Bonnie Smith’s damning conclusion to The Gender of History has been much on my mind lately. I quoted a long-ish excerpt from her peroration in this post a few weeks back, so for now I’ll just zero in on the most nettlesome couple of sentences:
The historian of historiography, which is virtually all male, seldom shares the stage with a woman; rather, he is fortified by epigones admiring his laws and making him a ‘star,’ fraternal clusters who think of contesting them, and still others who will analyze the agon in terms of historical movement through serial or even postmodern time. Whether produced by his facts, the range of his historiographic reach, or his flights of theory, this imposing construct of male subjectivity (albeit with new demands for public performance and new calls to meet the challenge of powerful women, themselves increasingly cast as phallic maternal rivals) continues to function as the centerpiece for an increasingly difficult historical epistemology.
Some readers may wonder, 1) Is she right? 2) Even if she’s right, is her conclusion really all that damning?
I have wondered this myself, and I’m still puzzling over it.
As Jeremy Popkin points out in his very excellent single-volume survey of historical writing, From Herodotus to H-Net, historiography is actually a species of intellectual history. Historiography concerns itself with the way in which historians have conceived of the task of historical writing and how those conceptions have changed over time. So if historiography remains an overwhelmingly masculine preserve, and if this is a problem, this is a problem not just for history in general but for intellectual history in particular.
Now, within the field of American intellectual history, we could probably collectively compile a handy list of substantial methodological or theoretical interventions written by women – and that might be a good thing to do in the comments. And if we broaden our list-making to include intellectual history more generally, we could add still more names and titles.
Still, a manifesto on methodology – Telling the Truth About History or Writing History in the Global Era or (fittingly) The History Manifesto – is one kind of historiography, one that foregrounds issues of both epistemology and practice in present historical writing.
But this other kind of historiography, the kind Smith has in mind and has written, the kind Popkin has written, the kind that both Peter Novick and Ellen Fitzpatrick have written – a history of the writing of history (even within a particular subfield or a particular time period) – is, it seems, something that is written for the most part by men.*
Novick and Fitzpatrick are an interesting pairing here, because both of them survey the history of historical writing in the United States from the dawn of professionalization to the late 20th century. Of course Novick’s That Noble Dream is looking at the work of historians in the United States, no matter their subfield, while Fitzpatrick’s History’s Memory is looking specifically at the work of historians of the United States working in the United States. Still, both books share a similar chronological scope, covering most of the history of professional historical writing in the U.S., making either of them nicely suited for a graduate “intro to historiography” course. (Fitzpatrick comes after Novick, and so “contains” Novick’s work in a sense — she refers to his view of the field in her prologue and cites him a few times beyond that.)
Either of them, but probably not both of them – at least not on the “required reading” portion of the list. This probably has to do with both length considerations and concerns about overlap. After 500-plus pages of Novick on historical writing in the United States – a lot to digest in a week – it might be a bit much to dive back in and read another 280-plus pages on historical writing in the United States the very next week. I don’t know. I have googled around, looking for syllabi and reading lists for historiography, and I haven’t found too many syllabi that list both books – not even in the “recommended, not required” section of the list.
Of course there are some exceptions. For example, Kenneth Ledford has required undergrads to read Novick (over three weeks) followed by Fitzpatrick (in one week) in his “Issues and Methods in History” class. Robin D.G. Kelley has assigned both Novick and Fitzpatrick as supplemental readings in a graduate class called “Readings in Twentieth and Twenty-First Century U.S. History.” David Nord has listed both books as supplemental readings in his class on the history of American journalism and mass media. Angus Burgin has assigned Fitzpatrick and Novick on the same syllabus, with Novick as the required reading and Fitzpatrick as the supplemental reading. He has also assigned Fitzpatrick as a recommended reading without assigning Novick at all. (I don’t have a link for those syllabuses; he kindly emailed them to me.)
However, based on my cursory googling, it seems that historiography or methods classes in the U.S. will assign or recommend either Novick or Fitzpatrick, but rarely both of them. On the question of which text is assigned more frequently, I don’t know.
If I were putting together a syllabus and didn’t give a whit about reading load or overlap, I’d probably assign Novick and Fitzpatrick and Bonnie Smith and Popkin, bang! bang! bang! bang!, four weeks in a row, and then – oh, I dunno – Collingwood and Huizinga, just for the fun of it.
But nobody puts together a syllabus that way, surely.
For a graduate seminar for Americanists, I’d be inclined to assign both Novick and Fitzpatrick as required texts. After all, they deal with two different problems – “objectivity” and “consensus” – and they draw what one could characterize as almost contrary conclusions about them.
The more difficult problem would be this: choosing between them. “If you could only assign one of these texts…” Novick is certainly magisterial – but is Fitzpatrick any less so? Both works are invaluable, I’d argue. But if I could only require one work or the other, it would be hard to choose between them. But if it’s important to me to encourage women to have the confidence to take a commanding view of the field, then I guess I’d probably assign Fitzpatrick and put Novick on the recommended list, knowing that whoever is inclined to historiography will doubtless read them both sooner or later.
*I have been looking longingly at the five-volume Oxford History of Historical Writing – what can I say? I have a weakness for multi-volume reference works. There are 147 essays in that five-volume set, some with multiple authors. I think about 43 of the authors in that set are women. I say “about” because on some author names I am guessing, and I have also assumed that authors writing under their initials were women. So – 40, 45 women authors? Is that ratio – roughly 30% — in line, I wonder, with the ratio of women to men within the subfield of intellectual history, broadly construed? (I’m not saying that all the historians in that series are intellectual historians – but, sticking with Popkin’s observation, a historical essay surveying historical thought or writing ought to count as a work of intellectual history.)
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