Presentist History?

Please forgive my infrequent posting of late–I have been out of town on a quasi-vacation and my internet access has been spotty. I realize I’m a bit behind the ball on this topic, as a flurry of posts popped up last week, but given the focus of this blog, I felt the need to throw my hat into the ring.

As many of you are no doubt aware, Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times stirred up quite a hornet’s nest last week when he lamented the passing of the nation’s “last great public historian,” Arthur Schlesinger. Although some historians have taken offense, Tanenhaus nevertheless has some important things to say about the profession. Chief among them is his claim that historians today, unlike Schlesinger and his contemporaries (most notably Richard Hofstadter and C. Vann Woodward), fail to write with any sort of relevance for the present. He acknowledges the popularity of historians like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, but states that:

in truth Mr. McCullough and others as talented, or nearly so, don’t command the broad cultural authority that Mr. Schlesinger and his contemporaries did. Nor, for that matter, do academic historians like Gordon S. Wood and James M. McPherson, though their books resonate beyond the university.

The problem is not one of seriousness, intelligence or skill. It is rather one of reach. Mr. Wood’s “Radicalism of the American Revolution” is a major contribution to our understanding of its subject, and Mr. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” enthralled readers. But neither work can be said to have affected how many of us think about current issues.

This is even truer of the many popular books on America’s founding founders, from Washington and Adams to Jefferson and Hamilton, and on the lesser figures from the period now being exhumed.

These are books that, for all their merits, seem not only about the past but also, to some extent, mired in it. They are archival. And that may be the problem.

Most critics of Tanenhaus (that I’ve read) have launched a two-prong response. First, Tanenhaus is overly “nostalgic” in his praise of Schlesinger and ignores Schlesinger’s failure to acknowledge the “genocidal side of Jackson’s career.” Furthermore, historians today should aspire to be more “archival,” not less. Both criticisms are fair, but neither negates the general sentiment of Tanenhaus’ article.

Historians in the twenty-first century do have less cultural authority than did their predecessors of fifty years ago. However, that does not have to be the case. The great question that Tanenhaus raises for me is: Can historians contribute anything meaningful to the present and future, or do we simply “live in the past,” studying history for history’s sake?

I’m reminded of the great Thoreau line: “Men have become the tools of their tools.” Given our reliance on cell phones, PDAs, iPods, and the like, it applies to American society as a whole in 2007, and I wonder to what extent it applies to historians as well. Certainly we should not abandon archival research, but I sometimes wonder if such a strict reliance on professional methodology limits our cultural influence.

I’m interested to hear what others think: can we “step beyond the sources” and say something about the present as well as the past, or does that move too far outside the realm of “history?”


5 Responses to “Presentist History?”

  1. March 14, 2007 at 10:06 am

    Great post! I would hope that we can indeed “step beyond the sources” to make a tangible cultural contribution, but in a world where Anna Nicole gets more airtime than the crisis in Darfur, it seems that Americans has some screwed-up priorities. That said, I do try to make my history course relevant to today. Yesterday we talked about politics in the Early Republic and they read “The Sedition Act” and Jefferson’s “Kentucky Resolutions.” We had a great discussion about how the powers that be want to silence their critics, and we also talked about how the interpretations of free speech are different now than they were in 1798. I do think, however, that it is easier to do this in a college course; becoming culturally relevant to, say, someone who sees your book in Barnes & Noble is another story.

  2. March 14, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    Good post, I did not see the article to which you responded. A similar question to ask is if historians do have something to say, is anyone really listening? And maybe we also ought to wonder, who makes up the historians’ audience? Is it policy makers, politicians, state and federal museums/historical parks, etc.? I really do not know.

  3. 3 tk
    March 16, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    Of course it needs to be relevant to today. The problem is that so much of what was significant in history has already been researched. People trying to get Phd’s or do sometime of original research are forced to get more and more obscure, distancing them further from what is relevant.

  4. March 20, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    Take the money, and say, “Thank you”.
    The social implications of tobacco as presented in this museum would do more to damage the allure of smoking than any public service ad. It would be a suitable teaching moment.

    If all the museums of the world would have turned down money from ‘tainted sources’, ninety percent of them would not exist. (The Rockefellers did much for this country, but at the cost of Standard Oil’s monopoly – and Microsoft is not all that pure, either.)

    Keep your eye on the prize.

    By the way, this native New York whose family is from the Northern Neck, and lives in Alexandria applauds Doug Wilder for this museum.

    I know that Fredericksburg will greatly profit from it, as well as the general public. It certainly will be a major stop for my tour groups!

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