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TWENTIETH-CENTURYAMERICAN HISTORIANS AND THE OLD SOUTH: A REVIEW ESSAY Herman BeIz IF DECLINING ENROLLMENTS have not been a sufficient inducement, the recent centennial of the founding of the America Historical Association has given historians a properly historical reason for considering the present state of their discipline. The profession's self-analysis may be said to have begun a few years ago with the publication of The Past Before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States, an upbeat and self-congratulatory volume intended by the sponsoring AHA as a demonstration of "state of the art" historiography. Introducing this volume, editor Michael Kämmen stated that after a changing of the guard in the 1970s, the professional historical community is mainly concerned with questions of social history, intergenerational conflict, and human responses to structures of power. Having challenged if not quite repudiated the basic commitments to nationalism and the ideal of scholarly detachment that had always sustained historical writing in the United States, professional historians found themselves—not surprisingly, one might add—cut off from their cultural environment. That this situation is remarkably different from the formative period of historical scholarship can be seen in centennial numbers of the American Historical Review, the most recent expression of the profession's reflective tendency, which have explored the nature of historical thinking at the time of the association's founding a century ago.1 What has been all but ignored in these official efforts at intellectual stocktaking is the enduring body of historical writing produced by American scholars between the end of the founding period in the early twentieth century and the onset of the excitement of the 1970s. Perhaps it is the thoroughness with which scholars have for two decades described the shift from progessive to consensus to New Left history that accounts 'Michael Kämmen, ed., The Past Before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1980), 19-46; American Historical Review 89, nos. 4 and 5(October, December 1984); 90, no. !(February 1985). 172CIVIL WAR HISTORY for this neglect. Whatever its reason, however, the oversight is fortunately rectified by the appearance of an "unofficial" volume on American historiography, Twentieth-Century American Historians, edited by Clyde N. Wilson. Quite adventitiously, through a private commercial venture, the Wilson volume undertakes the important task of analyzing and evaluating the impressive and still very usable substance of historical writing that was produced in the United States in roughly the first six decades of the twentieth century.2 Twentieth-Century American Historians describes an approach to history that stands in notable and refreshing contrast to the historiographical model presented in the AHA's The Past Before Us. The Wilson book reminds us that until very recently history faithfully maintained its literary orientation and narrative character. It is a bit astonishing to learn that historians like Douglas Southall Freeman were nationally known figures whose books sold in the hundreds of thousands. It is instructive to recall that several of the most widely read and influential writers of history, such as Allan Nevins, Claude G. Bowers, and James Truslow Adams, possessed no formal historical training. And it is heartening to read of a time when, despite its academic institutional setting, historical writing enjoyed a mutually constructive relationship with an increasingly educated middle-class reading public, and cultural alienation was not asserted as a sign of intellectual sophistication and certification. Wilson's Twentieth-Century American Historians consists of intellectual-biographical essays on fifty-nine historians whose principal subject was or is American history and whose chief writings were published in the present century. The editorial decision on whom to include in a work such as this is of course a legitimate question. Because the book appears in Gale's Dictionary of Literary Biography series, Wilson has appropriately enough chosen several writers principally for their literary distinction. These include Carl Sandburg, Gamaliel Bradford, Shelby Foote, and James Truslow Adams. Worthy as these writers are, I find it remarkable that no constitutional historian—such as Edward S. Corwin or Andrew C. McLaughlin—warrants attention. The field of black history is represented by the single figure of Carter G. Woodson; W. E. B. DuBois and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 171-180
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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