Day By Day

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Return of the Great Men

The left-wing Guardian is disturbed by the latest trend in American historiography. In its pages Tristram Hunt decries the general turning away from popular social history. He looks back fondly to a time, not so long ago, when:
The world of the workplace, family life, native America and civil rights was chronicled with verve and style. The delicate oral histories of social chronicler Studs Terkel opened up the local and working-class past to mass audiences.
This rejection of social history, which still thrives in academia, by the intelligent reading public might be understandable and forgivable, Hunt feels, if it involved an engagement with "the secular ideals of enlightenment and reason." But instead Americans are buying, and presumably reading, books that represent "an obsessive telling and retelling of that great struggle for liberty: the American Revolution." Their preferred form is heroic biography, telling and retelling the life stories of great men and women.

This depresses and alarms Mr. Hunt. He writes:

Sadly, none of this has resulted in any substantive reinterpretation of the revolution or its principal actors. As Simon Schama rightly puts it, this is history as inspiration, not instruction. Instead of critical analysis, the public is being fed self-serving affirmation: war-time schlock designed to underpin the unique calling, manifest destiny and selfless heroism of the US nation and, above all, its superhuman presidents.

In fact, it horrifys him. He sees the administration's approach to the world as being essentially "Nietzschean," an expression of "terrifying ambition," that has created an "imperium" that is "rampaging across the globe." And he sees the historian community as being complicit in this development, producing cozy biography and hagiography to satisfy the public maw rather than instructing them in the histories of other peoples, especially those of the Middle East.

Read the whole thing here.

The kind of historiography Mr. Hunt advocates has never appealed to mass audiences, and for good reason. It is didactic literature, written by scolds who feel that their narrow expertise entitles them to patronize the reading public, to hector them with a litany of past and present sins, real and imagined, and to convince the ignorant fools that they are incompetent to discover for themselves their true interests. What passes for "analysis" is simply an attempt to fit the rich diversity of human experience into the procrustean bed of "theory" [usually some derivative form of Marxism]. Just think about the colossal arrogance behind the claim that the only legitimate purpose of writing history is "instructional."

There is far more to the history of America than the endless litany of the left ["the workplace, family life, native America and civil rights"]. It is the conceit of leftists that these subjects have been neglected, but in fact for the past several decades they have formed the core of the narrative imposed upon students and the general public by the "enlightened." Historiography runs in cycles, and the kind of didacticism cherished by Mr. Hunt has just about run its course.

Mr. Hunt and Prof. Schama decry the rise of inspirational history -- the kind that emphasizes what is good in the nation's past and exhorts readers to strive to live up to the examples of the best among us. After decades of being told that the individual does not matter, that only mere sociological categories and power relations count, the public is now being presented with a kind of history that affirms the simple truth that we are individuals who can transcend our circumstances and that urges us to explore the brightest possibilities of our existence.

And Mr. Hunt deprecates any attempts to celebrate, rather than to indict, the nation's past; to assert the unique qualities of American life; and to suggest that the United States can be a positive influence in this sorry old world. Such ideas run counter to the lastest academic fad -- "transnational studies," but they would confirm the everyday experience of people throughout the world -- those who emulate American culture, who yearn for freedom, who seek markets in the United States, and who flock to our shores. To them America is and long has been a shining city upon a hill and an example to be emulated. America has much to offer the world and all the Tonypandy pouring out of the academic mills and the leftist presses will diminish that fact not a whit.

The great men have been too long absent from our history. I, for one, welcome their return.

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