Not Capulets, Not Montagus
A paper read at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held in Chicago, Illinois, December 29, 1959. Published in the American Historical Review, Vol. LXV, No. 2, January 1960, pp. 253–270
Books by Allan Nevins
A century ago, as the older studies of American letters remind us, a famous school of literary historians, insouciantly rorriantic, was flourishing in this country. Prescott’s masterpiece, The Conquest of Mexico, was but a dozen years old, and the third volume of his Philip II was fresh from the press; his admirers looked forward to the fourth, which he never wrote, for we mark this year the centenary of his death. Motley, after long grubbing in the coalpits of black-letter folios and European archives, had recently published his Rise of the Dutch Republic, and was toiling on the vivid pages of The United Netherlands. The magniloquent George Bancroft was in full career. Parkman, retarded by nervous disease, had already gained some reputation from The Conspiracy of Pontiac, and his Pioneers of France in the New World lay only a few years ahead. In Great Britain, Hallam, Macaulay, Napier, and Carlyle were world famous, read everywhere, and Froude had begun to achieve his more narrowly Anglo-American reputation. This school ruled history with a golden scepter of self-confident mastery. Macaulay, who went to his grave in the Abbey a century ago, had said that he expected to be read in the year 2,000, and dared add: “I sometimes think of the year 3,000.”
But at that very time, a century since, historical writing was entering upon a colder and more austere era. Principles termed “scientific” were storming the fortresses of historical learning in Europe, and echoes of their conquests were reaching the United States. If we paused for definitions, we would tread upon dangerous ground. But with some sense of quaintness we may recall how leaders like Buckle discarded the religious interpretation of events and the Hegelian framework of thesis and antithesis; how they scorned the anthropomorphic doctrine that nations mature, decay, and die much as individuals grow, age, and die; and how they rejected Carlyle’s belief that history is a tissue of the acts and ideas of great men. From the natural sciences they borrowed a mechanistic vocabulary, asserting that history is governed by forces or pressures. If the terminology thus first employed was primarily Newtonian, their ideology soon owed more to Darwinian thought. But they remained insistent on scientific methods, and set scholars to investigating the ecology of Greek culture, the structure of the Tory party, or the climate of Jacksonian thought, as if these were precise concepts.
That with the demise of the romantic, unscientific, and eloquent school of writers, our history ceased to be literature, is a fact so well accepted that recent works on American letters omit history altogether. It is less often noted that the rise of scientific history sharply limited the influence of the subject upon democracy. Historical study became compartmented into many specialities, economic, constitutional, social, political, and intellectual; it was approached with a more and more intricate elaboration of method; and much of it was completely dehumanized. Especially as written in our universities it lost the large public authority it once possessed. Its ideas counted, for nothing can stay an idea, but its texts made scant appeal to the general citizenship. When Macaulay sold 26,500 copies of his third and fourth volumes in Great Britain within ten weeks, and heard from Edward Everett that they out-distanced in America any book but the Bible and a few school manuals, he felt he was achieving his cardinal aim: he was affecting the ideas and action of the whole people. A workingmen’s meeting sent him a vote of thanks for writing a book that they found as interesting as it was profitable. As scientific history rose, those ample days vanished; populations swelled, libraries became universal, but the acceptance of historical works seemed to contract.
All the arts and the sciences, in contributing what they can to the instruction of democracy, face an increasingly difficult problem in communication.
The predicament of some branches of science is particularly painful, for their new-found power shapes the destiny of a citizenship which they can no longer reach. The mathematical physicists and nuclear specialists cannot hold effective intercourse even with the biologist, chemist, and astronomer, much less the lawyer, doctor, or merchant. For one reason, part of their knowledge is so esoteric that it can be explained only to a few highly proficient men; for another, national security forbids them to divulge more t han a safe fraction of what is communicable. Nor is the scientist in these sensitive areas always sure of his knowledge. When Enrico Fermi reached the critical stage of his labor on the Manhattan project, he was not at all positive that the next step might not be catastrophic. He took every precaution, he had a cadmium solution ready to flood the atomic pile, but he could not give General Leslie R. Groves a firm guarantee of the result; it might be harmless or it might be stupendously disastrous. Science today originates weapons and strategic plans that shape not military decisions alone, but the most vital national policies. Yet the scientist is to a great extent insulated from the electorate which has hitherto believed that all major decisions rest with it or its chosen leaders. If anybody supposes that this fact does not give our scientific experts the profoundest uneasiness, he knows little about their recent discussions.
Meanwhile, such arts as music, painting, sculpture, and poetry face a quite different set of impediments in communicating with the public. In these august domains, innovation constantly wrestles with conservatism; and in recent years the gulf between the new music and traditional music, between modern painting and classic painting, between the sculpture of St. Gaudens and the sculpture of Henry Moore, has widened. The observer must straddle the gap between a small and growing body of enthusiasts on one side, and a determinedly skeptical body of Olympians on the other. In poetry the schism has become especially formidable, for not only does much recent poetry seem deliberately obscure, but as C. S. Lewis tells us, its obscurity is of a new type. In painting, the struggle, if of less general interest, is even more bitter. The enthusiasts believe they are conducting a happy revolution; the conservatives try to hold the line against what they regard as anarchy; and the public watches. All these arts should be democratic possessions, but which school is a democracy to accept? In its heart the public prefers the familiar and recognizable, but in its mind it knows that new wine is always bursting old bottles. It realizes that when Mahonri Young commented acridly on Henry Moore that he liked sacred art but not holey art, he might be taking the same stand that Jeffrey took when he exclaimed of Wordsworth: “This will never do.” The public cultivates tolerance, but meanwhile it feels confused. The arts, in short, are in such a state of internecine warfare that they find it hard to communicate.
History, in its efforts to reach the broadest public that it can profit, faces no such difficulties as science, for it is not impossibly esoteric in its discoveries. It faces no such difficulties as painting or music, for it remains firmly traditional in form; our most radical historians gladly cast their work in the same molds as Prescott and Parkman. History, apparently, should be able to keep its ancient rapport with the intelligent public without any severe perplexities. Why, then, the loss of its old status?
For the proud pretensions which historians once made to the instruction of a whole nation have long been abandoned. George Bancroft spoke of himself as holding his lamp to the feet of all good Americans, “the intelligence of the common mind,” in accordance with his dictum: “The measure of the progress of civilization is the progress of the people.” Richard Hildreth expressed a confident belief that America, and especially Americans of the younger generation, would read him with sympathetic appreciation. James Schouler in his first two volumes asserted that it was his intention “to interest and instruct my countrymen in a period . . . whose lessons are most salutary even at this day.” Nicolay and Hay as late as 1886 could address the entire republic: “We commend the result of so many years of research and diligence to all our countrymen, North and South. . . .” While these assertions were not immodest, for their authors coupled with them an admission that they might fail, they are refreshing as the statement of an exalted ambition. They did honor to the historians and to the country. But nobody today would venture to speak to our 175,000,000 people in such terms.
Is this because Americans have lost their large degree of homogeneity? No such decline has taken place; our people use the same goods, live by the same basic assumptions, and show an even excessive standardization of taste. Is it because the educational level has fallen? Obviously it has risen. Is it because nationalism or patriotism has loosened its hold? The idea is absurd. Is it because changes in social habits, recreational impulses, and cultural pursuits have narrowed the ranks of serious readers? Not if the statistics of publishers and libraries are accurate. Why, then, do historians no longer speak of instructing the nation, and why do so few aspire to a general democratic public?
The full answer is complex, rooted in the increasing complexity of our civilization. But the central explanation of the change is connected with the sweeping transfer of history into scientific channels, and the effect of this transfer in widening the gap between history that is broadly acceptable and history that is academically acceptable. In proportion as history took a scientific coloration, employed mechanistic or evolutionary terms, and abandoned its old preoccupation with individual act and motive, it lost much of its serviceability to democratic needs. In proportion as it turned from Prescott and Parkman, Macaulay and Froude, to the new approaches represented by Buckle, Renan, and Burckhardt (I still speak of changes a century ago), its significance to the ordinary citizen paled. For it tended to place men and communities in a position where they were controlled by inexorable, impersonal pressures; where the citizen lost power to decide or move. The new history was soon given a special position in the United States by the rise of graduate instruction, emphasizing abstract ideas and detailed research. It became more original, but more confusing; more expert, but grayer and grimmer. The democratic public turned away from it. It turned to its own preference, the popular writers who remained faithful to a human, romantic, and stylistically appealing type of presentation; for it was this which Demos found usable.
At this point history lost much of its authority. Well-read men and women, even the college trained, began to feel that history must be either authoritative and dull or interesting and untrustworthy. Our academic historians did little, in general, to abate this suspicion; rather, they confirmed it by writing dull books and abusing bright ones. The democratic public, faced with this choice, never hesitated; it took the book which emphasized human motive and action almost every time.
But what, I may be asked at this point, is meant by the phrase “democratic public”?—and here we do clearly need a definition. Whenever I think of the relationships of history to democracy, I revert to an evening scene in a house just outside Dayton, Ohio. More accurately, it was a great stone and brick mansion of Georgian architecture, set in a grove of fine oaks, elms, and hickories overlooking a verdurous countryside. Its owner called it “Trailsend.” Every evening he and I would return from some joint labor we were pursuing in town, where he owned the two principal dailies. While we ate dinner he would talk of his farm boyhood, his rise to wealth and power as editor-publisher, and of the reason why he housed his newspaper in a marble building resembling a bank—for the banks had once refused him some credit he desperately needed, and he took his amiable revenge in demonstrating that a great newspaper could occupy a building finer than any banking house. He would talk of his friendships with Newton D. Baker and Tom L. Johnson, his skirmishes with Warren G. Harding and Boss George Cox of the opposite party, and his devotion to Woodrow Wilson.
Then, nightly, my host would settle me for further work in a sitting room upstairs, and down the vista of a long hallway I would see him in his library, in a pool of golden light from his lamp, reading. Two hours would pass, and he was still absorbed in his book. He read chiefly history and biography, for his name was James M. Cox, and he had made history himself. He had been governor of Ohio in a critical time, a counselor of great men, and a candidate for the presidency who, as everyone will now grant, should have won. At breakfast next morning we would talk sometimes of the news, but more often of the history he had read the previous night. Since the ten days at “Trailsend,” I have thought of history for democracy as the kind of history preferred by my distinguished host. He had been too poor to continue schooling beyond the age of sixteen, and later too busy to educate himself systematically; but he had a keen appreciation of good historical writing, a lively mind, and a muscular grasp of problems past and present. His feeling for history was much that of another practical man of affairs with whom I often talked and corresponded, William Allen White—a journalist, a man unversed in scholarly lore, but a devourer of books and an acute judge of their merit. Their criteria of history were amateur criteria, but from every important standpoint but the expert’s they were incisive and informed criteria.
These men, in a superior way because they were superior persons, typified the best democratic audience a historian can find. They expected the books they read to meet certain fundamental requirements, which, in an ascending order of importance, I would enumerate as four.
One is that history shall be offered in God’s plenty, so that it shall be available for every need, taste, and mood. A broad catholicity should open it to the rich in knowledge and to those as ill-schooled as Macaulay’s workingmen, to lovers of bare fact and votaries of interpretation, to the imaginative and the prosaic. Neither the pedant’s nor the poet’s contribution should be undervalued—and as Hazlitt says, pedant and poet are in some respects brothers. The second basic prescription is that a considerable part of history should be written with gusto, for those who will read with gusto; written with a delight that communicates itself to style. Who is the historian of gusto, of vivid delight? “He will make us see as living men the hardfaced archers of Agincourt, and the war-worn spearmen who followed Alexander down beyond the rim of the known world. . . . We shall hear grate on the coasts of Britain the keels of the Low Dutch sea-thieves whose children’s children were to inherit unknown continents.” So wrote a president of the American Historical Association who was also, in his time, President of the United States. A third requirement is that a great part of the history shall be assimilable to current needs. The donnish mind retreats too easily into an antiquarian past, losing itself in Hannibal’s strategy or Charlemagne’s politics or Lollard pamphleteering as if they were detached entities. But the democratic public lives in the present and future, and except in moods of escapism viants history at least as directly apposite to its concerns as Gibbon’s study of the Antonines was apposite to eighteenth-century England—which was very directly indeed.
The fourth and cardinal requirement is that the history offered a broad democratic public should not be dehumanized; that instead of dissecting impersonal forces, or presenting those misty wraiths the economic man or sociological man, the historian should narrate the past in terms of living men and women seen as individuals, groups, or communities; and that he should give due emphasis to personal motivation and initiative. John Richard Green said that English historical work had one special superiority, the sense of its writers “that government and outer facts are but the outcome of individual men, and men what body, mind, and spirit make them.” Nor will the historian fail to allot due place to the accidental and irrational; those elernents which, as Graham Wallas thought, make up a great part of current politics, and which have offered so much of the drama of this great motley, colorful, unpredictable world. Human choice and irrational fortuity are compounded in the kind of history that democracy recognizes.
The democratic audience which makes these requirements is not, I repeat, an audience merely of middlebrows and devotees of waist-high culture. It contains innumerable eople who approach the competence of James M. Cox and William Allen White. It numbers many an austere intellectual. No less a thinker than Arthur O. Lovejoy, author of The Great Chain of Being, told me during the Second World War that he had gone into a shop to buy a book on disloyalty. He was shown two recent books on Civil War Copperheads, one of solid thoroughness by a university historian, with a full analysis of forces, :and one by a newspaper editor which emphasized human elements. “I quickly saw which was the book for me,” said Lovejoy; and with true democratic instinct, he took the human treatment. But those are poor Americans who make much of the lines which seem to separate lowbrow, middlebrow, and highbrow. In the last analysis we have but one democratic public—the public to which Emerson and Lincoln spoke; and the rule of the historian in approaching it should be the hoary maxim of the newspaper offices, “Never overestimate the information of the public, but above all never underestimate its intelligence.”
The gap between popular history and academic history which, as I have said, the rise of scientific ideas long ago widened, would have been less serious but for a certain animosity on both sides. A phrase I have just used, the donnish (or professorial) mind, sums up the prejudice of the lay writer. On the other side, scholastic folk who speak with respect of a popular movement or popular faith will refer to popular history with scorn. This attitude is akin to the belief of some literary critics that since Longfellow and Walt Whitman are popular poets they must be bad poets. It also springs, more legitimately, from the belief that history is a discipline, and that the amateur or lay practitioner stands outside the fold. The gap is on many counts unfortunate, and should be narrowed by better understanding, better taste, and better civility on both sides. Any inquiry into the mode of effecting this result must begin with a scrutiny of the causes of distrust.
The suspicion which we historians of the academic guild feel for our lay brethren outside has something to support it in this just-mentioned assumption that history at its best is an arduous discipline. In every field, the conscientiously trained expert reprobates short cuts to mastership. The professional musician who devotes years of toil to mastery of the piano knows that an advertisement offering proficiency in ten easy lessons is just a cruel hoax. The true economist knows that nobody is more dangerous than the politician who merely thinks he knows the principles of economics. The professional student of literature, trained in prosody, philology, and criticism, is contemptuous of the man who supposes that an easy chair and a five-foot shelf will produce a literary scholar. In all learning, the promise of a shortcut is the will-o’-the-wisp glimmering over a perilous bog. The dullest monograph writer, meticulous in stating facts and conclusions, at any rate helps to build a granite foundation, while the random popularizer destroys true knowledge.
The new mass media have heightened the spirit of apprehensive caution within our guild by increasing the danger that careless popularizations of history will mean their vulgarization. Motion pictures, radio, and television are guilty of some horrible distortions of truth. Perhaps the direct harm they do is seldom great. As Francis Bacon said, “It is not the lie that passeth through the mind, but the lie that sinketh in and settleth, that doeth the hurt”; and the worst inflictions of the mass media seldom sink in far. Nevertheless, they destroy a taste for what is veracious and fine in the same way that meretricious books destroy a taste for literature. In looking at popularizations in any form, moreover, the experienced guild historian feels a certain despair over their inevitable simplifications. He knows how intricate are the complexities of great events, how deeply submerged are the subtler elements, how delicate are the shadings to be put into an interpretive painting. Truth, writes Renan, lies in the nuances—and how seldom does popularized history have any nuances. Some of its productions possess a flash and glitter that momentarily delight us, but when the moment passes, we wryly comment: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas l’histoire.”
We professional historians have other hesitancies and objections. One of the most important arises from our feeling that the work done by general writers is, taken as a whole, spasmodic and unplanned, and that the profit motive is too exclusively the stimulus. By contrast, we say, our well-marshaled ranks try to cover the past in systematic fashion. Our careful division of areas of interest assists us in this. Some leading scholar will point out a gap; instantly a half dozen younger men leap to fill it. Or another scholar propounds what seems a fruitful thesis; at once disciples arise to apply it to this or that segment of the past. It is we who have toiled most continuously to build specialized libraries and fill teeming archives; we who have organized research projects, and trained the workers; we whose criticism is the best touchstone separating good books from poor ones. We, in short, have given history its firmest foundations.
The guild historian also takes a just pride in his carefully developed equipment: in his knowledge of the rules of historical evidence, in his techniques ranging from medieval calligraphy to present-day diplomatic usages, in the tough-minded skepticism and flashes of insight gained by long study. By such expertness alone he avoids pitfalls like Carlyle’s use of the Tompkins forgeries in his life of Cromwell. He knows that the footnotes to which amateurs take exception not only guide other searchers, but serve the writer by compelling him to restrict himself to validated materials. On all this he does well to insist. But if he plants himself too arrogantly on such advantages, and if he tries to limit the popular function in historical writing, he will have to reckon with the court of last resort, the democratic public.
For the general writer of history, appealing to the general reader, has a basis for equally trenchant suspicions of the academic approach. These suspicions are riot to be taken lightly, if only because he has with him the weight of numbers and influence. The engineer, the physician, the chemist would feel deeply disturbed by a suggestion that he was losing rapport with the public he serves. The professional historian cannot afford to be less sensitive. He affects democratic action in three principal ways, by giving occasional guidance to leaders, by affording instruction to the general citizenship, and by helping create a climate of opinion. He will do well to listen respectfully to criticism from workers outside the guild. In most fields, in this country with its long tradition of the versatile amateur, a well-led revolt against excessive professional claims is always assured of wide support. From the days of Winfield Scott to those of Tasker H. Bliss and George Marshall, our people have rejected the idea that only West Point graduates should command our armies. The aphorism of Clemenceau about war and military experts has been applied in our time to experts in pedagogy who asserted a complete right to control our schools: “Education is too important to be left to the educationists.” Were we less modest, it could be applied to us: “History is far too important to be left to the professional historians.”
The principal reproach that writers outside the guild bring against us is rooted in a different sense of values from ours, which we may well pause to examine.
In striving to present the truth about the past, any historian must rely upon the fullest possible research, upon strict care to avoid factual error, upon his best powers of insight and judgment, and upon due use of the imagination. Of these four parts of his panoply two are easily measured. It is not difficult to demonstrate the adequacy of research in Channing, and inadequacy in much of Schouler; the infrequency of factual error in Gardiner, and frequency in Froude. The failure to use insight to reach a deeper truth, however, is not so easily detected. As for imagination, its absence will never be noted by many pedestrian students, some of whom will even omit it from the list of historical essentials. Yet its supreme importance is stated with characteristic force by Parkman in the preface to La Salle and the Great West. “Faithfulness to the truth of history,” he writes, “involves far more than a research, however scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seem to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them. He must be, as it were, a sharer or spectator of the action he describes.”
The principal criticism which general readers and writers level against our guild is this, that of the four parts of our equipment—fullness of research, accuracy, insight, and imagination—we overvalue the first and second, and undervalue the last two. The democratic audience which yearns for a usable image of the past knows that any history falls short of complete truth. Knowing this, they set less store on absolute precision of detail than we professional historians do. Every historical work of any scope contains inaccuracies; the scrupulously careful Douglas Freeman once told me with pardonable pride that he had found only about fifty slips in his four-volume Lee. General readers brush minor errata aside. When a historian gives a picture of the Armada’s defeat in the compelling form in which Froude and Motley give it, they will feel no sense of outrage if the number of guns in Drake’s command is slightly misstated. Their complaint against the academic historian is that his sense of values is often faulty. For most academic historians, alas, will insist that the number of guns be stated with documented precision, but leave the narrative of the Armada so opaque that no reader catches his breath as that great sinister cloud of canvas creeps up over the Channel horizon.
That a piece of historical writing may be accurate in every detail and yet misleading, while another narrative may be flawed with inaccuracies and yet luminous with truth, is a fact which James M. Cox knew without benefit of high school. The intelligent reader knows also that an author of insight may make more from a few artifacts than the most laborious investigator sometimes makes from a rich archive. He knows, too, that the historian’s imagination, used aright, need go only half way to inspire the reader to use his own imagination for the rest of the road. For the best reader of history, as of poetry and fiction, wishes to build something by his own vision; to assist the author in what Michelet said Thierry achieved, a resurrection. Human life without some form of poetry is mere animal existence, and the lay or democratic reader of history is often quicker to value its poetic elements than is the academic student. He lifts a book with the hope that it will kindle his imagination.
How does imagination speak to imagination in history? Why, just precisely as in poetry. Milton created in Paradise Lost a heaven, a hell, and a Garden of Eden—a cosmogony which dominated the imagination of the English-reading world so effectively that it came to be accepted as verity. Churchmen complained that Milton’s Seventh Book supplanted the Biblical account of the same matters. Scientists complained that the Miltonian image took a firmer hold on men’s minds than the Copernican reality; Huxley, for example, in the middle of the nineteenth century said that it seemed impossible to overthrow that epic cosmogony. How did Milton accomplish his feat? By the imaginative use of materials already in men’s possession. He did not have to create his celestial, infernal, and mundane personages, for they already existed. Everybody was familiar with the Father and Son, with Satan and Beelzebub, with Adam, Eve, and the archangels; everybody, when Milton wrote, believed intensely in them. By quickening and brightening the familiar data in his own alembic, Milton kindled the public imagination to the point where it accepted a whole new universe.
Similarly, the democratic reader opens a book with hope that the historian will use men and events already vaguely familiar to him, kindle his imagination, and thus help him create a rounded world. Such readers know a good deal about Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, about George III, Lord North, and Lafayette, about Mount Vernon, Windsor, and Versailles; they are ready to have these images enclosed in a radiant new sphere even more real than the everyday world about them. They know a great deal about Elizabeth and Mary of Scotland, Burleigh and Essex, Raleigh and Bacon; they hope the historian will not merely provide new facts and fresh insights, but weave an incantation about these personages that will give the Tudor era as much immediacy as the Eisenhower era. The inert reader, like the unimaginative historian, never penetrates deeply into the past; but many readers are passionately anxious to make themselves spiritually, almost corporeally, at home there. Perhaps one error we guild historians too often make is to suppose that all readers are inert vessels; perhaps a complementary mistake is to suppose we must conduct readers every step of the way, spelling out each detail. How the cry of Xenophon’s men as they reached the Trebizond shore, “Thalatta! Thalatta!” has echoed down twenty-four centuries; yet how few lines Xenophon gave that dramatic moment in his Anabasis—so few that when blind Joseph Pulitzer heard his secretary read the famous passage, he could not restrain his disappointment. Xenophon had left something to the imagination.
Not only do nonacademic writers of history question our sense of values in putting too much emphasis on research and accuracy at the expense of insight and imagination. They question our sense of values again with respect to the comparative worth of the closet approach to history, and the approach through the practical world. They ask us if the political historian who has never testified before a congressional committee, or written a speech for a governor or mayor, or haunted the city hall for a year, is not handicapped as compared with the man who has; whether Claude G. Bowers’ secretaryship with Senator John W. Kern of Indiana was not worth more to him than a graduate school. It is important to study the world of books, but it is equally important to study the book of the world.
And though it is true that in the recent wars most of us heard the bursting of bombs and bore our shield and buckler, the danger of a retreat into the sequestered tower remains. Perhaps the conviction of Gibbon—less than five feet tall, with a mincing carriage and humiliating ailments—that he wrote better history because he had been a militia officer and a member of Parliament was partly vanity. But Macaulay’s emphatic endorsement of the statement is still worth our recollection. “We have not the smallest doubt,” wrote Macaulay, “that his campaigns, though he never saw an enemy, and his parliamentary attendance, though he never made a speech, were of far more use to him than years of study and retirement would have been. If the time he spent on parade and at mess in Hampshire, or on the treasury bench and at Brooks’s, during the storms which overthrew Lord North and Lord Shelburne, had been passed in the Bodleian library, he might have avoided some inaccuracies; he might have enriched his notes with a greater number of references; but he could never have produced so lively a picture of the court, the camp, and the senate house.” There spoke the historian whose Criminal Code was the law of India for decades. What would Macaulay have made of Sir Winston Churchill’s training as historian?
We of the academic fold must admit that here the outsiders have their point. Lord Acton probably never saw Thomas Hart Benton’s boast in his Thirty Year’s View that he possessed one qualification for writing history in his inside knowledge of how it was made. But Acton would have approved it. For Acton, as Bryce once remarked, believed that the best explanation of what occurred in the light was to be found in what had occurred in the dark. “He was always hunting for the key to secret chambers, preferring to believe that the grand staircase is only for show, and meant to impose upon the multitude, while the real action goes on in the hidden passages behind. . . . One was sometimes disposed to wonder whether he did not think too much about the backstairs. But he had seen a great deal of history in the making.” If Acton’s view is valid that seven-eighths of history, like the iceberg, lies submerged, then the hidden mass will be less readily divined by a closet-scholar measuring from the tip than by a George Bancroft who knew the secrets of Polk’s cabinet. How valuable James Breck Perkins must have found his long service in the House, culminating in the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee, for analyzing the policies cif Richelieu and Mazarin; how useful Albert J. Beveridge must have found his familiarity with Indiana politics and the Senate chamber in assessing the actions of Lincoln, Douglas, and Trumbull.
Finally, if we guild historians complain that most general writers produce their books in random, unplanned fashion, the lay historians can say in reply that our academic pressures distort historical writing in two antithetical ways. First, we demand of immature scholars that they publish, or pay the penalty in years of unpromoted purgatory, and second, we simultaneously paralyze some mature and gifted men by making them feel they must run the gauntlet of critics who require perfection. The first distortion is not important, for immature books that answer questions nobody ever asked, or ever will ask, soon find oblivion. The second distortion is real and disastrous. Rarely outside academic circles do we meet the historian who achieves a massive reputation by the book he is always about to publish, but never publishes. There we too often meet him. Reports circulate of the coming masterwork, scholars refer to it in awed tones, and at the end we find a repetition of Balzac’s story of Le Chef d’Ouevre Inconnu. Such a scholar is always telling us when he will finish his book, but he never tells us when he will begin it. The writer may be numbed by a variety of circumstances, but too often it is by fear of his critics.
For a long generation our historical guild very properly reverenced no name more than that of J. Franklin Jameson. He embodied an ideal spirit of intense, dedicated scholarship. His active career spanned the period between the last books of Bancroft and Parkman and the first books of many men writing today. So broad was his knowledge, so disciplined his mind, so refined his taste, that to converse with him was to feel a bracing northwest wind. He used to say to friends, as he once said to me, “I have never written a book”; and though this was not literally true, it was true in the sense he intended. His services to history would have been richly memorable had he never penned a line. Then, in 1925, the aging Dr. Jameson, contrary to his rule, consented to deliver a series of lectures. He picked up again the lectures he had originally prepared for delivery at Barnard in 1895. The result of this invitation from the Vanuxem Foundation of Princeton was a book he had never really intended to publish, The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement. For him this was a great concession, the more remarkable in that it was really a book of popular history—for any scholar who accepts such a lectureship contracts to be interesting to a wide audience. These four lectures might have been printed as magazine articles. When they were finished Dr. Jameson was a little astonished at himself, as his friends were astonished. The brief volume, now a classic, sharpens our feeling of regret that this great scholar was not so circumstanced, or so self-impelled, that he wrote more books. Perhaps he too feared the critics—above all, his self-criticism.
The nonacademic historian will never admit that overproduction can be as bad as denial of production, for time winnows it. Theodore Roosevelt in reviewing several new historical books once stated the lay attitude. After noting that Gilbert Murray’s The Rise of the Greek Epic, Henry Osborn Taylor’s The Medieval Mind, and T. R. Lounsbury’s Fenimore Cooper were actually disliked by some scholars because they were beautifully written and divorced from aridity, he expressed his views on productive effort with characteristic eraphasis. “What counts in a man or nation,” he wrote, “is not what the man or nation can do, but what he or it actually does. Scholarship that consists in mere learning, but finds no expression in production, may be of interest or value to the individual, just as ability to shoot well at clay pigeons may be of interest and value to him, but it ranks no higher unless it finds expression in achievement. From the standpoint of the nation, and from the broader standpoint of mankind, scholarship is of chief worth when it is productive, when the scholar not merely receives or acquires, but gives.” Of all the parables, declares the lay writer, the academic world should most ponder that of the talent laid away in a napkin.
And if we academic historians can say, as assuredly we can, that our zeal has done most to build the specialized libraries and fill the teeming archives, that we have organized the great research projects and trained the workers, that our criticism goes furthest to separate the grain from the chaff, that in short we have laid the firmest foundations, the nonacademic historian has his counterclaim. It is we, he says, who have done most to keep the interest of the masses in history alive; it is we who have created and nourished a large popular market for historical and biographical books; and it is we who keep the breezes of concern with the human and dramatic aspects of history whipping into your stuffy classrooms.
History, writes Ludwig Dehio, in his recent book on Germany and world politics, has lost influence in continental Europe. This is not the fact in Britain or America, where its spontaneity and exuberance have never been greater. In this country countless newspapers and magazines carry historical material, our hundreds of radio stations are glad to use historical lectures and dramatizations, and history is a frequent visitor on television. It blossoms forth in novels, in collections of pictures, and in the book-magazine American Heritage with its circulation of 330,000. Our great industries publish historical brochures that are often conscientiously written and illustrated. The spate sweeps into the best-seller lists a steady line of books ranging in theme from Katharine of Aragon to William McKinley, from the tragedy of Wolsey to the tragedy of Wilson. The academic world and the lay world should be sharers in the inspiration and opportunities of this torrential demand.
The annals of the republic have no more remarkable illustration of the force with which popular interest in history may burst aloft, like a released fountain, than in the passion with which our democratic public has taken up the Civil War. This impulse long anticipated the centenary of the conflict. Purely spontaneous, it can be traced to no book or event, though Gone with the Wind, John Brown’s Body, and Sandburg’s Lincoln doubtless helped to ignite the interest. With astonishing suddenness, as the last survivors died, books on the war multiplied, enthusiastic study circles bloomed in towns and cities all over the map, a quarterly review sprang into life, and men young and old became greater experts in Stonewall Jackson’s strategy than in Babe Ruth’s exploits on the diamond. Nor did this passionate rediscovery of our most epic years have merely superficial effects. It has produced several books which may be called literature, it has found a wide market for works of the most robust scholarship, it has encouraged university presses as well as commercial publishers to revive standard historical works, and it has altered the whole popular perspective on the past.
Such an ebullition suggests that the appetite of 175,000,000 Americans for history—Americans more and more largely educated through high school if not college—will not be satisfied in the future without a distinct broadening of effort, and in particular a greater attention to a humanized and attractive presentation of the past. It suggests that in this broadened effort the mutual suspicions of the guild historians and the popular historians will be increasingly out of place; that they should join hands, not Capulets, not Montagus, but partners. Indeed, a rapprochement has already taken place. The guild has become more humanistic and literary, and the best nonacademic writers have grown more scholarly; the H. L. Mencken jibe at the professoriat, and the pundit’s sneer at the unlearned, both have a hollow note. Certainly when the academic historian pauses to look at the diplomatist who has written the history of Soviet-American relations just after the First World War, the airline executive who has penned a masterly biographical volume on Theodore Roosevelt, the free-lance woman writer who has reburnished the fame of Lord Coke, the musician who has so eloquently explored the four-century chronicle of the Rio Grande, and the newspaperman who has told how silence fell at Appomattox, he will not feel the partnership unequal. In increasing degree, we are all amateurs, we are all professionals.
If history is to regain its place as instructor of the whole democracy, if it is to communicate with intelligent men as freely as in the year when Prescott and Macaulay died, the academic scholar will have to teach the layman something about precision and depth, while the lay writer will have to teach us a good deal about human warmth and literary form. We can be severe on both sides without animosity or arrogance. We are both servants of Truth, with about an equal amount of selfishness and unselfishness, conscientiousness and carelessness. Cardinal Newman remarked in The Idea of a University that mutual education is one of the great incessant occupations of human society, “carried on partly with set purpose, and partly not.” In what is taught without set purpose, by examples, we of the guild will have most to learn. But in that part of mutual instruction which is undertaken of set purpose, we professional historians should make the largest advances, for we have the greater duty.
Ours is the greater duty because we are organized, and the lay writers of history and biography are not. Along with our academic and professional organizations, we have a wealth of apparatus—the libraries and manuscripts, the grants, the favorable arrangements as to work and leisure, the basic security—which most outside historians lack. Moreover, the guild historian occupies a position to which (though it may be hard for him to believe) the extra-academic writer usually defers. No one who has not been outside the guild, as I long was, can appreciate how keenly the lay historian, often all self-taught, all unguided, feels his exclusion from what he deems the advantages of the professional sphere. Most well-established university teachers have often been embarrassed, I dare say, by the diffidence with which important authors outside Academe have come to them, as if they had access to some arcanum of knowledge and skill which few could hope to share. And as a final reason why we have a greater duty in effecting harmonious relations, in establishing some sense of partnership, nearly all of us are attached to what we may loosely call a public-service institution. We should see that public service means something.
Greater cordiality toward writers of history and biography who are not teachers, and a stronger effort to draw them into our councils, would befit a body theoretically so catholic as the American Historical Association. The work of these men and women is by no means ignored, for it is far too important to be ignored. But how much are they made to feel at home with us? A list of authors, for example, of standard lives of American Presidents includes nearly a score of living or recently living writers of nonacademic positions: Douglas Freeman for Washington; Claude G. Bowers and Marie Goebel for Jefferson; Catherine Drinker Bowen for John Adams; Irving Brant for Madison; Marquis James for Jackson; Holmes Alexander for Van Buren; Freeman Cleaves for Harrison; Sandburg and Ben Thomas for Lincoln; George Fort Milton for Andrew Johnson; myself in newspaper days for Cleveland; Margaret Pulitzer for McKinley; Carleton Putnam for Roosevelt; Henry Pringle for Taft; and William Allen White for Coolidge. How many of these were earnestly and frequently urged to write papers, or sit on committees, or hold offices in this Association? Of all the persons I have listed, only one ever became president of this Association, and he, I fear, only because he rose (or sank) from a position in the fourth estate to a chair in Columbia University. Yet Douglas Freeman, like Claude G. Bowers, like, I may add, James Truslow Adams, like other outside historians, would greatly have valued the distinction; and the active participation of one or most of them in our affairs would by no means have detracted from the Association’s vitality of action or breadth of view.
We are all amateurs, we are all professionals. Perhaps what we all most need is a dual sense of humility; humility because we know that however hard we search for Truth we shall not quite find it, humility because we are in the last analysis servants of the democratic public. That, public has just come through a terrible period of confusion, effort, and disaster, and lives on in a period of intense strain. It needs all the sense of pattern, all the moral fortitude, all the faith in the power of liberty and morality to survive the assaults of tyranny and wrong, that historians of every school can give it. This is a time not for arrogance, disdain, or rivalry, but for union in a common and exalted effort.
Allan Nevins was distinguished as a journalist, author, and history professor at Columbia University. His presidential address only lightly hints at the fact that he was noted for having one of the most contested relationships with the organization over which he later presided. In an effort to bring the "guild historians" together with "nonacademic historians," Nevins proposed the creation of a journal of popular history to the AHA Council in 1938. After the Council rejected the idea, Nevins acted to create a separate organization, The Society of American Historians, "To promote literary distinction in historical writing." He also attacked the pedantry of many academic historians in the Saturday Review of Literature, which produced a sharp rift in the profession. Nevins own distinguished works include American States During and After the Revolution, 1775-79 (1924), the magisterial 4 volume Ordeal of the Union (1947-71), and the two volume Study in Power: John D. Rockefeller, Industrialist and Philanthropist,(1953). ([back to top]
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