Monday, March 05, 2007

Whither America's Great Public Historians?

"With the death last week of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., at 89, America lost its last great public historian. The notion may sound strange, given the appetite, as voracious as at any time in recent memory, for serious works of history, and in particular the vogue for lengthy, often massively detailed biographies of the founders and of presidents.

But Mr. Schlesinger performed a different function. He stood at the forefront of a remarkable generation of academic historians. Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970, and C. Vann Woodward, who died in 1999, were its other towering figures. All three, reciprocal admirers, wrote classic works that reanimated the past even as they rummaged in it for clues to understanding, if not solving, the most pressing political questions of the present. As a result, new books by these historians often generated excitement and conveyed an urgency felt not only by other scholars but also by the broader population of informed readers.

“The Vital Center,” which Mr. Schlesinger expanded from an article he wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 1948, began with a ringing series of declarative sentences.

“Western man in the middle of the 20th century is tense, uncertain, adrift,” Mr. Schlesinger wrote. “We look upon our epoch as a time of troubles, an age of anxiety. The grounds of our civilization, of our certitude, are breaking up under our feet, and familiar ideas and institutions vanish as we reach for them, like shadows in the falling dusk.”

“If I were writing ‘The Vital Center’ today, I would tone down the rhetoric,” Mr. Schlesinger wrote in his memoir, “A Life in the 20th Century,” published in 2000. But that rhetoric was attuned to its moment. (The phrase “age of anxiety,” for instance, was the title of an eclogue by W.H. Auden, published in 1947.) And the “hortatory lushness” Mr. Schlesinger rued in his memoir suited the case he was trying to make for a new political alliance between liberals and conservatives who “believe deeply in civil liberties, in constitutional processes and in the democratic determination of political and economic policies.”

Today these seem self-evident virtues, but Mr. Schlesinger was writing in the immediate aftermath of World War II, with its fresh memories of Nazi death camps, its ongoing spectacle of Soviet brutalities and the new threat of nuclear annihilation. Mr. Schlesinger’s argument that, amid these perils, democracy could not be passively accepted as a national birthright but must be struggled for reflected the emerging mood of the country. His work presaged the civil rights protests of the next two decades even as it expressed the national yearning for a new kind of politics divorced from totalizing extremism." ...

Sam Tanenhaus Dispatches: "History, Written in the Present Tense" New York Times March 4, 2007


USAF photo of Minuteman-3 ICBM

Photo credit: USAF via With thanks.


Post a Comment

<< Home