The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Historians?

Barbara Weinstein, September 2007

Rarely is a historian's death an occasion for a front-page article in the "Week in Review" section of the New York Times. Sam Tanenhaus's meditation on Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s contribution to public discourse over the past 60 years bears eloquent testimony to Schlesinger's extraordinary place in American intellectual life. I count it as a good thing for a serious and significant scholar to receive such prominent acknowledgement, so it is with reluctance that I take issue with some of the claims Tanenhaus makes in "History, Written in the Present Tense."1 To be sure, I am perfectly delighted to have him heap praise on Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Unfortunately his generous assessment of Schlesinger's scholarly contributions came wrapped in a considerably less generous evaluation of current historical scholarship, the classic "they don't make them like they used to" complaint about the state of the profession.2 It is with that aspect of the essay, not his praise of Schlesinger, that I take issue here.

Scholars and pundits have periodically lamented the state of the historical profession. Some of their complaints now seem unsavory. There is, for example, 1962 AHA President Carl Bridenbaugh's rebuke of the social-science historians, a cohort he assumed to be largely of "lower middle-class or foreign origins" and lacking in the dense, intimate familiarity with American culture that informed his own (presumably superior) works of history.3 Other critics seem merely cranky—for example, the many scholars who have complained about excessively theoretical language in the new cultural history, which allegedly prevents historical scholarship from being accessible to a larger public (and sometimes to one's own colleagues). At first glance, we might suppose that Tanenhaus's essay is yet one more plea for historians to broaden their appeal to a nonacademic readership, to become more relevant to a larger public. This eagerness to reach a wider audience has produced a flood of books—most of them individual or collective biographies—that has tapped into a surprisingly robust market. At the same time, they have produced a troubling tendency, evident in Tanenhaus's own discussion of the historical profession, to overstate the role of an intriguing or outstanding individual in the course of historical events (as Eric Foner noted in a recent review).4

Tanenhaus's critique of the historical profession, however, is substantially different. He readily acknowledges that "we live in what is often called a golden age of history and biography, when David McCullough, to cite the most obvious example, has attained fame and enormous sales." He also mentions the considerable success in the nonacademic market of books by Gordon Wood and James McPherson. None of these scholars, alas, meets the criteria that Tanenhaus has in mind for a historian of Schlesingerian proportions. According to Tanenhaus, Schlesinger "wrote with an authority not to be found among younger historians and political thinkers, who continue to borrow from their elders." He goes on to ask "why do current historians seem unable to engage the world as confidently as Mr. Schlesinger did?" And lest one conclude that contemporary politicians simply do not provide the stirring subjects of study offered by, say, FDR or the Kennedys, Tanenhaus assures us that "the point is not that our leaders have shrunk, but that, in some sense, our historians have."5

So is this the case of the incredible shrinking historians? Are we really "smaller" than we used to be? There are so many different angles from which to critique Tanenhaus's dyspeptic assessment of the state of the historical profession that I am hard pressed to know where to start. One easy and obvious criticism of Tanenhaus's lament is that it is redolent of nostalgia for an era when almost all major historians (not to mention politicians) were white males, and when it was possible to speak with the "natural authority" of a privileged sector about a "society" deemed to have certain essential and enduring characteristics. I do not think for a second that Tanenhaus believes only white male historians could be important public figures, but he does seem strangely unaware of the way in which the diversification of the historical profession, both in terms of who writes history and what we study, has made certain kinds of oracular statements seem inappropriate, even a bit absurd, and for excellent reasons. (Indeed, he quotes Schlesinger himself as saying, in 2000: "If I were writing ‘The Vital Center' today, I would tone down the rhetoric.")6 It is one thing to shrink from making grand generalizations out of excessive caution; it is quite another to refrain from doing so due to a heightened perception of the many debatable assumptions and ideologically loaded constructions that inform such declarations.

Decades of research in social and cultural history have made historians acutely conscious of the multiple and conflicting voices that contribute to political discourse and that struggle to be heard in the public sphere. This makes any attempt to capture "the spirit of the times" problematic not so much because it would be difficult to do, but rather because the enterprise itself seems spurious; it could only be done by suppressing some of those voices, and reinforcing certain hierarchies of knowledge and power that are then too easily confused with objective truth or special insight. Tanenhaus seems disappointed that current historians don't have Schlesinger's knack for catchy phrases, but I would venture that the capacity to take apart the commonsensical ideas that inform public debate is as valuable as the ability to turn a memorable phrase—but perhaps not as valuable for politicians running for office.

Tanenhaus also places great store on the ability of historians to capture the imagination of contemporary politicians, a goal that most of us would hesitate to set for ourselves, not because we shrink from public engagement, but because we are all too aware, often painfully so, that those historical narratives most likely to appeal to political leaders, past and present, are precisely those that condense and confirm their way of seeing the world, not those that challenge or subvert it. Writing at a different time and in a very different intellectual context, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. quite understandably saw his mission as a historian in a less provocative light than most politically engaged historians writing in the early 21st century. But what might have been admirable then would be more questionable now. Witness the recent fuss at the White House over British historian Andrew Roberts, an event that would make even those among us who crave the public spotlight cringe, and not simply because of widespread antipathy toward the current administration. Does anyone doubt that Roberts's anointed status as "Bush and Cheney's favorite historian" mainly reflects his scholarly affirmation of their already existing ways of seeing the world? In a sense, what he has captured is their lack of imagination. I agree with Tanenhaus that it is not simply a question of today's politicians getting smaller (I don't think the Kennedys were substantially more inclined toward having their worldviews challenged). Instead it's the way most historians would define their relationship to those in power that has changed. What I disagree with is Tanenhaus's overall evaluation of this shift—I would hardly define it as making us "smaller," whether morally or intellectually. We keep our distance not out of distaste for the rough and tumble world of political debate, or lack of keen insight, but to maintain a critical edge that often gets blunted by too close a relationship with those we study.

Finally, I think Tanenhaus misses the mark in his assessment of the impact of the historical profession on the contemporary political sphere precisely because he still has a vision of the Lone Brilliant Historian who will ride into Washington, D.C., with intellectual guns blazing. Instead, what we have witnessed over the last few decades is the less spectacular but perhaps more enduring impact of a scholarly movement that has helped formed the foundation for new political actors, local, regional, and national. The many historians who have produced pathbreaking works in the history of women and gender, African American history, gay history, and other new subfields do not necessarily have any direct connection to, say, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, but I would argue that their work has been a contributing factor to the changing composition of the political sphere that makes these historic candidacies possible. And then there are the new comparative and transnational trends, particularly among U.S. historians, that broaden the implications of their work beyond the parochial boundaries of U.S. political history, to a scholarly world where historians versed in subaltern studies and postcolonial theory may have as much to say about the role of the United States in global politics as the conventional American historian.

It may well be that Arthur Schlesinger Jr., was a towering figure, but as a good historian, he would surely have recognized that he was also a product of his time. Today perhaps no individual historian is likely to tower above the profession or stride into the political sphere in the same way. But I'd like to think it's because we're growing, not shrinking.

—Barbara Weinstein (NYU) is president of the AHA.


1. New York Times, Week in Review, March 4, 2007. Tanenhaus is the editor of the New York Times Book Review and has a long list of publications, including Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (1998).

2. For an appreciation of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. that also celebrates his historically informed political insights but avoids the declension narrative, see E.J. Dionne Jr., "A Historian Who Saw Beyond the Past," Washington Post, March 2, 2007.

3. Carl Bridenbaugh, "The Great Mutation," 1962 Presidential Address.

4. Eric Foner, "The Three Souths," New York Times Book Review, April 8, 2007. According to Foner, "it has become fashionable of late for historians writing with one eye on the best-seller list to disparage fellow scholars for supposedly alienating the broad reading public." But he argues that this comes at a cost to the quality of historical interpretation and thinks "it's time to declare a moratorium on scholars' denigrating other scholars for failing to achieve popularity."

5. For those of you who are not movie buffs, I should note that here Tanenhaus is apparently channeling Norma Desmond, in Billy Wilder's classic Sunset Boulevard, who famously responded to the comment that she "used to be big" with the claim that "I am big. It's the pictures that got small."

6. The quote is from Schlesinger's memoir, A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917–1950 (Boston, 2002).