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Biography 26.3 (2003) 498-501



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Ellen Fitzpatrick. History's Memory: Writing America's Past, 1880-1980. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002. 318 pp. ISBN 0-674-00731-X, $39.95.

This interesting historiographical study is not nearly as ambitious as its title suggests, but it is timely nevertheless. Ellen Fitzpatrick takes aim at an ahistorical tendency in both professional historiography and in recent polemics about the "new history" supposedly inspired by 1960s radicalism. The characteristics of the new history, particularly attentiveness to conflict, exploitation, and ordinary people's experiences in the past, along with a willingness [End Page 498] to be inspired by current politics, long precede the ideologies associated with the New Left. Historiographical studies that stress the great departures from "consensus history," or those that highlight the battles over objectivity and partisanship which roiled the historical profession during the late 1960s, ignore an unbroken tradition of critical scholarship.

Fitzpatrick is at her best in integrating the emergence of African American, women's, and Native American history into the story of older "new" and "progressive" historiographies before World War II. In giving shared time to more familiar figures like James Franklin Jameson and less familiar ones like Carolyn Ware, however, she eschews close analysis of texts and controversies. We do not get much of the texture of the struggles paleo-progressive historians faced. Those whose trials are sketched, such as Angie Debo and Carter G. Woodson, have already been the subject of monographs. Intellectual historians, and biographers, will be disappointed in Fitzpatrick's disinclination to detail lines of influence between, for example, non-progressives, fellow travelers, and their radical students—influences which could have worked both ways. I was surprised to learn, for example, that Allan Nevins supervised Philip Foner's Columbia dissertation, later published as Business and Slavery: The New York Merchants and the Irrepressible Conflict (1941). As a more conventionally successful academic after the very positive reception of his first book, might Foner have gone on to write more about the Civil War had not his persecution at the hands of the Rapp-Coudert commission, and the subsequent loss of his teaching position at City College of New York, turned him into the foremost Marxist chronicler of American labor (one whose prolific contributions may have reflected his initial lack of teaching positions during the 1940s and 1950s)? Or, is it conceivable that the Beardian twinges and the stress on slavery in the early volumes of Nevins's The Ordeal of the Union (1947-1971), which especially annoyed some Southern critics, owed something to Nevins's Columbia students such as Foner? Might any of this history have shaped the intellectual development of Philip Foner's nephew, Eric Foner, one of our leading neo-progressive or New Left historians, and one who since his first book in 1970 has consistently put the Civil War at the center of an American history organized around the struggles for freedom of African Americans and workers? Fitzpatrick again and again makes her main point about how our memory of history writing has marginalized figures like the elder Foner, but her quick-paced tour through their works and their reviews gives short shrift to their actual political, intellectual, and personal lives and legacies. Calling attention to the forgetting of these predecessors, she actually may underestimate their past influence. [End Page 499]

Oddly, Fitzpatrick thus commits the same sin of generalizing about major trends which she attacks when it comes to pieties about "consensus" historiography. We get no sense of what was being taught, or what was in the textbooks, when, or why. Apparently we are supposed to know that already, or to assume that it did not much change, especially with regard to women, slaves, workers, and Natives. Unfortunately, this puts Fitzpatrick in the same position she criticizes: she overturns the reigning orthodoxy about a radical departure without incorporating the insights of careful and detailed recent studies of American history and memory. With a few exceptions (such as histories of southern whites and Native-white relations written between the wars), she cannot draw out the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 498-501
Launched on MUSE
2003-10-30
Open Access
No
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