The following is a guest post from Oliver Bateman, professor of American legal history at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Carl Becker, whose long-overdue revival is discussed in greater and more critical detail here, writes in his “Everyman His Own Historian” address that “the history that does work in the world…is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the specious present, the specious present of Mr. Everyman.” This is intended to serve as a valuable reminder that history ought to be remade to suit the needs of whatever generation writes it, in order that we members of that generation might “make use” of history so as “to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman’s mythological adaptation of what actually happened.”
When I first read (or, to be perfectly candid, skimmed) this address at the beginning of my graduate career, I considered it more small “d” democratic than it actually is. The address, far from being a plea for “Mr. Everyman” to actually sit down and write his own history, is instead an exhortation to professional historians to adapt their work to the “felt necessities” of the present, Von Rankean notions of perfect objectivity be damned.1 It is a call, in other words, for better and more relevant scholarly production—even if, as Becker himself acknowledges, Everyman rarely reads “our” books.
Everyman’s own memories, in Becker’s opinion, “fashion for him a more spacious world than that of the immediately practical,” with most of the scraps of factual knowledge that he acquires derived from his mostly unconscious work as a popular culture bricoleur: “information, picked up in the most casual way…from knowledge gained in business or profession, from newspapers glanced at, from books (yes, even history books) read or heard of, from remembered scraps of newsreels or educational films or ex cathedra utterances of presidents and kings, from fifteen-minute discourses on the history of civilization broadcast by the courtesy (it may be) of Pepsodent, the Bulova Watch Company, or the Shepherd Stores in Boston.”2 For those of us who regularly encounter students whose entire understanding of world events is derived from BuzzFeed lists and Daily Show clips, Becker’s somewhat condescending remark continues to resonate.
Becker’s proposed solution, then, is that we professional historians must work to ensure that Mr. Everyman’s weltanschauung is shaped by more than just the detritus left in the sieve after his daily skimming and browsing is complete. Thus, through our useful and frequent contributions to the public-intellectual sphere, a somewhat more enlightened Mr. Everyman might one day become acquainted with the meanings of borrowed words and phrases such as bricoleur, ex cathedra, and weltanschauung.