U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Groundbreaking Historians

Tonight my graduate seminar on “Philosophy of History and Historiography” meets for the first time. Your many wonderful comments and suggestions on my post a few weeks back, which I will share with my students, have helped me better conceptualize the course. I also added a few readings to fill major gaps. Based on several recommendations, I added E.H. Carr’s What Is History? as a sort of primer on how many if not most twentieth-century historians theorized their craft. And based on SB’s suggestion, I added a conservative text (or rather, a text that represents skepticism of most modern historical theories): Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Moreover, I heeded the advice given by several of you about which films to show. So thank you!

I now turn once again to the USIH hive mind for help. I am posting selections of my syllabus below (I’ve redacted quite a bit). Take special note of the final paper. I am requiring that students write short intellectual biographies of “groundbreaking historians.” I’ve given the students a necessarily arbitrary list of suggestions. But I would like them to have many more such suggestions. So, in the comments section, give us your recommendations. There are no parameters, but feel free to explain or justify your choices. I am looking for diversity in terms of time, place, subject matter, and perspective. Cheers.

History 496: Philosophy of History and Historiography

Prof Andrew Hartman

Course Description: This course will introduce students to some of the most influential philosophical bases for the study of history. Students will learn a variety of theoretical and historical perspectives for viewing the world. Students will explore the development of historical understanding and the various problems and approaches of the historical discipline. Student will read, discuss, and write about some of the great modern texts and some of the most groundbreaking works of theory and history.

Required texts (in alphabetical order):

  • Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History
  • Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
  • E.H. Carr, What is History?
  • Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference
  • Terry Eagleton, After Theory
  • Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
  • Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish
  • Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents
  • Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory
  • Joan Scott, Gender and the Politics of History
  • E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class
  • Robert C. Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader
  • Hayden White, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation

Final Paper: Students will write an essay that explores the work of one major “groundbreaking” figure in the historical discipline. The paper should do the following:

1) Present a brief intellectual biography of the groundbreaking historian: where did he or she live and work, what subjects did he or she research, what were his or her major influences?

2) Summarize and analyze the historian’s major works, arguments, and interventions.

3) Put the groundbreaking historian in an historiographical context: What theory or school of thought did he or she emerge from and/or help forge, and what have critics had to say about him or her?

Groundbreaking historians sample list (this is a necessarily arbitrary and partial list—feel free to select a historian not on the list):

  • Perry Anderson
  • Joyce Appleby
  • Herbert Aptheker
  • Bernard Bailyn
  • Jacques Barzun
  • Marc Bloch
  • Fernand Braudel
  • R.G. Collingwood
  • Robert Darnton
  • Natalie Zemon Davis
  • W.E.B. DuBois
  • Eric Foner
  • Eugene Genovese
  • Carlo Ginzburg
  • Ranajit Guha
  • Christopher Hill
  • Gertrude Himmelfarb
  • Eric Hobsbawm
  • Richard Hofstadter
  • Lynn Hunt
  • Jonathan Israel
  • Paul Johnson
  • Tony Judt
  • Robin D.G. Kelley
  • Gabriel Kolko
  • Claudia Koonz
  • Thomas Kuhn
  • Christopher Lasch
  • Gerda Lerner
  • Pauline Maier
  • Manning Marable
  • Gary Nash
  • Peter Novick
  • Nell Painter
  • J.G.A. Pocock
  • Theda Skocpol
  • Immanuel Wallerstein
  • William Appleman Williams
  • Gordon Wood
  • Howard Zinn

53 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I’d consider adding Joan Wallach Scott to the list—for both history and theorizing about gender. And Warren Susman for his work on cultural history. – TL

    • Thanks Tim. I left those historians whom I am already assigning off the list–including Scott–because I want the students to explore the work of someone new.

      The Susman suggestion is excellent.

  2. Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic. Fabulous & a key figure in the transnational turn. Shows how literature & culture ARE history. An life-changing book for me.

  3. Fascinating stuff, and a very good list. Some suggestions for additions, off the top of my head and in no particular order:

    – John Hope Franklin (groundbreaking in terms of African American history.)
    – Carter G. Woodson (as above.)
    – Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (groundbreaking as historian and “active” intellectual combined? This is very debatable, I know, but might produce good discussion.)
    – E. P. Thompson (groundbreaking in terms of social history. I see he’s on your list of required readings though.)
    – Frederick Jackson Turner (groundbreaking in terms of Western history, and could lead to good discussion of the extent to which historians should be defined by single bits of work done early in their careers.)
    – Edward Gibbon (groundbreaking just for the impact and longevity of “Decline and Fall”, if nothing else.)

    There are others – Foucault, Said, various historical novelists – who might produce interesting papers discussing whether or not we should regard them as “historians” at all. But I suspect these aren’t quite right for your purposes, given the emphasis of the seminar on “professional” historiography?

  4. Peter Brown, “Rise of Western Christendom”, Arno
    Mayer, “The Persistence of the Old Regime”, Eamon Duffy, “The Voice of Morebath”, and how about Henri Pirenne, “Muhammad and Charlemagne”

  5. I’m showing my age and my stodginess, but I’d have Perry Miller and maybe Henry May (for his pre-WWI culture book) on the list were it mine.

    Also, just to blow their minds, I’d probably (and possibly perversely) include the Swedish non-academic (but PhD) author, Sven Lindqvist, primarily for his indescribably innovative A HISTORY OF BOMBING, which has to be read to be believed.

  6. Probably needs some more military historians, not only the ones who do guns and gore (Keegan, Synder, Weinberg, Spector) but also people who brought a more social lens to writing about war. Thinking here mainly of John Dower and War without Mercy, and Tooze’s work on the economics of war-making

  7. I meant to comment on the previous post when you were putting the syllabus together and I totally forgot. I know it’s too late now, but I would really recommend Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s _Sliencing the Past: Power and the Production of History_ as a core text in the future. I first read it in my grad methods course and it really stuck with me.

    As for the “groundbreakers” list, I think Stuart Hall has to be on there. Not a historian per se, but his historical writings, and their use of theory, were models for me as a writer.

    I would also advocate for Jackson Lears even though I know a lot of people might disagree with this. Again, his use of theory should be a model for all historians, even if you disagree with him.

  8. Since environmental history is neglected, I recommend at the very least, Alfred Crosby and William Cronon. I also think some examples of the “organizational synthesis” school should be introduced such as Alfred Chandler. Perhaps Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman could be included to represent computerized economic history.

    Your class looks interesting.

  9. Just a few suggestions that came to mind . . .

    Donald Worster
    William Cronon
    Frederick Jackson Turner
    Herbert Eugene Bolton
    Walter Prescott Webb
    Merle Curti
    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.
    Robert Roswell Palmer

  10. What a great final project! (Sorry these ideas are seriatim and disjointed.)
    I enthusiastically second Jonathan’s recommendations of Mary Ritter Beard and William Cronon; a student could do a lot with the material surrounding Scott Walker’s persecution of the latter.
    I would also add someone affiliated with the early years of American Studies, like Henry Nash Smith or Leo Marx. Marx has written autobiographically more than Smith did, so he may be a better choice.
    C. L. R. James would make a fascinating project for someone.
    Also, I am obliged to recommend Carl Becker!

    Other possibilities:
    Frank Luther Mott (a little obscure now, but merits being called “groundbreaking” and has a very interesting autobiography)
    David Potter
    Herbert Bolton (a fantastic biography from Albert Hurtado was published recently)
    Herbert Gutman
    Nell Irvin Painter

  11. Sounds like a great class!

    I’d like to second the David Potter and John Hope Franklin suggestions. Also: Ira Berlin for the Freedmen & Southern Society Project.

  12. Andrew,
    Why not try to include more “non-western” historians as well. I am not sure now who to suggest, but will think about it. Maybe Albert Hourani.
    Also, Jay Winter’s work on WWI is really worth reading and writing on as well as Alberto Manguel (History of Reading).

    • Thanks, Issam. I would like more non-western historians on this list so if anyone has suggestions I would love them.

  13. The most ambitious and engaging work of history I’ve read outside my own bailiwick is Lisa Jardine’s Worldly Goods: A New History of the Renaissance.

    Here’s a link to Amazon if you want to check out the reviews:
    Worldly Goods

    I read it before I started the M.A. program, so it has been a while, and I was coming to it as a “general reader” rather than as an historian — but I thought it was great. In fact, I think when I was first coming around to the idea of doing intellectual history, I mentioned the book to my advisor as a model for the kind of history I like to read and would wish to write.

    If wishes were horses…

  14. Thanks everyone. This is really helpful and very interesting.

    A few more suggestions I received elsewhere (I want to list them all her as a record for me and my students):

    Robert Conquest
    David Blackbourn
    Geoff Eley
    Raul Hilberg

  15. I don’t think any of these have been mentioned yet:
    David Brion Davis
    Patricia Nelson Limerick
    Caroll Smith-Rosenberg
    Arthur Lovejoy (hey, somebody’s got to push the H of I!)
    John Higham
    Winthrop Jordan
    Quentin Skinner
    H. Stuart Hughes
    Vernon Parrington

  16. I assume the Paul Johnson on your list is the evil Paul Johnson (The Birth of the Modern) not the good Paul Johnson (“The Modernization of Mayo Greenleaf Patch”)?

  17. Maybe a couple of old school ones to think about: the ballcoach Vernon Parrington and lovely F.O. Mattheissen.

  18. Quentin Skinner, definitely, who I think someone mentioned already. Also:

    Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
    Olwen Hufton
    Lawrence Stone
    J. H. Hexter
    Pierre Goubert
    George Rude
    Richard Cobb
    Alfred Cobban
    Francois Furet
    Georges Lefebvre
    Albert Soboul
    R. R. Palmer

    I’m sure reading that list will be nearly as exhaustive as writing it was!
    Lucien Febvre
    Elizabeth Eisenstein

    • Hmmm. I’m not sure how Eisenstein and Febvre wound up at the bottom like that.

  19. a few more possibilities/suggestions:

    Partha Chatterjee (colonialism/postcolonialism w/r/t India esp.)

    John King Fairbank (a leading American historian of China)

    A.J.P. Taylor
    (his ‘Origins of the Second World War’ was extremely controversial, and its argument, I think, has been generally rejected. But putting that to one side, he wrote a lot of other books.)

    Paul Kennedy
    (I’m not sure about ‘groundbreaking’, but the ‘The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers’ was definitely a ‘big’ book)

  20. Two more:
    Timothy Snyder (‘Bloodlands’; so in command of his subject(s) it’s almost frightening — heard him give a talk once)

    R.J. Evans (for his trilogy on the Third Reich)

  21. George Chauncey- Gay New York was groundbreaking both in terms of subject & sources (many of which IIRC he had to buy from used book dealers bc weren’t archived in libraries)– but in ways I’ve found students have to work hard to reconstruct now, bc we live in a time when sexuality seems like a much more obvious topic of study (in part, of course, bc of historians of sexuality). Also maybe useful given his empirical pushback on Foucault.

    Kristin Hoganson- Fighting for American Manhood might be interesting example of applying gender as category of analysis to military history.

    • Looks v. interesting, and I rather doubt I would ever have run across it. ( One reason to like blogs: one finds things out.)

  22. Such great suggestions above. As well, esp since Latino history seems largely overlooked: Albert Camarillo, Steve Pitti, Guadelupe San Miguel.

  23. Vicki L. Ruiz–pioneering historian, 5th Latina in the U.S. to receive History PhD., (Stanford 1982)…labor, women, U.S.West
    Mario T. Garcia-Chicano Movement
    George Sanchez-Mexican American Los Angeles
    Rudy Acuna-invented the field Chicano/a Studies
    Virginia Sanchez-Korrol-Latina history
    Matt Garcia-labor U.S borderlands
    David Maldonado-Texas
    Timothy Matovina-Latino Catholics
    Lara Medina-Latina Catholics
    I could go on

  24. I’d second some (or many) of Varad M.’s suggestions in #26 re both early-modern and Fr. Rev.-era Europe. I could add a few names under those headings (esp. early modern), but the list is by now quite long. (Also conscious that there are others much better qualified to weigh in than I am, though that’s rarely stopped me before. ;))

  25. Thanks to everyone for contributing to this large and growing list. I’d like to transpose some parts of the long discussion thread on my Facebook wall for posterity:

    First, someone more familiar with Jonathan Israel than I am questioned his original inclusion on the list (I included him because he was recommended to me not because I know enough about his work). This person wrote: “Israel’s methodology and thesis has been roundly criticized by pretty much every historian in the field. He’s terribly reductionist, a very sloppy scholar, and an extremely tendentious reader. He displays a brashness and bravado that bring him attention outside of his own field, but it’s most unfortunate that this earns him the reputation of a “ground-breaking” historian.” (I’d be interested in more discussion of this.)

    Anthony Grafton writes: “The ACLS Haskins Lectures, texts of which are posted on the ACLS website, include inspiring autobiographies by Carl Schorske, Lawrence Stone, John Hope Franklin, Robert Merton, Natalie Zemon Davis, Clifford Geertz, Peter Brown, Peter Gay, Gerda Lerner, Nancy Siraisi and Joyce Appleby. Great reading for students.” (Awesome tip.)

    I’m going to add a two more here that have been suggested to me elsewhere:

    Anthony Grafton (who did not nominate himself)

    James Livingston (who is a frequent contributor to discussions on my Facebook wall but did not nominate himself).

  26. And one of my more ambitious students suggested that these historians be added to the list (one or two are repetitive):

    Carol Smith-Rosenberg
    Timothy Mason
    David Brion Davis
    Joseph C. Miller
    Eric Williams

  27. Historians of Africa are somewhat sparsely represented here… Three potential starting points might be Terence Ranger, Walter Rodney, and Jan Vansina.

  28. Re Jonathan Israel:
    I recently happened to read David Bell’s review of Israel’s ‘Revolutionary Ideas’ in N.Y.Rev.Bks. I picked it up in hard copy; the online version seems to be subscribers-only:

    Bell is very critical of the book’s argument, but not in terms quite as harsh as those used by your Facebook correspondent. (He also, if I recall correctly, is somewhat less critical of the preceding volumes in Israel’s Enlightenment series.) There was also a review in TNR by Lynn Hunt (and a reply by Israel), which I haven’t read.

    Might be interesting for a student to contrast Skocpol’s explanation of the Fr Rev (in ‘States and Social Revolutions’ which is on your original list) with Israel’s account in his latest volume, since, judging from what I gleaned of Israel from Bell’s review, it would be hard to find two more opposite approaches.

    But I can’t really comment on the question of whether Israel should be on a list of ‘groundbreaking historians’ or not.

  29. A Facebook friend suggested I add David Roediger to the list. “The Wages of Whiteness” no doubt counts as groundbreaking.

    And Timothy Burke wrote the following on my Facebook post (a lot of repeats but that’s OK):

    “Just sticking to 20th C. scholarly historians, trying to focus on folks whose work made a big stir in their subfields and has had some lasting influence on other historians including people not in their field of specialization. I know I’m missing lots of people here, this is just going as I think of them. Thomas Lacqueur. Theda Skocpol. Richard White. Joan Scott. William McNeill. Alan Taylor. Walter LaFeber. William Appleman Williams. John Demos. E.P. Thompson. George Rude. Claudia Koonz. Eric Hobsbawm. Simon Schama. Dipesh Chakrabarty. Ferdnand Braudel. Frederick Cooper. Immanuel Wallerstein. Lynn Hunt. Roy Porter. Jonathan Spence. Eugene Genovese. Walter Rodney. William Cronon. John Lewis Gaddis. Tony Judt.

    There would be another list of “famous historians” who are public figures but not necessarily ‘ground-breaking’ in scholarly terms–Schlesinger, Tuchman, Zinn, Foote. And probably “ground-breaking books” where the book gets all the credit not the oeuvre (say, Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions).

    I’d probably have a list of “historians whose work I really love that probably don’t quite qualify for inclusion in the first paragraph” that I’d rather give–I respect everybody in the first graf but some of them are sort of “well, ok, that’s important”.”

  30. Another Facebook comment:

    “March Bloch, Henri Pirenne, Fernand Braudel, Lucien Febvre, Georges Lefebvre, Emannuel Le Roy Ladurie, Jacques Le Goff, Pierre Nora? There’s an excellent biography of Bloch by Carole Fink: ‘Marc Bloch: a life in history’.”

  31. I strongly second the Eley, Foucault, Arno Mayer, and EP Thompson suggestions from above. And would add Bachelard and Canguilhem, Alexandre Koyre, Herbert Butterfield and Joseph Needham, J. Willard Hurst, William Sewell, Steve Shapin, Peter Gallison, Martin Jay, the Mommsens. Some more foreigners, historians of science, theoretically-sophisticated Americans, and a lone, proud legal historian (though Foucault and Thompson are surely two of the most important legal historians in addition to their other virtues). I assume from the sample list you’re only including twentieth-century folk?

  32. Wonderful list and syllabus! I would love to take this class.

    To the impressive list I would add: David Montgomery, Peter Linebaugh, Tera Hunter, and Mike Davis.

    Also, especially for his work with the Oral History of the American Left/ Tamiment Library, Paul Buhle has been very influential.

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