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Apr 17, 2004 5:38 pm

Debunking ...

Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds looks at David Hackett Fisher's new book, Washington's Crossing. Reynolds directs attention to Fisher's discussion of the history and historicity of Emanuel Leutze's painting of Washington crossing the Delaware."Fischer then looks at the many ‘debunkers' of the painting," says Reynolds,"and observes that while they were sometimes (though not always) right about the details they debunked, ‘they rarely asked about the accuracy of its major themes.'"

Fischer has long been one of the most provocative of American historians, though he is also difficult to locate intellectually because his work is rarely placable within some current paradigm. At a time when there is much discussion of flaws in the writing of American history, particularly, his observation points to an important question about"debunking." When does the exposing of discrete flaws in a work amount to mere nitpicking? When does it merely distract our attention from larger truths to which the work points?

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Ralph E. Luker - 4/18/2004

Thanks for the correction. I can't imagine how I missed it, except that spell check thought I meant "placable".

Danny Loss - 4/18/2004

The best historians of memory (which seems to be the crux of the issue here, whether it's professional historians or non-academics who are producing the artifacts of that memory) are both nitpickers and explainers. We can learn a great deal by comparing the "facts" of an event with later representations of it.

Take Leutze's painting. Here's what we should be asking: what did Leutze add that wasn't present in the historical record available to him? What elements did Leutze know about that he chose not to include? What modifications did he make?

Those nitpicks are the first step. After laying out the slippages between Leutze's depiction and What Really Happened, we should try to explain why those slippages occurred.

It's not enough merely to debunk the errors of a representation, just as it's not enough merely to point to the major themes of a particular depiction. Historians should be doing both.

While we're on the subject of nitpicking, I think "placable" should be "placeable."

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/18/2004

Fischer himself, in his Paul Revere's Ride, seems to identify himself as a practitioner of an unfashionable "histoire evenementielle" -- at least in that work. His latest book seems to fall within that category, though not all his works. I think it a great approach to seducing readers into an interest in larger themes which may not initially attract the general reader. In trying to understand a certain event -- its causes, consequences, and meanings to its contemporaries, readers end up absorbing a lot more general knowledge of the time than they might otherwise take an interest in. And the nit-picking drives home an appreciation of methodology and the fact that history is not immanent, but a recovered reconstruction subject to error, etc. You often have less trouble trying to get a student to read this type of work, rather than a dryasdust discussion of say, the northern strategy in the war of independence.