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Mar 12, 2007 4:47 pm


Sam Tanenhaus Responds



Below is the response submitted by Sam Tanenhaus to our recently held symposium. We thank him for taking the time out to respond.

Sam Tanenhaus:

These thoughtful and interesting responses raise several points. I'll stick to the major ones, in no particular order. First, Ralph Luker is quite right to praise Garry Wills's"Nixon Agonistes"-- as exciting and consequential"big" history as has been written in our era. I regret not mentioning it in my Times essay, and in a longer piece I would certainly have done so. Scott McLemee notes omissions, oversights, and biases in Schlesinger's work. Of course these exist. They are evident in"The Age of Jackson" and also (to cite an example not mentioned by the respondents) in"The Imperial Presidency," which underplays Kennedy's responsibility for creating the"insurgency" presidencies of Johnson and Nixon.

Scott's larger point, though, doesn't quite address what I wrote. I certainly don't question the importance and contribution of monographs or of narrowly focused journal articles (I draw on them often in my own work). Nor do I pretend that ambitious writers like Schlesinger and Hofstadter (whom I've also written about, in this case at considerable length) did not lean heavily on them. But the question I asked is different: where are the master narratives of our moment?

Here at least some of us agree the profession is not where it once was. There are reasons for this, as several respondents note: ideas of nation and citizenship have changed; also there is little patience in our time (within the historical profession and beyond it too) for the"great man" approach to historical narrative, which seeks to relate larger stories through the experiences of individuals, precisely the approach Schlesinger and Hofstadter often (though not always) took.

And there is the question too--raised in my appreciation of Schlesinger and taken up by some respondents--of cultural authority. Is it possible for any contemporary historian to occupy the place one held by Schlesinger, who commuted so easily among disparate halls of power--Harvard Yard, the White House, intellectual Manhattan? One answer is that the historian needn't replicate this particular journey. Woodward and Hofstadter certainly didn't. Neither was a political creature in the professional way Schlesinger was, and neither wished to be. What all three shared was a confident sense of a broadly informed reading public with an appetite for reading transvaluative (as opposed to passively"spectatorial") essays and books.

Which leads to the issue of Schlesinger's sometimes idealizing portraits, particularly of the Kennedys. I tried to show, or sketch, in my appreciation, that in fact he wrote in a more textured, ironic way about his subjects, and that his nuance, finally, is what enriches his portraits. (So too with his New Deal cycle. The books repay reading not because Schlesinger revered FDR, but because he captured the energy and mood of the period and its players.)

It's worth remembering too that"great men" need not be great (in the classical sense) so much as representative: their particular deeds and words must resonate beyond their briefly lighted moment on the stage. The historian's task--or one of them, at least--is to find such figures and uncover the striations of meaning and relevance. Hofstadter excelled at this, for instance in his Strachey-like portraits of Lester Ward, John C. Calhoun and Wendell Phillips, and also in his book on the Progressive historians. Those portraits are not merely illuminating. They make us see the past differently, and make the present look different too. They are rooted in a controlling vision, however subtle, of an American identity--of a national myth.

Where I suspect I differ from my colleagues in the profession is in my belief that every nation is defined to an important extent by its unifying myths (stories), however unstable, and that we sacrifice something if we don't seek to give those stories some credence even as we examine and revise them. Wills's great book, subtitled"The Crisis of the Self-Made Man," deals explicitly with myths (a handful, all variations on the free-market idea). His superb book on Ronald Reagan does the same.

Is it really mere nostalgia that makes me yearn for more of this? I think of my critique as being closer in spirit to the one Saul Bellow offered and then returned to at various junctures in his career, beginning with his rapturous review of Ralph Ellison's"Invisible Man" and continuing through his Nobel address. In these statements Bellow observed that his contemporaries lacked the conviction, so manifest in writers from Dante to Proust, that the ordinary person could achieve a kind of greatness through his struggles with the culture that surrounded him. The novelist who wanted, as Bellow himself did, to recapture this grandeur had more to contend with than the older masters did. He must avoid the sand traps of ideology, sentimentality, and cant. And he must be careful not to underestimate or, conversely, to exaggerate the larger impersonal forces in and against which individual lives unfold. But the story was worth telling in his time. I think it's still true, for novelists and for historians too.


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HAVH Mayer - 3/12/2007

Wills is an interesting comparison to Schlesinger, because both are far from being representative professional historians of their generations.

Schlesinger's "generation" is a narrow one, basically historians born, say, 1912-22, with Woodward the outlier perhaps because he went to college late (I believe he was a classmate of David Potter at Emory). This group, which included, in addition to Schlesinger, Hofstadter, Woodward, and Potter,Oscar Handlin, Henry May, Kenneth Stampp, John Higham, Edmund Morgan, Bernard Bailyn (at the tail end) and others, road the postwar wave of university growth and won recognition relatively young; in the process they prematurely challenged the cohort born just after 1900 -- Curti, Jensen, Bridenbaugh, Commager (another interesting comparison for Schlesinger, by the way).

But Schlesinger didn't really fit in; his preoccupations and frame of reference were different. Influenced by his father and by Charles Beard in ways that go beyond what rising scholars generally take from their mentors, he was very much the heir to the "progressive" current in American history at a time when his peers were reacting against it. He may have hewed to (what seemed to him to be) the center, but his history was altogether engaged; as Henry Fairlie noted, he is best understood as the historian of the Democratic Party.

Today, of course, Sean Wilentz is obviously and explicitly carrying on Schlesinger's work. But the task is increasingly difficult, on the progressive side -- to put it in shorthand, it's getting harder and harder to make Andrew Jackson look like a hero for our times.

Given the swing of Schlesinger's political pendulum, his current successor should be somewhere to the right.

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