In researching last week’s post, I ran across a reference to a poll of historians taken in 1952 that quizzed respondents on what were, in their views, the “best” works of history published “recently.” The poll was organized by and reported in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, the forerunner of the Journal of American History. Re-reporting it now may seem a bit antiquarian but there are (as far as I know) relatively few comprehensive exercises such as this in the history of our profession, so it does have some rough merit for the snapshot it provides. At any rate, we get the opportunity for discovering some titles that have gone out of circulation, and for re-weighting certain relationships between historians or between their works.
But the most interesting aspect of the poll is the story of the historian who conducted it and wrote it up: John Walton Caughey. 1952 would have been a remarkable time for him to have been conducting a poll like this: in 1950 he was fired from his position at the University of California after refusing to sign a loyalty oath. Some time after this article went to press, he was reinstated after a court case, but in the “Directory of Contributors” for MVHR 39.2 (Sept. 1952), in which this poll appeared, Caughey is still listed as “editor of the Pacific Historical Review” rather than given a university affiliation, which all other contributors have. It is notable, I think, that PHR retained Caughey as editor during the time he was blacklisted. It is also possible that this poll was a small means of employment for Caughey while he was fighting his UC firing; the PHR editorship was unfunded, according to this account and it is not difficult to imagine that the staff of MVHR also reached out to a fellow scholarly journal’s beleaguered editor. So in some small way, the Red Scare is, remarkably, the midwife of this poll. Continue reading