Publication Date

December 1, 1997

Perspectives Section

From the President

For reasons I've never been able to fathom, I once sat down and read through the AHA presidential addresses in the American Historical Review. The occasion was a year I spent in Paris with my husband and children after I had completed my PhD. The Biblioth√®que Nationale (BN) was filled with treasures, albeit ones difficult to locate, and I had just finished doing a study of the French adaptation of American texts during the heady days of 1789. There was certainly much for me to look at, including unread writings of the Americanistes whom I had dealt with in my dissertation, but instead I went into the basement of the BN and ploughed through AHA presidential addresses. I even took notes. I thrilled to Carl Becker’s “Everyman His Own Historian,” Charles Beard’s “Written History As an Act of Faith,” Dexter Perkins’s “We Shall Gladly Teach,” and William Langer’s “The Next Assignment.” There were poignant moments to savor as well. In 1967, at the height of our cold war involvement in Vietnam, Roy Nichols looked back a half century to Edward Channing’s questions about the possibility of progress and remarked, “Today, we ask them in terms of the possibility of survival.”1

My canvass of presidential addresses was, I suppose, a would-be professional historian's way of observing the footprints on her chosen career path, of connecting with the sensibilities of her hoped-for peers. I didn't have a job at the time, and the presidential addresses made tangible the profession I sought to join. They also confirmed my impression that large, articulate, knowledgeable, distinguished men had carried the burden of American history for a long time—and had done it unaided and uncomplainingly.

It was a small, conversable world that they spoke to. An air of familiarity, of shared allusions if not illusions, hung over the pages. At least that was the impression that their addresses conveyed. I ate them up. And by some perversity of discourse, the ambiance of high-toned "entre nousness" that their words evoked was exactly what I carried away from my reading of their addresses. Here was a group of serious historians who cared about what they were doing, could express that care with clarity and wit, and took pains to communicate with their fellow historians. And I was one of them; they just didn't know it.

Now that I have been struggling with writing a presidential address, this last, valedictory act of an AHA president, a kind of parthian shot from the podium, I have a new appreciation of the pitfalls of composing such a speech. Last summer when I began tackling the job, I went through the usual discursive throat-clearing, hunting for my theme, hoping that my fingers would miraculously tap it out for me. I explained to a friend that I didn't want to be pretentious—sententious perhaps, but certainly not tendentious; that I wished to avoid being boring; I didn't care to be didactic; and I hoped not to appear trendy. After a pause, she commented softly that it sounded as though I wanted to be in the Bahamas. And I suppose she was right. Well, that was then, and now that I have completed a first draft, I'm a bit more positive about the effort.

But I had no sooner finished my draft than I decided to catch up on the addresses since my last survey. I discovered that I felt a good deal more companionable now, even with R. R. Palmer's "The American Historical Association in 1970" and Arthur Link's "Retrospect and Prospect," luminaries of my graduate schooldays.2 I even read the addresses that I had heard: Bernard Bailyn’s “The Challenge of Modern Historiography”; David Herlihy’s “Family,” so appropriately listened to by his five children; Carl Degler’s “In Search of American History”; Natalie Zemon Davis’s “History’s Two Bodies”; Louise Tilly’s “Connections”; John Coatsworth’s “Welfare”; and Caroline Walker Bynum’s “Wonder.”3

I couldn't find a professional leitmotif in this wonderful body of addresses, but there were some commonalities. For instance, the presidents were given more to ruminations than manifestos, as might be expected from one who comes to that chair after the age of 50. They uniformly pitched their sights high. Even more interesting to a historian, the addresses form a sequence of statements marking the intellectual developments in the field.

What is perhaps not remarkable, but reassuring, is the evidence that history has retained its appeal as a calling. Quite willing to appear idealistic, even naive, historians—if the AHA presidents are representative—have retained their commitment to the civilizing and humanizing influences of history in the face of the relentless professionalization and high-stakes politics of the postwar research university. "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers," goes the line in Wordsworth's sonnet. There should be an institution that cultivates that sentiment. I'd like to think that in the departments of history around the nation young people could learn that the study of history opens them up to the truths of poets.

Thank you for your many responses to my columns. And to those of you who will not be in Seattle January 8–12, may I say here how very much I have enjoyed being president of our organization.


1.AHR 37 (1932); 39 (1934); 49 (1943); and 63 (1957).

2.AHR 72 (1967), 424

3.AHR 87 (1982); 96 (1991); 92 (1987); 93 (1988); 99 (1994); 101 (1995); and 102 (1996).

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