Richard Pells: Leaving art out of history is a mistake

Roundup: Talking About History

[Richard Pells is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include "Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated and Transformed American Culture Since World War II." A longer version of this article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

How did George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" reflect both the Jewish and African American experience in America? Why was Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" so influential for modern fiction and journalism? What was Abstract Expressionism, and why did Jackson Pollock become a cultural hero for many Americans in the 1950s? How did Marlon Brando's performance as Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire" transform American acting, first on stage and then in the movies?

If you are a college student taking a course in American history, you are unlikely to get the answers to any of these questions. The questions won't even be posed. Nor will the names of American painters, composers, novelists or filmmakers appear in the lectures or on reading lists. The vast majority of American historians no longer regard American culture as an essential area of study. Instead, what they care about is social history -- the struggles and hard-won accomplishments of women, workers, African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans in a country often inhospitable to the poor and the powerless.

This disinterest in American cultural and intellectual life is a recent development. From the 1940s until the 1960s, a generation of American historians wrote books and taught courses that emphasized the significance of American artists, writers, musicians and film directors. These historians had personally experienced, as soldiers or visiting professors abroad, the struggles against totalitarianism during World War II and the Cold War. So they were preoccupied with explaining what was distinctive and democratic about the American "mind" or the national "character." And culture was one of the most persuasive ways of identifying what distinguished the United States from its enemies, whether in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.

The next generation of American historians came of age during the Vietnam War, the civil rights and women's movements, and the immigration from Latin America and Asia. The convulsions of the 1960s forced faculty and students to ask: Whose mind? Whose character? Whose novels or music? The earlier fascination with American art and literature now seemed elitist and oblivious to the historical predicaments of ordinary people. Starting in the 1970s, it became unfashionable for historians to write or teach about America as a community of shared beliefs and values, defined by its artists and intellectuals. The new scholarship concentrated instead on the divisive repercussions of race, class, gender and ethnicity.

We have learned a lot from these revisionist interpretations of American history. We know more today about the inequities in the nation's past. Yet the fixation with social history has led to a severe case of tunnel vision among American historians, an almost exclusive preoccupation with the exploited and victimized, along with an oppressive orthodoxy about what kinds of courses should be taught and who should be hired at universities....

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