Cliopatria Symposium...A Historian for the People
Welcome to the VIIth edition of the Cliopatria Symposium in which we discuss the writing of history in the presentist mode - as presented in the life and work of the late historian, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. We asked for responses to Sam Tanenhaus's essay History, Written in the Present Tense, March 4th, 2007, New York Times.
I want to thank all the participants who send me their responses and I hope that Sam Tanenhaus will find some time to read and respond here. [HNN Editor: Click here for Tanenhaus's response.]
Click more to read the responses of Cliopats and others. We hope to hear from you in the comments.
Nostalgia can be a comfort, but it is best indulged in moderation, lest it become intoxicating or even addictive. I am not going to tell anyone who admired Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. not to use whatever palliative is necessary to deal with the sense of loss."Thus ends an age!" is a sentiment familiar enough on sad occasions of the death of someone whose work or personal example provided a link to the past, and to the possibility of drawing meaning from history.
I’ve felt that kind of loss more than a few times now. But this is not one of those times. The following comments won't be sentimental, and will instead warn against the effects of nostalgia when consumed beyond the safe dosage.
Whether or not history itself moves forward, historiography seems to – and the limits of Schlesinger’s vision have been obvious for a while. For a survey of the ways his account of the New Deal has been challenged, for example, see the judicious essay"Historians and the Interwar Years" in David Brinkley’s book Liberalism and Its Discontents. Schlesinger was certainly a gifted writer – and precociously so. His first book, on Orestes Brownson, would have been impressive even if he hadn’t been 22 when he wrote it. But he has to be judged by more than the standards of grace.
For someone who made such a show of being tough-minded and alert to the tragic sense of life, writing a book called The Age of Jackson implied a certain moral responsibility. He ignored the genocidal side of Jackson’s career – and no other word should be applied to the Indian Removal Act. This was not a small oversight, and it makes him, in the final analysis, a peer of Philip Foner and Herbert Aptheker.
That is, admittedly, an outrageous statement. After all, Foner and Aptheker were not just Communists but American Communists: Supporters of perhaps the most enthusiastically self-lobotomizing party in the entire international movement, its leadership never capable of the slightest original (let alone critical) thought. By contrast, Schlesinger embodied Cold War anticommunist liberalism in its most cerebral idiom, for which subtlety and sophistication were sources of perpetual self-delight.
But taking a longer view, you notice that all three of them did a certain amount of important work. Foner and Aptheker were aware of African-Americans as having played, from time to time, a role in history as something besides the objects of largesse. (It is true that when Foner was a hack and a serial plagiarist, but even he produced some books that are still useful.) If Schlesinger made some contribution, so did they.
Now, the case can certainly be made that Schlesinger was a better historian -- and a very much better writer -- than either of them. Plus he had the Harvard sheen. His books were published by respected presses. He was on what proved to be the winning side. He is easier to respect; such things are considered respectable. Still, he was distinguished from Foner or Aptheker in degree and not in kind. They were, all of them, both historians and propagandists. When reality was inconvenient or unappetizing given their ideological commitments – well, so much the worse for the historical record.
Producing a historical narrative that is smooth and incisive is a worthy goal. But not when that means writing the Trail of Tears out of the story altogether. Aptheker published a cruddy little pamphlet defending the Soviet invasion of Hungary, while Schlesinger (who had a better agent) could issue his call to stay the course in Vietnam thanks to Houghton Mifflin. Neither man was always wrong about everything, but there are limits to how much either should be celebrated as an example.
I’m being so disagreeable in pressing this point in order to negate my own tendency towards exactly the sort of nostalgia that Sam Tanenhaus is displaying in his article. There is a strong tendency among some writers to feel that the generation dominating the scene before we – oops, they – were born was favored with benefits we will be forever denied.
Back then, it seems, the debates were all consequential, and the stakes always clear. The hunger for leftover Manichean thinking is sharpened by the sense of contemporary confusion. You have the sense that the angels and the devils were more clearly labelled back then. (That belief is especially clear now in the way some radicals refer to"Cold War liberalism" with a special vigor of contempt, as if no more evil ideology ever existed on the face of the earth. I have studied the Cold War liberals pretty closely and have no special love for them as a species, but can at least recognize that there have been many far worse things in the world.)
The effect of this retroactive illumination can be awe, admiration, perhaps some envy. Maybe even a lot of envy -- though this can be usefully sublimated into emulation. We also tend to simplify the story further by treating it as a history of decline. I think Tanenhaus does this in his article by contrasting a sort of Age of Giants (when not only Schlesinger but Richard Hofstadter and C. Vann Woodward strode the earth) against the pygmy-esque contemporary historical professoriat.
The Giants could survey the grand sweep of American history, for their eyeglasses were mighty. But nowadays we just have wretched little monographs about the history of the massage parlor in the Pacific Northwest during the Gilded Age. So what else is there to do but lament?
As it happens, I have just been rereading The American Political Tradition by Richard Hofstadter. It is sweeping. The writing is incredible. There should be special summer camps for academics where they don’t do anything but learn how to imitate his prose style. (Maybe also some handicrafts and campfire songs, but mostly just that.) It is impressive but not surprising to know that, almost six decades after it first appeared, the book still sells about 10,000 copies per year. It’s a masterpiece.
But the thing that I really notice, this time around, is that Hofstadter, living in the Age of Giants, owed an enormous amount to historians of much smaller stature. A set of bibliographical essays at the back shows he had read hundreds, maybe thousands, of monographs and historical journal articles while putting together the book. It is not that Hofstadter was merely a popularizer. Even scholars who have serious problems with Hofstadter’s work (and there are huge problems with some of it) must acknowledge that he brought more to the table than a knack for narrative and exposition. But his capacity for synthesis would not been for nothing without all those microscopic journal articles and narrowly focused books to feed it.
So perhaps we should keep in check the tendency to denounce narrow-grubbing professorial diligence as the reason for why the Giants died off. Like it or not, history (good history anyway) involves tightly focused, positivistic work. Grubbing in the archives for small facts is absolutely necessary and it makes everything else possible.
Besides, I see no evidence that teeming multitudes of the general public are yearning for hot buttery Schlesingerian croissants and being served only the cold cod of Rhode Island econometric labor history. The historical profession is a very large enterprise. You pick up the cod and the croissants at different counters.
What happened to the croissants, then? For the gist of Tanenhaus’s article is, in effect, that you can’t buy them any more – at least not the kind Schlesinger used to make. (Man, those were good.) But elsewhere in the same piece, Tanenhaus acknowledges that the robust trade in biographies of historical figures. Furthermore, I have no doubt that Tannenhaus, as editor of the New York Times Book Review, sees even more general-interest works on history than I do in the course of a given week. And I get several. Somebody must be buying them. Otherwise the publishers would stop publishing them.
So the real issue, it seems, is that we no longer have a handful of authors who combine formidable book sales with sweeping authority in pronouncing upon the meaning of history. Like, you know, we did once upon a time. Back in the old days, when things were good, or at least less confusing. When the ideas were big and clear, and the idea-men were proportionally enormous and incisive.
I can think of a number of reasons why that situation is not likely to return. For one, the concentration of cultural and political power in three cities – Boston, New York, and Washington, DC – is now less extreme. A figure like Schlesinger who had some standing in academe, publishing, and government, would probably have a harder time consolidating his influence now, at least on anything like a comparable scale.
Another consideration is that the nation-state is now proving ever less self-evident as a self-contained unit for either historical research or historiographic narrative.
The Giants were all involved in playing what has seemed, for a couple of centuries anyway, like the definitive role of the historian: Telling stories about the nation to its citizens, in part so that they can recognize the nature of both the nation and citizenship. This is harder now, for a variety of reasons. One thing historical literacy involves is learning that notions like “the nation” and “the citizen” has changed their range of implications over the years. So after a while, narratives involving those terms don’t have quite the same shape.
There was a time when, for example, a coherent narrative of American history could overlook the fact that a considerable number of the country’s original residents had been exterminated through forced relocation to what were (in principle if not in name) concentration camps. Incorporating that fact into the story now is not easy. It’s not that it renders the notion of “Jacksonian democracy” meaningless, nor is it some peculiarly American sort of crime against humanity. On the contrary, it is sort of par for the course, not just for humanity in general but for the creation of democratic polities. (So one learns from the work of the historical sociologist Michael Mann.)
Does this mean the end of large-scale, large-audience, and deeply important historical writing? I don’t think it does, necessarily. I suspect that we will, in time, see the emergence of historians whose work is genuinely cosmopolitan in both its subject matter and its audience. They will be doing world history, in the strongest possible sense. And their work could prove influential in ways that might make Schlesinger look like an especially well-known provincial newspaper columnist.
The latter is a fine thing to be. (My own historical digging lately involves reading a few Midwestern pundits of the first few decades of the twentieth century.) But you have to recongize it for what it is. It's no standard to measure the world by, and neither was the career of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
One should be grateful for so provocative an essay as Sam Tanenhaus's"History, Written in the Present Tense." Its tribute to Arthur Schlesinger's long and very productive career comes at a moment when we historians need the self-examination that it calls for."With the death last week of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.," Tanenhaus writes,"America lost its last great public historian. ... The point is not that our leaders have shrunk," he writes,"but that, in some sense, our historians have. ... The problem is not one of seriousness, intelligence or skill. It is rather one of reach."
As a historian, whenever I read the phrase"the last ...," I reach for my pistol. Not that I'm certain that its author is wrong, but I'm certain that he's about to teach me something I'm prepared to resist. Most memorably, Garry Wills taught me about Richard Nixon as"the last liberal" in his remarkable book, Nixon Agonistes. And mere mention of Wills' name makes me skeptical of Tanenhaus's opening claim. Garry Wills lives. Sean Wilentz lives. Michael Kazin and dozens of others live.
To give Schlesinger his due, he was certainly the author of beautiful narratives. Sixty years later, The Age of Jackson still merits careful reading for its vital prose. Still, Schlesinger, like some of the politicians he admired, was more style than substance. Unlike those historians Tanenhaus classes Schlesinger with -- Richard Hofstadter and C. Vann Woodward - there's not a single significant idea that compels Schlesinger's powerful narratives.
The glaring omissions in Schlesinger's work are where subsequent historians have taught us the story really lay. If ethnic cleansing is a major theme in modernity, we learn nothing of"the trail of tears" in The Age of Jackson. And, if the abolition of slavery was one of the 19th century's few important achievements, we learn nothing of it from Schlesinger's book because slavery's most zealous critics were anti-Jacksonians. You wouldn't learn from The Age of Jackson that antebellum America was a"herrenvolk democracy" and that the Jacksonians' vision for its future focused on the manifest destiny of white men on the unending frontiers.
All of that is of a piece with Schlesinger's willingness to lend his prestige to the administration of John F. Kennedy. If ever in American history there were an administration that had great style and little substance, it was the administration Arthur Schlesinger gave himself to. In his anti-Communism and celebration of the rise of new ethnic groups to power in the country, Schlesinger was too willing to ignore their flaws. Among New England's senators, it was old school, stiff-necked Republicans - George Aiken, Ralph Flanders, Leverett Saltonstall, and Margaret Chase Smith - not John Kennedy, who censured Kennedy's fellow Irish Catholic, Joseph McCarthy.
And style claims to itself the reflected accomplishments of Kennedy's brawling and shrewd successor, Lyndon Johnson. If the great domestic accomplishment of postwar America lay in the achievements of the civil rights movement, we'd never learn from Schlesinger that they were no accomplishment of the Kennedy administration and that Johnson's legislative milestones relied on greater support from Republicans than from his own party. Rather, the archive grubbers have taught us that because J. Edgar Hoover had evidence of John Kennedy's substantial flaws, neither the President nor his brother, the Attorney General, could control the FBI Director's hostility to the movement - hostility so vicious that it ultimately sought to humiliate Martin Luther King into committing suicide. Failing to control their administration, the President and the Attorney General sought to control and co-opt the movement.
Perhaps Arthur Schlesinger understood that putting himself at the service of such an administration put his reputation as an historian at risk. There's little evidence of that, but it's a good warning to the rest of us who would hope to be"public historians."
Posts Submitted for the Symposium:
- Rachel at A Historian's Craft: schlesinger: a historian for the people, March 6th, 2007.
- Daniel Loss at No Loss for Words: Historians for the present, March 6th, 2007.
- Nonpartisan at Progressive Historians: Taking the Pulse of the Public Intellectual, March 9th, 2007.
- Rob MacDougall at Old is the New New: The Age of Schlesinger 2.0, March 12, 2007.
- Daniel Loss at No Loss for Words: More on Tanenhaus's views of history, March 18, 2007.
- Mary Dudziak at Legal History Blog: Tanenhaus dumps on Historians for the State of Public Discourse: But is he part of the problem?, March 4th, 2007.
- Paul Starr at Freedom's Power: Arthur Schlesinger’s Gift, March 4th, 2007
- Fredric Smoler at American Heritage:Sam Tanenhaus’s Arthur Schlesinger, March 5th, 2007.
- Sally Greene at Greene Space: History Lessons, March 9th, 2007.
- Southern Pasts at Southern Pasts: Presentist History?, March 13th, 2007.
Arthur Schlesinger showed great skill in crafting vivid historical narratives. But to understand what has happened since Schlesinger walked the halls of power, scholars need to consider the changes that have affected journalism; the nature of public discourse; how many readers define themselves; and the source materials for historical narratives.
During the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, television viewers turned for news to CBS, NBC or, to a lesser extent, to ABC (which then had a less robust news presence than did the other two). There was no 24-hour news cycle, no cable television. Although the White House practiced what in Kennedy's day was called"managing the news," spin control and message management had not yet been raised to the level practiced later in Washington. And the heyday of the"gotcha" journalist and the age of the Special Prosecutor or Independent Counsel were not yet upon us.
Sam Tanenhaus believes that it is"not that our leaders have shrunk, but that, in some sense, our historians have." But the frame through which some, but not all, general readers view history and historians has changed. When a former insider such as Schlesinger wrote about the near past, members of the general public devoured his work because the first draft of history practiced by journalists was different in the era before Watergate. Recent biographies of journalists such as James"Scotty" Reston and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein suggest that reporters did not do much investigative reporting prior to 1972.
In Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate, Alicia Shepard describes a pre-Watergate Washington where many reporters who covered the Presidency essentially re-wrote White House press releases. She quotes an observation by James McCartney (once with Knight Ridder), who complained that"the media tended to venerate the official statement when often it wasn't the truth." When the Watergate story first broke, many other reporters hung back, failing to probe the areas Woodward and Bernstein plunged in to investigate.
To anyone who grew up relying on the more passive approach to news that characterized the pre-Watergate era, books by Schlesinger seemed all the more vivid by contrast. Such works provided an insider view that rarely had been offered in the press while events unfolded. Our frame for looking at the near past is much different now as major print outlets such as Newsweek and Time cultivate insider sources, then take us behind the scenes with in-depth special news coverage. And journalists such as Woodward now write books that appear to many readers to be"history."
Those readers may be harder to reach. There always have been partisan divisions. But the increasing reliance for news by many on echo chambers that validate pre-existing views may make it more difficult for some historians to reach a very wide audience. Of course, any historian who now blogs and chooses to expose his partisan feelings in real time will have difficulty attracting a broad readership if s/he later should write a book about this time period. Many historians still preserve an aura of objectivity. But in a nation where talking heads on cable TV out shout each other, no recent historian who writes about the near past has been able to command"the broad cultural authority" that Mr. Schlesinger and his contemporaries did.
Conditioned by exposure to talk radio and niche-tv choices, some people with an interest in current events might even find it difficult to accept critical analysis of a past President of the political party that they now support. For such readers, objective narratives grounded in historical research may be a tough sell. Many people learn to value critical analysis in college. But, according to a recent discussion of increased narcissism among undergraduates on a message board at Inside Higher Ed, professors occasionally face students who simply dismiss their years of scholarly study. Presented in the classroom with historical facts, some shrug and reply,"Well, that's just your opinion. I have my own."
Records and the means of access to some historical materials also have changed since Schlesinger's day. As Tanenhaus points out, Schlesinger knew some of the principals about whom he wrote and had been an eyewitness to certain events. He seemingly had early privileged access to some documents to which other less favored writers did not anticipate getting access for decades. Now the Presidential Records Act of 1978 supposedly serves as the controlling authority for access to the records of Presidents starting with Ronald Reagan.
Some scholars, such as Michael Beschloss, have expressed concern about the potential chilling effect of early disclosure. Beschloss worried in 2002 that"People in Washington are more public relations savvy than in earlier times and, thus, more adept at drafting memos and other records that conceal their motives and can fool the historian." Other scholars, such as the late Hugh Davis Graham, have pointed to early revelation of actions to historians as a possible brake on abuses of governmental power.
The computer age also has affected source materials. An Air Force historian, Dr. Edward Mark, noted on H-Diplo in 2005 that"Record-keeping has everywhere collapsed in the government, and not only in the United States. . . . The root cause is . . . the inability of the government to deal with electronic records. . . That it failed to do so is entirely owing to a failure to institute appropriate archival procedures when the transition to computers was made in the 1980s. Malfeasance has more exploited this state of affairs than caused it."
Mark described some of his governmental experiences, then concluded,"I must note in conclusion that one of the most serious obstacles to a redress of the national crisis of record-keeping resides in the yawning indifference of historians to it. I have agitated this issue for some years, finding that with only the rarest exceptions historians are so narcissisticly engaged in their own research that they care not a whit for their professional descendants. The issue of declassification arouses them, predictably, but the usual attitude toward the problem of record-keeping is,"I've got mine. After all, the Eisenhower Administration kept good records."
In fairness, I should point out that even in Schlesinger's heyday, historians rarely focused on the intricacies of archival matters, except, as in the case of Francis Lowenheim, when actions taken by government employees adversely affected their research. But clearly the means of creating, preserving and accessing records; how reporters approach their jobs; cycles of investigation in Washington; public perceptions and many readers' sense of identity all have changed since Schlesinger was in his prime.
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Rob MacDougall - 3/13/2007
Thanks Ralph, thanks Manan. Sometimes it's worth it to take the late penalty.
Manan Ahmed - 3/12/2007
Once the noble class starts bending its own rules....done!
Ralph E. Luker - 3/12/2007
I've asked Manan to figure you the html coding that will make it look like you weren't sleeping in class, Rob.
Rob MacDougall - 3/12/2007
My own response, though late and flimsy, is up at Old is the New New.
Maarja Krusten - 3/12/2007
Two follow-up items which discuss some issues related to historians’ access to records which had not yet come up in Schlesinger’s day. These relate to electronic records and statutory controls.
(1) On electronic recordkeeping, see comments in 2003 about some DOD records by Dr. Eduard Mark, Air Force historian (I misspelled his first name as Edward in my submission, above) at
(2) The situation with White House records has changed greatly from Schlesinger’s day, when JFK’s and LBJ’s records were treated as the personal property of the President and his family. The families often had an expectation that some information related to the Presidency would not be released for general research use for a long time. For example, LBJ placed a 50 year seal on his White House tapes. Statutes now control such records. However, on a few occasions, Presidential actions have affected the way the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has dealt with some statutory issues.
As George H. W. Bush left office in 1993, then U.S. Archivist Don W. Wilson signed an agreement which, according to press reports, appeared to give President Bush, rather than the National Archives, control of White House email tapes. See
for context. Several groups of historians filed a lawsuit to overturn the agreement.
I’ve been unable in a quick search to find anything from the National Archives to which I can link to show the plaintiff’s perspective in this lawsuit and why Mr. Wilson agreed to sign the agreement. The litigation dragged on for some time, through the two-year tenure of the Acting U.S. Archivist who took Mr. Wilson's place in 1993 and the beginning of the tenure of a confirmed Archivist.
I should add that even after these cases are settled, I believe NARA can do little more than echo what the Department of Justice (DOJ) once argued in court on these matters. NARA is not permitted to represent itself in court in litigation involving Presidential records, rather, it is DOJ that speaks for the National Archives.
On at least two occasions, before taking office, nominees for the U.S. Archivist position have expressed concern about matters related to Presidential records during their confirmation hearings. However, as another former U.S. Archivist once said in a speech before a professional group, “In matters of litigation, the government speaks with one voice.” That tells you a great deal about the position in which a U.S. Archivist may find himself once in office.
An article by NARA officials published as late as 2006 stated that "this litigation" over the so-called Bush-Wilson agreement demonstrated “the confusion that can occur over the record status and control of information contained on backup tapes and the complexities of handling these issues in the electronic age.” There is no link available to this article from The Public Historian (Summer 2006).
For a more general view from NARA of electronic records and how court decisions have affected the retention of White House email, see “The PROFS Decade: NARA, E-mail and the Courts" at
Ralph E. Luker - 3/10/2007
David, You've been googling yourself again. You know that it will stunt your growth, don't you?
david horowitz - 3/10/2007
For the record, I have never campaigned against outspokenness on college campuses
Nonpartisan - 3/9/2007
I meant to include Schama in my piece, but I sadly ran out of time.
The key with Schama is that he doesn't feel constrained by the same issues that American historians do precisely because he's not a part of our political system. He can critique our government with impunity without being labled either an "unpatriotic American" or an insufficiently left liberal. His independence is exactly what we should strive for as American historians -- to provide searching critiques, beholden to no one, of American current events.
Manan Ahmed - 3/9/2007
I wonder also why Sam Tanenhaus is so focused on historians of America. Not that I agree with them but historians such as Simon Schamaa, Bernard Lewis, and Niall Ferguson combine institutional, political and commerical success to a level meeting the Age of Giants.
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