As I mentioned in the first post in this series, both history, as a discipline, and agency—as a concept so central to the premises that inform the discipline—are well embedded within western humanist tradition. As such they are also products of the same romantic impulses that constructed the human subject as a central—perhaps the most central—trope in western imagination. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the modern discipline of history has its roots in the German romanticism of Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, which shrouded both individuals and nations with a romantic aura in touch with the sublime.
Such romantic impulses, I would like to argue in today’s post, are still with us and still inspire a stronger commitment than warranted to the paradigm of agency in American history over the last several decades. Consider for example the following passage from the preface to Eugene Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll: “[m]any years of studying the astonishing effort of black people to live decently as human beings even in slavery has convinced me that no theoretical advance suggested in their experience could ever deserve as much attention as that demanded by their demonstration of the beauty and power of the human spirit under conditions of extreme oppression.”(1) Invoking the sublimity of the human spirit, Genovese explicitly contends that focusing on the agency of black people under slavery deserves more attention than the agency of the people who enslaved and subjugated them or the suffering that went along with the work regimen and violence intrinsic to slavery.