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American Literary History 17.4 (2005) 794-807

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Don't Know Much about (the History of) History

School Book Nation: Conflicts over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present. By Joseph Moreau. University of Michigan Press, 2003.
History's Memory: Writing America's Past, 1880ñ1980. By Ellen Fitzpatrick. Harvard University Press, 2002.
Picturing the Past: Illustrated Histories and the American Imagination, 1840ñ1900. By Gregory Pfitzer. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.
The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. By John Lewis Gaddis. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Peter Novick's That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (1988) was the first book I read as a graduate student. It served as my introduction to the guild I was about to join, and a marvelous introduction it proved to be. The book surveyed over 100 years of American historical practice, evaluating the careers of all of the major figures in the profession and many of the minor ones as well. It managed quite deftly to balance a consideration of a weighty methodological issue—the question of how historians pursued the elusive goal of "objectivity"—with a sizeable amount of juicy insider gossip.

What I did not understand as I sat in my first-year seminar, and what I have only come to appreciate subsequently, was that Novick's book filled a large void. There simply was not, and there still is not, much writing about the nature, philosophy, or even history of American history. That Novick, while an American, is himself a scholar of European history only seemed to underscore this historiographic lacuna. (It also caused a certain annoyance among some number of American historians.)

By and large, American historians have been an unreflective lot, a prosaic group who go about their business without giving too much thought to the epistemological challenges inherent in doing that business. Americans have been writing history, in the modern sense, as long as the Europeans have, but we have not produced many philosophers of history. It would be hard to come up with a list of American historians to rank alongside of Leopold von Ranke, Wilhelm Dilthey, Georges Trevelyan, Marc Bloch, and Michel Foucault, to name several, as intellectuals who thought deeply about the nature of history and of historical practice. Indeed, as Novick pointed out, by the mid-1980s, when he was at work on his book, the American Historical Review had largely eliminated "historiological" questions from its pages; the annual gatherings of the American Historical Association did not find room for any sessions on epistemological questions; and the editorial board of History and Theory, [End Page 794] the American publication most interested in the philosophy of history, did not include a single American historian (Novick 593).

This strikes me as odd, given the extent to which we live in a culture awash, one way or another, in its own history. History now finds a home in a growing number of museums, on at least one cable television channel, and in the proliferation of historic sites and historically designated places. History departments not only continue to grow in the US, but they are seen increasingly as the benchmark by which careerist administrators take the measure of an institution's prestige in the world of the humanities. While some bemoan a dire contraction of academic publishing, the dirty little secret in the world of academic history is that there is far too much publication—certainly more than any of us can keep up with. A colleague of mine threw up his hands recently and complained that he could no longer even keep up with the reviews of all the new books coming out, much less with the books themselves.

Over the past generation, virtually every conceivable aspect of the human experience and human culture has been historicized. Our sexuality, our childhoods, our foodways, our ethnic and racial definitions, even the very notion of human individuality, all this and more besides have been investigated by historians and given historical "context." Clio has triumphed and, as Stephen...


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