U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Why Not Both?

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.)

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Hmm. I don’t know why, but the first couple of times I mentioned Fitzpatrick’s name in this post, I originally typed “Fitzgerald” instead. As you can see, I’ve fixed it — but I’m not happy about it. A sign of one too many things on my mind, I guess. Anyway, sorry for any confusion.

  2. As I said on twitter, this post comes at a most inconvenient moment for me: having almost finalized my book orders for my first graduate historiography syllabus. I don’t have anything on the reading list that corresponds to any of the books you’ve discussed here and it’s … possible that my World orientation has meant that my view of US historiography is somewhat shallow, and that it won’t match up well with my mostly-US-oriented students.
    I never took historiography in graduate school: my program had eliminated most of the structure from the phd process right before I got there, and didn’t put it back until I was done, so I learned historiography ‘on the street’ and kind of sideways through my field in intellectual history. Add to that the fact that Asian studies people often didn’t, at least up to that point, pay a lot of attention to theory… I’ve been playing some form of catch-up in this regard for most of my career as an historian, and I admit that my sense of US historiography is somewhat shallow.

    That said, I like the books I’m planning on assigning, but something from this list probably should be added to the mix. And, as Smith and Fitzpatrick are available to my students as free ebooks, plus my list suffers from the gender imbalance Smith notes, they are now the leading contenders.

  3. Hmm. That’s a tough one.

    If most of your students are Americanists, I think I’d recommend Fitzpatrick over Smith. I mean, they deal with two different problems, but in a way Fitzpatrick addresses some of the points that Smith raises, since Fitzpatrick shows how one familiar narrative of the discipline’s history in the U.S. has elided a lot of women and African-American historians who were doing the kind of work that the New Social Historians and their critics alike both regarded as a sharp break from past historical writing. And Fitzpatrick is just a good overall overview of historical writing in the U.S.

    But Smith is great too — though her critique is aimed at the root of the whole enterprise of not just historical writing but academic life and professional identity. It is an indictment for sure.

  4. I haven’t read Fitzpatrick, but will take a look at it. In my historiography class, which is for M.A. students who are overwhelmingly interested in American history rather than any other international historians, and 2/3 to 3/4 of whom are also concentrating in public history, I use Peter Hoffer’s Past Imperfect for its zippy, opinionated view of the American historical profession, and then complicate/challenge Hoffer’s views by having the students also read Bonnie Smith’s Gender of History and Deborah Gray White’s Telling Histories. If I teach historiography again, I would also probably consider assigning some specific analyses of the Dunning school and possibly also W.E.B. DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk.

    What I wonder is why Novick still gets as much play as he does in courses like this. It’s like his is the UR-text, that which must be assigned and read, whereas I found it to be at the time bewilderingly crabbed and judgmental. It’s a super old book now (as you note, “covered” by Fitzpatrick as well as by Hoffer too, I should add), but it felt like a dusty tome the minute it was published. (It was assigned in a historiography senior seminar at a neighboring college in 1989-90 that one of my best friends took. I took a look at Novick out of curiosity then, but put it down probably very defensively. I didn’t want to think about being a member of that profession but my grad school applications were already in, so. . . .)

    • Ann, see below for my brief apologia for Novick — just from a “survey of the field” perspective. There’s also a great deal to be said for Novick as a work of intellectual history.

      I’m hearing a lot of good things about Ian Tyrrell’s book, Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, which looks like it covers basically the same chronological scope as Novick and Fitzpatrick, taking up (and correcting/complicating) the idea that professional historians have abandoned the commitment to public engagement. Since many of your grad students are interested in public history, this might be a good overview text to assign. For Americanists specifically, I think Fitzpatrick is outstanding. But, as I’ve said elsewhere, if I had my druthers I’d assign Novick and Fitzpatrick.

  5. Novick’s defense is a hill I’ll die on when it comes to histiography. In the summer before my M.A. Program, I picked up Noble Dream because I had read Novick’s book on the Holocaust after visiting the D C Museum that Spring. I really appreciated the historical voice with the moral inflection that Novick seemed to excell at.
    My undergrad really gave me no introduction to
    histiography, so Novick opened up a whole new theoretical world for me. Yes it’s dated and at times a a bit of a slog but for an overview of the 20th century American historical profession ( as well as its roots in the 19th century ) I truly believe it can not be beat. His balance between sweeping narrative and individual case study is pretty remarkable. His detailed depiction of the Abraham’s case for instance was fascinating and I think should be assigned reading for first year grad students of history.
    Noble Dream was in its own way a one book seminar on the history and ideology of the American historical profession . It proved very useful in preparing me for so much of my graduate studies. While as noted above, it is somewhat dated, its theme of of objectivity and historical scholarship is perhaps more valid than ever as Academic history is embracing more and more diverse voices. I think it has a well deserved place on any graduate syllabus.

  6. Chris, thanks for the comment.

    I believe it’s important to continue to assign Novick’s book (which I love, by the way), but I would not assign Novick without also assigning Fitzpatrick. As I suggested above, one could get away with assigning Fitzpatrick’s book without assigning Novick, if the aim is an overview of American historical writing, since she is both more recent and since she responds to — and corrects — part of Novick’s argument.

    Why do I love Novick? Let me count the ways…

    -the attention to the lives of historians (professional concerns, personal ambitions, economic circumstances, prejudices and barriers, etc) as inseparable from their work.
    – related: the extraordinary amount of “backchannel” discourse that Novick front-burnered. Novick is deliciously gossipy
    -the way that Novick manages (mostly via a conversation between his text and his footnotes) to write a solid and empirical history of not only the very ground upon which he stands but also the professional company he keeps
    -Novick’s book is a who’s who of Big Names in the American Historical Profession (or, more narrowly, Big Names in the AHA) over the 20th century (to the time of his writing). This prosopography of the profession is really valuable, I believe, for beginning grad students.

    But Novick’s virtues are also his flaws — especially that last item, that “who’s who.” Novick is magisterial, the book is a door-stopper (as historiography goes), it has all the heft and gravitas of the Last Word on the Subject. And it shouldn’t. Because, as Fitzpatrick aptly argues, that “Who’s Who” is a construct, not a transparent report, and it leaves a lot of historians and a lot of work — work that was, in its time, known to the profession and addressed by the profession — out of the story.

    I have a long pull-quote from Fitzpatrick’s prologue over at my blog (too long to put here in comments) that nicely encapsulates the value of her approach. Will just quote a brief bit of that here:

    Regardless of the authors’ professional standing, however, the research considered here was known to the discipline and thus achieved a measure of recognition in its own time. It belonged to history’s domain. 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.

    It’s a really fine book — as is Novick. I hope people will assign them in tandem.

    (But for a concise overview of historiography in general, from Herodotus to H-Net, well, Popkin’s From Herodotus to H-Net is very fine indeed.)

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