“Prestige derived from prominence in the academic profession has often proved evanescent; it would thus be a mistake to confuse academic status with intellectual importance. For over the long run, the work itself remains—even when it has not loomed large in the collective memory of historians.”
So writes Ellen Fitzpatrick in History’s Memory: Writing America’s Past, 1880-1980 (2002), a fantastic book that I began reading just last night but have been ripping through all today. As a sad confirmation of her assertion, this book, I think, is too little known. But all Fitzpatrick does is leave the reader astonished at how little about the historical profession’s past she knows, astonished to realize that she, like most historians, has been complacent in believing the profession’s “lore” about its own past.
The primary bit of lore that Fitzpatrick strikes out is that the idea of “history from the bottom up” did not achieve dominance in the profession for the first time with the rise of the “new social history” in the sixties and seventies. She writes,
How new, in fact, is this new history? This question has been rarely posed despite all the debate the new history has inspired in contemporary America and all the political passion it has stirred. Few seem to doubt that, whatever its merits, the new history is a product of relatively recent events. However, there is ample reason to think otherwise. For much of the last century, historians have repeatedly concerned themselves with issues and ideas now credited to the “new” history. There has been no linear progression over the course of the twentieth century toward contemporary trends in historical study. But American historical writing has been characterized by persistent efforts and much substantive research on the part of many talented historians, working across a long span of time, to enrich the study of American history in ways that are often thought of as modern.
Fitzpatrick argues convincingly that the self-image of the “new history” emerging from the politics of the 1960s depended on basic mischaracterizations of the “old history” it invented. For one thing, it re-imagined the most prominent Progressive historians—Beard, Turner, Becker, Parrington—as more isolated than they in fact were, as rebels unable to shift the professional inertia of a discipline mired in top-down history, a view that ignored the incredibly deep bench of a broadly Progressive historiography that Fitzpatrick uncovers.
Secondly, the new history held up its interest in the marginalized groups of US history as utterly original and historiographically unprecedented, a notion that Fitzpatrick demolishes. Finally, the “new history” saw itself as the first truly critical account of the United States, the first to be non-celebratory as a basic principle. Fitzpatrick again shows this belief to be unfounded, even as she acknowledges that few historians of the first half of the twentieth century adequately acknowledged the role of white supremacy and settler colonialism in the making of the United States. Still, universally celebratory they were not.
Fitzpatrick’s study shadows, in a way, the much more famous study of the historical profession over this same basic time: Peter Novick’s 1988 That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession. Everywhere its presence is felt, but on only one occasion does she directly contradict one of Novick’s claims. Novick argued that Progressive historians’ own call for a “new history” was mostly hot air; as he says, it “hardly advanced beyond programmatic statements.” Rather than actually making good on their promises for a new history, Novick credits them with a consolation prize: a lasting legacy in the realm of philosophy of history and historiography, specifically in their contributions to the “objectivity question” that is the heart and soul of his book.
But Fitzpatrick intimates that she finds the “objectivity question” to be a kind of dodge on Novick’s part, and here is where I began to see Novick’s study in a new light:
Historians have tended to stress the prevalence of relativist perspectives and the dominance of Progressive history in much historical writing during the 1920s and 1930s. But relativism—the conviction that historical truth is contingent on the values, intentions, and experience of historians and the world they inhabited—does not capture the substance, the tone, or the passion of much important work undertaken during the Depression years. Indeed, by its very nature relativism describes a posture, a perspective, and what was for some a burning conviction. It does not reveal, nor is it intended to reveal, the actual content of historical scholarship during the interwar years.
Fitzpatrick comes very close to saying what is, I think, fairly obvious: Novick’s That Noble Dream is something like the Aeneid of that “new history” which Fitzpatrick intends to strip of its novelty. It is that history’s epic—although instead of an epic of founding, it is an epic of unfounding. That Noble Dream tells us that the generation of the 1960s broke the historical profession in a way that the Progressives could not, in a way that Beardian relativism could not. That Noble Dream tells us that the 60s generation made good on its promises of a “new history” in a way that the Progressives did not, that the populism of the Turnerians did not. That Noble Dream enthrones the generation of the 60s even as it declares that their actions have left “no king in Israel.”
But with Fitzpatrick—and, on a different level and with a different point in mind, with this great essay by Rich Yeselson on New Left historiography—we can see this story as a generation’s flattering self-image, one that needs new historiographers to challenge and revise.
Fitzpatrick’s book really deserves a wider audience: like a lot of intellectual historical monographs by women, I think it has not gotten the recognition it deserves.