C. Vann Woodward delivered this address at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, Washington, D.C., December 29, 1969. Published in the American Historical Review 75, no. 3, pp. 711-726.

The Future of the Past

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.—T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

The fortunes and vitalities of the learned disciplines, history as well as the others, vary considerably from period to period. Decades of confidence and fulfillment are followed by eras of hesitation and marking time. The relative status and prestige of the disciplines change accordingly. Without attempting to explain the phenomenon, I would contend that the profession of history in America has enjoyed a period of exceptional felicity, in fact, something of a boom period, during the two decades following the Second World War.

This estimate is not based on an assessment of the quality and distinction of the scholarship of that period, though they are surely not inconsiderable. It is based, rather, on evidence indicating a sense of corporate well-being, justified or not, that pervaded the guild in those years. Among the components of felicity were some that were widely shared in the academic world: the rising status of college professors in general, for example, and a revived prestige of the humanities. But apart from these shared advantages were others peculiar to the professional historian. They included emancipation from some old feelings of inferiority. One sense of inferiority derived from doubts about the validity of historical knowledge, another from relations between history and other disciplines, and a third from relations between the historian and his public, both academic and nonacademic. Insecurities in each of these areas had haunted historians for years. But after the Second World War, a rough consensus on the validity of historical knowledge restored confidence in the integrity of the craft. Relations with sister disciplines, as well as status and prestige among them, improved and strengthened the position of history in American academic life. Beyond the academic walls professional historians began for the first time to capture a reading public to rival that of the amateurs. The substance of things hoped for materialized in the form of larger enrollments, higher salaries, and more substantial royalty checks. But before these tangible rewards, and more important, came the apparent solution of a series of intellectual problems within the guild.1

“Solution” is perhaps too strong a word. American historians in the postwar years were more disposed to shrug off than to solve abstruse problems of theory. Unaccustomed to theoretical argument and lagging a generation behind European thought on such problems, they were impatient with these subtleties. More than anything else they wanted to break out of the defensive and subservient position in which they had been cornered. The relativists of the profession in the prewar years had disputed the historians’ claim to objectivity. Social scientists, with whom historians had eagerly sought alliance in earlier years, had become patronizing and sometimes contemptuous toward historical scholarship. Historical relativism combined with social science to imprison the historian in the contemporary world and to shift his allegiance and his attention from the past to the present. A powerful school of progressive historians demanded that history be written in accordance with some vision of the future. Critics not only called the integrity of the past in question and subordinated the past to concern for the present and the future, but they impugned the validity of historical knowledge itself and relegated the profession devoted to its study to an inferior status among the disciplines. It was no wonder that a leading historian could complain in 1947 of “the confusions in which most historical students have been tossing.”2 The morale of the guild and the self-esteem and confidence of its members were in disarray, and some despaired of the beleaguered and defenseless plight of the craft.

A spirited and somewhat combative reaction soon emerged among historians. Putting aside niceties of consistency, they began to assert that if physicists could live with relativity, historians could live with relativism. If relativism was unavoidable, they would opt for something they imperiously called “objective relativism.” Granting the impossibility of certainty, they maintained that history was “a quest for wisdom instead of a quest for certainty.”3 If the alliance with social sciences were to continue, it must be on terms of equality and not subservience. Roy F. Nichols caught the new mood in “a declaration of intellectual independence” published in the fall of 1948. “History is not art, science, or literature,” he insisted,

it is sui generis. It is a division of knowledge with its own character and methods. … It is time for historians to be more positive about their functions, their objectives, and their methods. It is time to stop living by other people’s wits, by frantically seeking to adopt other people’s jargon, by humbly seeking to be recognized as faithful and reasonably satisfactory handmaids worthy of Thursday afternoons and alternate Sundays on which to do what they really wish.

Nichols wanted to release history from both “the clutches of heedless optimism” and “the slavery of present-mindedness,” the myth of the future as well as imprisonment in the present.4

The call for autonomy struck a responsive chord among historians. Just as the founding fathers of the scientific school had felt it necessary to assert their independence from literature and philosophy, and their successors from nineteenth-century science, so a declaration of independence from the social sciences was now in order. Thus, as John Higharn observes, “the outlook of the professional historian had come full circle,” and in the process “reconstituted the historian’s autonomous identity.”5 Autonomy did not preclude alliances on more equal terms, however, and those with the social sciences became more cordial. There were many who wished to keep a foot in both camps. H. Stuart Hughes, for one, took “pride in the mediating character” of history, its “half-scientific, half-artistic nature,” and thought that “the historian’s supreme technical virtuosity lies in fusing the new method of social and psychological analysis with his traditional storytelling function.”6 Historians thus claimed the best of both worlds. They revived romantic notions such as intuition, insight, empathy, and imagination and proposed at the same time to use them as freely as they did scientific concepts of analysis. They staked out neutral territory and posed not only as mediators between past and present but as conciliators between the “two cultures” and friendly patrons of the: third, the social sciences. It was, all things considered, rather high ground that they took and withal a rather privileged position that they claimed.

For a time the historian was fortunate in attracting philosophers and logicians (to whose dialogues about history he was normally deaf) willing to support the claim of historical autonomy and to defend the craft from the philosophical attack on historical explanation.7 It was also gratifying to find theologians (another group to whom historians were usually deaf) of the stature of Reinhold Niebuhr who took historians seriously and employed their findings respectfully.8 There were even social scientists who complained of the “a-historical character” of behavioral studies and conceived of lessons to be learned from the historian.9 Historians assured each other that Western culture was “the historical culture par excellence,” that the present was “the most historically minded of all ages,” that historical consciousness was its distinguishing characteristic. They quoted Friedrich Meinecke as calling this “the greatest spiritual revolution which Western thought has undergone” in modern times, and Johan Huizinga as saying that “historical thinking has entered our very blood.”10 By 1965 Higham could note in his admirable history of the profession a shedding of old inferiority feelings, a quickening of vitality, a revival of confidence, and a “restoration of intellectual self-respect that has taken place since 1945.”11

In addition to the new confidence in their calling, American historians whose subject was American history discovered among themselves as well as their public a gratifying shift in attitude toward their field of study. In his presidential address to the American Historical Association in 1950, Samuel Eliot Morison noted with satisfaction “a decided change of attitude toward our past, a friendly, almost affectionate attitude, as contrasted with the cynical, almost hateful one of young intellectuals” in earlier years.12 The new friendliness and affection toward the American past found confirmation in other presidential addresses and in autobiographies by historians prominent in the period. “For the student of United States history,” wrote the late Arthur M. Schlesinger, “there is in addition the special joy of discovery and understanding how one’s own people have reached their present condition; why … we have come to behave like Americans,” and how we have “held up a lamp to Europe and, more recently, to Asia and Africa.”13 Recent autobiographies of other American historians similarly reflect nostalgic affection for the American past, reconciliation with the present, and optimism about the future.14

A “special joy” in discovering how Americans reached their present condition and came to behave like Americans would seem to imply a special satisfaction in the condition of Americans and the way Americans behave. And a friendly and affectionate identification of the present with the past suggests a genial compatibility between the two that bridges the gulf between generations, implies a vitality and relevance of traditional ways, and assumes a fundamentally benign continuity of institutions and ideas. It was essentially a conservative view of the past. The school of interpretation that renounced and succeeded the progressive school usually, though not invariably, found the friendly attitude toward the past congenial to its views.15 These historians stressed consensus rather than conflict and emphasized stability and homogeneity rather than change and contrast. They dwelt rather nostalgically upon what was appealing or virtuous in the American past, and rarely on the darker, more violent, and tragic aspects of the national experience.

Whether the new attitude toward the American past or the rejuvenated confidence of the American history profession explains it or not, the fact is that history has enjoyed a boom period that coincides with these two developments in the profession. History stock was rising in American culture at large. The boom was most pronounced in the academic market place, but it was not confined to that world. It also penetrated the world of the publishers, and to some degree the worlds of the foundations, the intellectuals, even the politicians, not to mention a large and unsophisticated lay reading public that likes its history with colored illustrations. This picture admittedly runs counter to that painted in 1964 by a distinguished committee of the American Historical Association. Concerned particularly over what they felt to be neglect by the foundations, this committee complained that history was “too little honored,” “too much taken for granted,” and “consistently underestimated.” But even they noted with satisfaction that “history and English literature are the two most powerful major studies in many of our leading universities and colleges. and the prime elective studies too.”16

Perhaps it would be well first to clear up some confusion about that not wholly captive nor altogether predictable market, the college student, graduate and undergraduate. During the huge expansion in higher education that took place in the first half of this century, the numbers of students in both the humanities and the sciences increased enormously. But while the humanities as a whole and the natural sciences suffered a relative decline in the percentage of degrees granted, history consistently held its own in this respect.17 English and foreign languages declined to about a quarter of their former relative strength; the natural sciences suffered smaller losses, while the social sciences scored rapid gains. In the meantime, from 1901 to 1953, history succeeded in maintaining a constant level. In the next sixteen years, down through 1968, all of these fields have enjoyed a relative increase in the percentage of degrees granted, but none so large as history and the language group, both of which nearly doubled the percentage they granted in 1953.18 So much for numbers and percentages; quality is a more difficult matter. We are informed on good authority, however, that in the competitive recruitment of talent, history has been able to win to graduate study a larger percentage of Seniors who distinguished themselves in that field than it once did.19

The more students, the more professors. The membership of the American Historical Association, stalled for some years before 1953 at about five thousand, more than tripled in the next dozen years. The prodigious increase in membership was matched by a proliferation of activities, staff members, committees, and publications. The growing size and the additional number of the Association’s Review reflected in part the enormous increase in the number of history books written and the obligation to review them. The total number of history titles published in the United States in 1968 was three times the total for 1950.20 The number of periodicals in the country devoted to history of all kinds, including popular, patriotic, and local, has almost doubled since 1946.21 The responsiveness of the foundations to the appeal of historians, though still quite niggardly, multiplied sevenfold in five years.22) In the 1960’s two opposing candidates for President of the United States wrote, or at least published, history books of a sort with, in one case the presumed and in the other the explicitly avowed, intent of enhancing the appeal of the politician-authors as intellectuals.23 And in two administrations of that decade, the White House “intellectual,” a new adornment of the executive office, was a prominent American historian. Such were the emoluments, the bounties, and the bonuses of the great history boom.

Booms do not last forever, and it would now seem prudent to examine the prospects and portents of the recent one. In so doing I would try to avoid the role of alarmist. I am not charging the profession at large with giddiness or complacency or delusions of grandeur. failings often characteristic of boom psychology. It is reassuring to remember that throughout this period of boom and bustle, inflated markets and popular attention, there have been some American historians who have gone about their self-assigned tasks of scholarship undeterred, drawing mainly on inner resources. The quality and importance of the work they have done will probably bear favorable comparison with the historical scholarship of any previous period. Granting all that, I do feel obliged, nevertheless, to report certain signs of trouble. They are confined mainly to three overlapping areas: the academic world, the intellectual community, and the profession itself.

Within the academy the conventional barometer of departmental fortunes (for what it is worth) is student patronage, and in significant quarters that barometer has been falling lately for history. Measured by percentage of degrees granted, as we have seen, history has for the last sixteen years enjoyed an unprecedented increase in students. This may well continue for some time in terms of national averages. But a sampling of indicators that lie back of the degree stage, a look at figures on course enrollments, departmental majors, and the attitudes of precollege students would suggest a somewhat different prospect. A survey of the sixty-four American institutions that currently graduate the highest percentage of their students in arts and sciences as history majors (those with at least three times the national average) indicates that well over half of those responding, twenty-five out of forty-three, suffered a decline in student patronage in the last two years. In the minority group of eighteen that reported no significant change or actual increase of student interest fall most of the small denominational colleges in the oddly assorted sample thus defined. On the other hand heavy losses in undergraduate history course enrollment in the last two academic years, losses ranging from 27 to 34 per cent, occurred at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Amherst. Among eastern institutions, Princeton, Brandeis, Smith, Swarthmore, ‘Williams, Hamilton, Haverford, Georgetown, and Fordham reported substantial but smaller losses in their history courses. In other parts of the country, with a much smaller proportion of colleges graduating the specified percentage of history majors, several institutions of high quality included in the survey also reported declining student interest in history. Generalizations based on these findings are difficult to formulate and can be quite misleading. Several institutions cite local and temporary conditions to explain their losses. These changes, moreover, are too recent to provide any reliable projection for the future. They do occur, however, often in their most pronounced form, in some of the most sensitive zones of American academic life and can scarcely be dismissed as insignificant.24

More indicative about the future of the past and future student interest in history are the attitudes of the oncoming generation of college students. A recent poll shows that of the twenty-one subjects in their curriculum on which they were questioned, American high school students regarded history as the “most irrelevant.”25 The planners of their curriculums and the writers of their textbooks would seem to share the aversion of the students. Time and attention once devoted to history have rapidly given way to current affairs and social studies. Serving as a member of the California Statewide Social Sciences Study Committee, Charles Sellers reports that, “Virtually no one except the history professors on this large and representative committee saw much value in retaining history in the curriculum at all.”26

The changing whims and cultural styles of college students and adolescents have recently become the subject of a massive literature of which I am not a master. The aversion to history may be a minor symptom of more arcane ailments. The monotonous recurrence of the word “relevance” in student parlance does, however, require some notice from the historian. Highly subjective and capable of as many meanings as it has users, the term “relevance” seems to express an inarticulate existentialism, a headlong immediatism of the “here” and “now” that is impatient with any “there” and “then” that do not have an obvious bearing on present preoccupations or personal problems. In accounting for the defection from history courses, Harvard mentions “a very substantial increase” of undergraduate concentrators in the government department; Yale and several others refer to a rising popularity of psychology, Princeton to a boom in sociology. These shifts of undergraduate tastes may, of course, be quite temporary. The current vogue of combining Cavalier hairstyles with Roundhead earnestness may well revert once more to tonsorial roundheadedness and attitudinal cavalierness. As a cultural indicator, the undergraduate passion for “relevance” may have less to do with the long-range future of the past than with the short-range future of the job market for historians.

The declining status of history in the intellectual community at large is a more serious matter. Most disturbing of all is the antihistory animus that emanates from quarters generally assumed to be in friendly alliance with history: the arts and humanities. The tradition of literary animus may be traced back to Friedrich Nietzsche, Henrik Ibsen, and André Gide, but nothing before quite equals the rebellion against history among more recent and contemporary men of letters. Foremost among the rebels are the French existentialists André Malraux, Albert Camus, and the early Jean-Paul Sartre, though their attitudes have precedents in Paul Valéry, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann. For Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus history was a “nightmare” from which he must awaken. The tyranny of historical consciousness is a recurrent theme in modern literature. It is implicit in William Carlos Williams’ plea for immediacy: “History, history! We fools, what do we know or care?” And it is explicit in his renunciation of history as “a tyranny over the souls of the dead. and so the imaginations of the living.” Camus, a cultural hero of the young, spoke candidly of his indifference to history and contemptuously of “the evil of history.” Sartre wove the same bias through his early fiction and philosophy.27 What some of the foremost men of letters in our culture have been saying for some time without our special heeding is that history as currently written is bland, banal, or Philistine, that it is often morally obtuse, aesthetically archaic, and intellectually insipid. The historian’s pretensions as artist are regarded as pathetic if not ludicrous. Among fashionable playwrights and fiction writers such as Kingsley Amis, Angus Wilson, and Edward Albee these attitudes have become a cliché. In their plays and novels the historian is a stock figure of ridicule, regularly kicked about the stage as part of the evening’s entertainment.28

The scientists have been more circumspect and less vehement and articulate in verbalizing their aversions and suspicions toward history. But as the anthropologists move in from the far side and the psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists encroach from the hither side upon the territory of human experience that historians normally think of as their private preserve, cries of impatience and dismay arise from the invaders on both flanks. Complaints of methodological naïveté, conceptual vagueness, ambiguous premises, and outmoded generalizations pour in. If this is the science to which historians profess part-time allegiance, they are saying, it is bad science or outmoded and archaic science. late nineteenth-century science at best. The space devoted to history in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, published in 1968, is strikingly less than the amount in its precursor of 1930. Biographies of historians are markedly fewer than those in other disciplines represented, and of the fifty historians included among the six hundred subjects of biographies only six did their work in the United States.29 What scientists are implying in various ways is that history as now practiced is as far out of touch with modern science as men of letters are explicitly saying that history is isolated or alienated from modern art.30

Among philosophers there are still reputable champions such as Sir Isaiah Berlin, who put up a formidable defense for the autonomy of history as a discipline sui generis.31 Others are increasingly skeptical of these claims. They are suggesting that the middle ground the historian occupied in the nineteenth century between the romantic artists’ fear of science and the positivistic scientists’ ignorance of art may no longer exist, nor may the extreme dissimilarity of art and science still be assumed by the historian, nor may his self-appointed function as mediator between the two. It has even been suggested that the historian’s prestige among intellectuals of the nineteenth century was culturally determined, that the conception of history then current was itself the product of ephemeral historical circumstances, the passing of which may well have deprived history of its status, its autonomy, and its traditional defenses. “In short,” according to one harsh judgment, “everywhere there is resentment over what appears to be the historian’s bad faith in claiming the privileges of both the artist and the scientist while refusing to submit to critical standards currently obtaining in either art or science.”32

Some of these attacks, including the last quoted, were exaggerated and open to effective rejoinder, and some of the critics and their disciplines were not above criticism themselves. But in so far as contemporary historians have been at all aware of criticisms by artists, scientists, and philosophers, they have often (though not always) fallen back on the old Fabian strategy of fending off the scientists with the assertion that history was a kind of art given to the uses of intuition beyond the ken of science, and fending off the artists by maintaining that history was a kind of science limited by analytical methods inappropriate to artistic manipulation. A “guild,” a “craft,” we quaintly call it. Half scientist, half artist, the historian was a sort of centaur among the disciplines, a centaur with wings some would have it, the only academic discipline endowed with an authentic muse. Incapable of sustaining such fanciful poses, or unaware of the attacks that provoked them, the great majority of American historians became increasingly preoccupied with their fields of specialization and intradisciplinary matters. With some exceptions, by the mid-twentieth century American historians carried little weight and took little part in discussions preoccupying the intellectual community at large, even discussions pertaining to their own discipline. Whatever contemporary paintings they hung on their walls or modern literature they kept on their shelves, little of the spirit that informs these arts seemed to enter into the monographs the historians wrote.

More and more, historians in America sought refuge in their supposedly captive audience of students, or increasingly in the growing public they enjoyed among the laity. In the latter, many guildsmen took a special pride. Unlike other disciplines, they pointed out, history abjured a specialized jargon and spoke the language of the people. While other arts and sciences were growing more abstruse and occult, history was becoming more popular.33 Excited by the prospect, historians took to the airwaves and the platform with campaigns of salesmanship. Within the guild a movement led by Allan Nevins and Conyers Read narrowly failed to secure sponsorship by the American Historical Association for their dream of a popular magazine of history. But the dream later materialized as a commercial success of fabulous proportions. slick, handsome, well edited, and bland.34 Historians also reached the laity through the numerous book clubs, Civil War round tables, state and local history societies, and civic enthusiasm for restoring historic sites and commemorating centennials. The efforts to please popular taste and court popular esteem tended to encourage the qualities of blandness and banality complained of by the critics of history. They also tended to diminish the esteem in which the craft was held by sister disciplines and to put even more distance between historians and the intellectual community.

There is, moreover, a false security about the refuge sought in popular esteem. It is true that history as romantic entertainment or as “heritage” sustaining national pride has enjoyed great waves of popularity among Americans, especially those of the first half of the nineteenth century.35 The assumption of a solid and continuing patronage for the profession anchored in a national devotion to history, however, fails to reckon with some old traits of national character. Accused by their critics of “not learning from history” and being indifferent to the past, spokesmen of the student movement reply: “But we say that there is no historical precedent for our generation.”36 So far as historical precedent for their attitudes toward the past is concerned, American students are poorly informed. There are many precedents for their attitude. They go back at least to the Jeffersonians, for some of whom the past seemed both misleading and irrelevant. For Thomas Jefferson himself the present was as independent of the past as the United States from England, and had no more authority over it. “We may consider each generation as a distinct nation,” he wrote, and Jefferson once reckoned the length of a generation as nineteen years and the legitimacy of all laws and institutions, without consent of the living, as of the same duration.37 Alexis de Tocqueville unerringly picked up the theme of generational disjuncture: “the tie that unites one generation to another is relaxed or broken”; he wrote, “every man there loses all trace of the ideas of his forefathers or takes no heed of them.” Or again, “In America, society seems to live from hand to mouth, like an army in the field.”38 According to R. W. B. Lewis, “the American myth saw life and history as just beginning … a divinely granted second chance for the human race.” He quotes the Democratic Review of 1839 as saying, “Our national birth was the beginning of a new history … which separates us from the past and connects us with the future only.”39

Our eighteenth-century ancestors, according to William Bartram, had a ceremony called the “husk,” in which a whole town would periodically turn out to make a common bonfire of everything old, outworn, and discarded. Henry David Thoreau made a metaphoric extension of the busk into a social philosophy of “purifying destruction.” “I have lived some thirty years on this planet,” wrote Thoreau, “and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors,” that is, anyone over thirty.40 It may have been the tradition of the husk that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fantasy of 1844, “Earth’s Holocaust,” a terrifying metaphor of the American urge toward purifying destruction. On a vast western prairie a huge throng gathered to light a cosmic bonfire of the world’s “outworn trumpery,” including the whole body of European literature and philosophy. “Now,” declared their leader, “we shall get rid of the weight of dead men’s thoughts.”41) Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, for all his apostrophe to history, declared that “All inquiry into antiquity … is the desire to do away with this … preposterous There or Then, and introduce in its place the Here and the Now.”42 The “Now Generation” is not without authentic antecedents. It would be possible to follow the theme of indifference or hostility toward the past through the corpus of American literature down to contemporary writers directly influenced by the existentialists. The fact is that if Americans may be said to have been born Lockeans, they can in this particular respect as readily be described as having been born existentialists. without the obligation to Sartre they owe to John Locke.43

In addition to this heritage of attitudes from the past about the past, Americans are the creators of wholly new disruptions between past and present. Even the committee of historians who a few years ago deplored and deprecated the effect of these forces admitted that “the world is now moving so fast that history of the knowable past seems to Americans more than ever irrelevant, out of date and useless.”44 Unlike agrarian, or craft, or commercial societies, industrial society, in the opinion of J. H. Plumb, really needs no past. For the industrial society, he writes, “The past becomes … a matter of curiosity, of nostalgia, a sentimentality. … The strength of the past in all aspects of life is far, far weaker than it was a generation ago: indeed few societies have ever had a past in such galloping dissolution as this.”45 But Plumb is evidently thinking of contemporary Britain or Europe, and we are constantly told that America and Europe are no longer living in the same historical era, that the United States has already broken through into something called the “postindustrial” or the “technetronic” age and is in daily confrontation with the unprecedented. In the American experience, other peoples of the world can read, for better or for worse, what is in store for them in the future. for most of them a very remote future. in which Americans are already living.

This future already exhibits more disjunction from the past than did the industrial era. One English interpretation of the first lunar landing, doubtless moved to rashness by the spectacle, pronounced it “the most brutal break that the world has known with its past 400 million years.”46 For a Carnegie, a Rhodes, a Krupp, a Rockefeller, or even a Henry Ford the past was still fairly rich with sanctions. For their counterparts (if any) of the “postindustrial” world it is hard to see what the past provides in the way of sanctions. The new spiritual environment, on the other hand, is not wholly strange or entirely uncongenial to the American. “Americans are abstract,” writes Thornton Wilder. “They are disconnected,” from place as well as from past. “There is only one way in which an American can feel himself to be in relation to other Americans. when he is united with them in a project, caught up in an idea and propelled with them toward the future. … ‘I am,’ he says, ‘because my plans characterize me.'”47 An essential element of American identity, one of “the principal sources of identity strength,” according to Erik Erikson, is “a sense of anticipated future.”48 And in the words of the Democratic Review already quoted, our history “separates us from the past and connects us with the future only.” Henry James was under the impression that America “had no past” and as “the next best thing” was hell-bent on substituting “a magnificent compensatory future.”49 Perhaps the outworn faith in progress was only one expression of a deeper national commitment. What William James saw as our “platitudinous optimism” and H. G. Wells called our “optimistic fatalism” could become in Henry Adams a rather lurid and apocalyptic catastrophism without essential inconsistency with the future-oriented bent of American character.50)

A profession that sets itself up as custodian of the past among a people with such peculiar attitudes toward the past, a people that has characteristically sought identity in the future would seem to have little ground for complacency. about either the future of the past or the future of the craft that deals with the past. Complacency in these matters would seem all the more inappropriate in a period of radical disjunctures between past and present, and so would withdrawal of the historian from the continuous discussions of these disjunctures carried on in the intellectual community. Deafness or indifference toward criticism of the guild, whether it comes from artists, scientists, or philosophers, or from our own students, would appear to be singularly perilous at this time. The last resort of Philistinism would be for professional historians to take refuge from intellectual problems and critical attacks in what remains of popular sentimentality and nostalgia about the past.

Plumb attempts to draw “a sharp distinction between the past and history.” The past as he conceives of it is always used to sanction or sanctify authority, to control or motivate societies or classes, to endow elites and nations with a sense of destiny and mission, and therefore to bemuse and coerce and exploit. “Nothing has been so corruptly used as concepts of the past,” he writes, and he is ready “to toll the bell for the past which is dying.” The demise of the past, however, “does not deny a future for history.” History is not an ideology, and it is not the past. It is an intellectual process, a discipline that is still growing. Its future and true function are “to cleanse the story of mankind from the deceiving visions of a purposeful past.”51

There are admittedly some ambiguities in this contrast between history and the past. But American historians, particularly those whose subject is the history of their own country, have often been careless and sometimes even oblivious of the more elemental distinctions between the two. In their quest for a “usable past” they have fallen into what J. R. Pole calls “the American extension of the Whig interpretation of history.”52 An instrumentalist view of historiography, this interpretation regards history as an instrument of political or social action. It assumes that the United States stands for certain values and that it is the duty of the historian in his study of the past to discover, record, and celebrate these values. This position has had both radical and conservative advocates, but none more explicit than the conservative Conyers Read, who in his presidential address of 1949 enlisted the historian in the cold war. As he saw it, “the first prerequisite of a historian is a sound social philosophy,” and “As historians we must carry back into our scrutiny of the past” our political faith. He advocated social controls over historians and demanded that we “accept and endorse such controls as are essential for the preservation of our way of life.” They would be, he assured us, “no menace to essential freedoms.” This meant that “we recognize certain fundamental values as beyond dispute,” values that we “must defend against all assaults, historical or otherwise.”53

Those Americans who pursue the usable past have unconsciously assumed a space-time continuum that confuses forebears with descendants and homogenizes time past with time present. Whether they are conservatives with friendly and affectionate feelings toward the past or radicals with cynical and iconoclastic attitudes, the resulting confusion is the same. A fatal betrayal of the craft would be to permit the profession of history to become inextricably entangled with the future of the past, the purposeful past of the rationalizers, the justifiers, and the propagandists. Anyway, it is no good any longer urging upon a chaotic era of discontinuities and disruptions a specious time past continuum. not with the classic American continuity myths of security and invincibility, of success and innocence crumbling about our heads. Without some continuities the social fabric would disintegrate. Many continuities, of course, persist. But ours is essentially an age of disjuncture, not of continuity. Indifference to these conditions and insensitivity to any light that the world of art or science or philosophy may throw upon them would be a disservice to the craft.

“It is not inconceivable,” wrote Marc Bloch shortly before his tragic death, that our civilization “may, one day, turn away from history, and historians would do well to reflect upon this possibility.”54 We have seen that the future of history, its status in the academic world, and its prestige in the intellectual community have been seriously questioned of late. Referring to the future of another branch of learning, Berlin writes, “There exist only two good reasons for the demise of a discipline: one is that its central presuppositions … are no longer accepted. … The other is that new disciplines have come to perform the work originally undertaken by the older study.”55 Such was the fate, he points out, that overtook astrology, alchemy, and phrenology, among others, on which their offspring performed a species of parricide. History would not seem destined for that fate.

Marc Bloch had the audacity “to claim for history the indulgence due to all new ventures.” While history has remained “quietly loyal to its glorious Hellenic name,” he wrote, it has “grown old in embryo” as myth and legend, chronicle and romantic storytelling, but it is “still very young as a rational attempt at analysis.”56 In its new phase it bears little more resemblance to the embryo than astronomy to astrology or chemistry to alchemy. Unlike the sciences, however, history did not change its name with its phases. One result is that it has been falsely judged by the antiquity of the old Greek name as well as by association with an antique subject matter. Unlike the sciences also, history has not been periodically endowed with “a common paradigm” that is said to have “freed the scientific community from the need constantly to re-examine its first principles.”57 Given the nature of the craft, history probably never will be so freed or so endowed. “The uncertainties of our science must not, I think,” wrote Bloch, “be hidden from the curiosity of the world. They are our excuse for being.” He urged professional historians, “above all the younger ones, to reflect upon these hesitancies, these incessant soul-searchings, of our craft.”58 In the new era of soul-searching for which our guild seems destined, it is well to keep his valiant example in mind.

Exercises in self-doubt and self-criticism are not new to the craft. They need never become self-destructive. After all allowance for its shortcomings, all admission of outrageous pretensions, and all deference to the achievements of other arts and sciences, history may still claim legitimate and vital roles unfilled by other disciplines. These roles multiply rather than diminish in times such as our own, times of striking disjuncture between past and present. For it is in just such times as these that anachronisms proliferate, and when they cease to be harmless myths and grow into rigid dogmas over which nations go to war and races of men tear at each other’s throats. Anachronisms are the peculiar concern of historians, and as causes for concern and peril they were never more numerous, more menacing than they are in our time. The historian is peculiarly fitted also to serve as mediator between man’s limitations and his aspirations, between his dreams of what ought to be and the limits of what, in the light of what has been, can be. There is no other branch of learning better qualified to mediate between man’s daydream of the future and his nightmare of the past, or, for that matter, between his nightmare of the future and his daydream of the past. So long as man remains recognizably human, he will remain a creature with both a past and a future. A creature so long described as earth-bound and so newly transcending those bounds, so giddy over his spectacular innovations, so guilt-ridden about his past, and so anxiety-ridden about the present and the future is not a creature who can safely turn away from history.

C. Vann Woodward (November 13, 1908–December 17, 1999), Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale University, was one of the most influential historians of 20th-century America and the history of the American South. In 1982 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his edited volume, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War.



  1. The best history of the profession in America during this period is John Higham et al.History: The Development of Historical Studies in the United States (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1965). []
  2. Frederic C. Lane, in Journal of Economic History, VII (May 1947), 83. []
  3. Social Science Research Council, The Social Sciences in Historical Study (New York, 1954), 1-17. []
  4. Roy F. Nichols, “Postwar Reorientation of Historical Thinking,” American Historical Review, LIV (Oct. 1948), 78-89. []
  5. Higham et al.History, 135. []
  6. H. Stuart Hughes, History as Art and as Science: Twin Vistas on the Past (New York, 1964), 3, 77; see also Henry Steele Commager, The Nature and Study of History (Columbus, Ohio, 1965). []
  7. William H. Dray, Laws and Explanation in History (London, 1957), and Philosophical Analysis and History, ed. id. (New York, 1961), esp. the essays by Sir Isaiah Berlin, W. H. Walsh, J. A. Passmore, Alan Donagan, and Louis O. Mink. []
  8. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York, 1952). []
  9. Robert A. Dahl, “The Behavioral Approach,” American Political Science Review, LV (Dec. 1961), 771. []
  10. E. H. Carr, What Is History? (London, 1961), 129; John Luckacs, Historical Consciousness, or the Remembered Past (New York, 1968), 18, 23. []
  11. Higham et al.History, 132-37. []
  12. Samuel Eliot Morison, “Faith of a Historian,” American Historical Review, LVI (Jan. 1951), 272; see also Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, and Parrington (New York, 1968), 92. []
  13. Arthur M. Schlesinger, In Retrospect: The History of a Historian (New York, 1963), 203. []
  14. John D. Hicks, My Life with History (Lincoln, Neb., 1968), 354; Roy F. Nichols, A Historian’s Progress (New York, 1968), 299-300; Dexter Perkins, Yield of the Years (Boston, 1969), 204, 233, 235. []
  15. Richard Hofstadter is certainly one exception. []
  16. American Council of Learned Societies, Report of the Commission on the Humanities (New York, 1964), 114. []
  17. W. David Maxwell, “A Methodological Hypothesis for the Plight of the Humanities,” American Association of University Professors Bulletin, LIV (Spring 1968), 78-80. []
  18. Paul L. Ward, “The Plight of the Humanities,” ibid. (Autumn 1968), 397. []
  19. Dexter Perkins and John L. Snell, The Education of Historians in the United States (New York, 1962), 38. []
  20. American Library Annual (New York, 1950), 80; Bowker Annual Library and Book Information (New York, 1969), 36. Granted much imprecision about what constituted a “history” title, the number so designated increased from 516 in 1950 to 1,528 in 1968. []
  21. Ulrich’s International Periodicals: A Classified Guide to a Selected List of Current Periodicals, Foreign and Domestic, ed. Eileen Graves (New York, 1947. 69). Sixty-six new journals were founded between 1947 and 1956. []
  22. “Foundation Grants,” Foundation News (Mar., Sept. 1963; Mar., Sept. 1968). This includes only grants over ten thousand dollars and does not include renewals or grants not reported to the News. It does include grants for restoration and preservation of historic sites. Grants increased from one million dollars in 1963 to seven million dollars in 1968, but they fell precipitantly to three million dollars in 1969. (Ibid. [Sept.-Oct. 1969]. []
  23. John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (New York, 1956); Richard M. Nixon, Six Crises (New York, 1962). In the preface of the latter work (p. xi), the author writes that his opponent had advised him that such a book “tends to elevate [the politician] in popular esteem to the respected status of an ‘intellectual.'” []
  24. The decline in student patronage of history at Oxford and Cambridge Universities has also been sharp since the Second World War, but it was spread over a longer period. The comparisons in the American survey are between figures for 1966-1967 and 1968-1969. []
  25. Poll by Louis Harris and Associates, Inc., of “100 schools in representative cities, suburbs, small towns and rural areas,” for Life, LVI (May 16, 1969), 23, 31. []
  26. Charles G. Sellers, “Is History on the Way out of the Schools and Do Historians Care?” Social Education, XXXIII (May 1969), 510. []
  27. Sartre underwent a later “conversion to history” according to Leonard Krieger, “History and Existentialism in Sartre,” in The Critical Spirit: Essays in Honor of Herbert Marcuse, ed. Kurt H. Wolff and Barrington Moore, Jr. (Boston, 1967), 239-66. Camus himself came eventually to base values in history. []
  28. Hayden V. White, “The Burden of History,” History and Theory, V (No. 2, 1966), 115-23. []
  29. See review of the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ed. David L. Sills (17 vols., New York, 1968), by Thomas C. Cochran in American Historical Review, LXXIV (June 1969), 1573-76. []
  30. The critique of history by behavioralists is ably presented by Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., A Behavioral Approach to Historical Analysis (New York, 1969). []
  31. Sir Isaiah Berlin, “History and Theory: The Concept of Scientific Theory,” History and Theory, I (No. I, 1960), 1-31. []
  32. White, “Burden of History,” 112. []
  33. See the presidential address of Allan Nevins, “Not Capulets, Not Montagus,” American Historical Review, LXV (Jan. 1960), 253-70, esp. 255-57. []
  34. Higham et al.History, 80-84. []
  35. George H. Callcott, History in the United States, 1800-1860 (Baltimore, 1969), esp. Chap. II. []
  36. Gregory H. Wierzynski summarizes interviews with students on twenty campuses in Fortune, LXXIX (Jan. 1969), 146. []
  37. Daniel Boorstin, The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1948), 169, 204, 205, and Chap. IV, Sec. 4, entitled “The Sovereignty of the Present Generation”; but cf. H. Trevor Colbourn, The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1963), 158, 167. The quoted statements of Jefferson do not do justice to his respect for history. On eighteenth-century attitudes toward history, see Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (2 vols. to date, New York, 1966, 1969), II, 368-96. []
  38. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Phillips Bradley (2 vols., New York, 1956), II, 4; I, 212. []
  39. R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam (Chicago, 1955), 5, and Chap. I, entitled “The Case against the Past.” []
  40. Quoted in Thornton Wilder, “Toward an American Language,” Atlantic, CXC (July 1952), 29. []
  41. The difference between Hawthorne and Thoreau, as Lewis points out, was that the former knew that the holocaust did not touch the real source of oppression, the human heart. (Lewis, American Adam, 13-15. []
  42. The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Brooks Atkinson (New York, 1940), 127. []
  43. For one of several southern exceptions to the national norm, see William Faulkner’s Gavin Stevens in Intruder in the Dust: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” []
  44. American Council of Learned Societies, Report of the Commission on the Humanities, 119. []
  45. J. H. Plumb, The Death of the Part (Boston, 1970), 14-15; see also ibid., 42-44. []
  46. Economist, July 19, 1969, 13. []
  47. From his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University, in Atlantic, CXC (July 1952), 31. []
  48. Erik Erikson, “Memorandum on Youth,” in Toward the Year 2000: Work in Progress, ed. Daniel Bell (Boston, 1968), 231-32. []
  49. Quoted in H. G. Wells, The Future of America (New York, 1906), 5. []
  50. On the historian and the future, see Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston, 1918), 395. Offering Tocqueville and Adams as examples, Hofstadter has observed that, “At their best, the interpretative historians have gone to the past with some passionate concern for the future. & ” (Progressive Historians, 465. []
  51. Plumb, Death of the Past, II, 17, 50. []
  52. J. R. Pole, “The American Past: Is It Still Usable?” Journal of American Studies, I (Apr. 1967), 63. []
  53. Conyers Read, “The Social Responsibilities of the Historian,” American Historical Review, LV (Jan. 1950), 284-85. []
  54. Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (New York, 1964), 5. []
  55. Sir Isaiah Berlin, “Does Political Theory Still Exist?” in Philosophy, Politics and Society, ed. Peter Laslett and W. G. Runciman, 2d Ser. (New York, 1962), 1-2. []
  56. Bloch, Historian’s Craft, 13. []
  57. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, 1962), 162. []
  58. Bloch, Historian’s Craft, 51. []