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Sean Wilentz wants to know why the American literary canon has admitted so few historians

Historians do not rank high in the American literary canon. The Library of America has enshrined the works of two nineteenth-century master historians, Henry Adams and Francis Parkman, and it 
includes a volume of W.E.B. Du Bois’s selected writings (from which his most important historical work, Black Reconstruction in America, is lamentably 
missing). Otherwise the only historian who makes the cut is Barbara W. Tuchman, a worthy addition but more 
of a storyteller than a scholar. That 
Tuchman’s best writing concerned European history makes the absence of other historians even more glaring. American letters involve Americans explaining their country to each other and to the rest of the world, and such explaining is the American historians’ chief endeavor. But their prose gets neglected, presumably because, with rare exceptions, it lacks literary distinction. In this way the nation’s cultural legacy, and its historical memory, 
is egregiously diminished.

The publication of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s and C. Vann Woodward’s selected correspondence encourages a reassessment of historians’ place in the literary pecking order. I can think of no other American 
historians, apart from Henry Adams and George Bancroft, whose letters have attained the dignity of book-length publication. But something meritorious—historical and literary—was going on in the writing of American history during the mid– to late twentieth century. Schlesinger was a public figure and a participant in historical events as well as a historian, and Woodward also helped to make history as well as record and interpret it.

Apart from Bancroft—who may have been his distant ancestor, and who served as secretary of the Navy under James K. Polk—Schlesinger was, in his participation in politics and government, sui generis, and his letters thus acquire a wider value and appeal. Yet Schlesinger never thought of himself as anything other than a historian. He completed his most enduring work during the fifteen years before John F. Kennedy’s election to the White House deflected his academic career. His important writings on contemporary politics, above all The Vital Center, published in 1949, were fundamentally historical treatises. His dense network of friends and correspondents always included other broadly engaged historians, at home and abroad.

Woodward’s political contributions were less conspicuous than Schlesinger’s—he would have shuddered at the thought of an office in the White House—but what he did may in time be judged even more important. Having one of his books proclaimed by Martin Luther King Jr. “the historical bible of the civil rights movement”—as King did about Woodward’s study of the origins of racial segregation, The Strange Career of Jim Crow—certainly puts Woodward in a class of his own. Like Schlesinger, Woodward was an intellectual as well as a scholar, writing for a wide range of publications, not least this magazine, where he was for many years a contributing editor. Chiefly, though, Woodward wrote as a member and, eventually, a leader of the historians’ guild. From his base at Johns Hopkins and then at Yale, he always heeded and addressed the 
continuing debates among his fellow professionals, especially in his chief field, the history of the American South. More definitively than Schlesinger’s, his is the correspondence of a working historian...

Read entire article at The New Republic