atlantic Monthly and the North American Review. His replies to a few brief questions are presented below:

No Great Matter: First of all, Mr. Parkman, I would like to thank you for your time. I know you haven’t appeared anywhere outside of the spiritualist media for over a century. Now before we get into politics, I’d like you to comment – as an historian – on a recent remark about history coming from within the Bush administration that has been the subject of no small amount of coverage lately. As you may not have caught the remark in the papers I will repeat it in full:

”That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. ”We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Senior Adviser to George W. Bush, quoted in the New York Times Magazine, 17 Oct 2004

As a man who has given much thought to the influence of individuals in history, what do you think of this view?

Francis Parkman:

The history of the progress of mankind is the history of its leading minds. The masses, left to themselves, are hardly capable of progress, except material progress, and even that imperfectly. Through the long course of history, a few men, to be counted by scores or by tens, have planted in the world the germs of a growth whose beneficent vitality has extended itself through all succeeding ages; and any one of these men outweighs in value to mankind myriads of nobles, citizens, and peasants, who have fought or toiled in their generation, and then rotted into oblivion.

NGM: Turning now to politics, let’s start with foreign policy, as most commentators see it as the key issue of this election. What do you think about the idea that the United States must be willing not only to acknowledge, but to embrace the idea that it is an empire?


There are those who call on imperialism to help us; but, supposing this heroic cure to be possible, we should rue the day that brought us to it. Our emperor would be nothing but a demagogue on a throne, forced to conciliate the masses by giving efficacy to their worst desires.

NGM: That’s a rather pessimistic view. Do you give no credence to the argument that our institutions, along with our system of checks and balances, will be able to prevent the worst abuses of power from taking place in the domestic arena – no matter how poorly our officials may govern?


The irrepressible optimist, who discovers in every disease of the state a blessing in disguise, will say that eminent abilities are unnecessary in democracies. We commend him to a short study of the recent doings of Congress, and, if this cannot dispel his illusion, his case is beyond hope.

NGM: In that case, do you consider yourself among those who see few positive prospects for our future? Do you find yourself worrying that we could be heading towards some kind of decline or fall?


There are prophets of evil who see in the disorders that involve us the precursors of speedy ruin; but complete disruption and anarchy are, we may hope, still far off, thanks to an immense vitality and an inherited conservative strength. The immediate question is this: Is the nation in the way of keeping its lofty promise, realizing its sublime possibilities, advancing the best interests of humanity, and helping to ennoble and not vulgarize the world? Who dares answer that it is?

NGM: Certainly those are important questions many people are asking – though their answers may differ from yours, of course. After all many consider this to be one of the most important moments in our history. Just look at the intensity of this campaign season. Do you see in the increase in voter registrations a sign of a reinvigoration of our political system?


There is an illusion, or a superstition, among us respecting the ballot. The means are confounded with the end. Good government is the end, and the ballot is worthless except so far as it helps to reach this end. Any reasonable man would willingly renounce his privilege of dropping a piece of paper into a box, provided that good government were assured to him and his descendants.

NGM: You don’t mean to say that you entertain doubts about the democratic process, do you?


…universal suffrage becomes a questionable blessing. Still we are told it is an inalienable right. Suppose for an instant that it were so, wild as the supposition is. The community has rights as well as the individual, and it has also duties. It is both its right and its duty to provide good government for itself, and, the moment the vote of any person or class of persons becomes an obstacle to its doing so, this person or class forfeits the right to vote; for, where the rights of a part clash with the rights of the
whole, the former must give way.

NGM: Well, I’m not sure we want to go down that path – and in any case we seem to be running out of time here. But I have one more question. What do you say to recent charges that you, and your predecessor George Bancroft, engaged in plagiarism while composing your histories?

Mr. Parkman declined to comment.

(Disclaimer: This interview is for entertainment purposes only. Readers interested in reading Parkman’s views in context – should refer to this article from 1878. Note further that the views expressed therein are for historical purposes only. Any resemblance to opinions held, whether secretly or openly, by people living today is purely coincidental.)