Sunday, March 18, 2007

More on Tanenhaus's views of history

After reading Sam Tanenhaus's response to the Cliopatra symposium his essay on Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., I disagree with him on a couple of key points. In emphasizing the need for "great men" and master narratives, Tanenhaus displays a distorted understanding of what constitutes good history.

First, Tanenhaus has a rather eccentric view of how historians should portray individual figures within their work. In spite of insisting that "'great men' need not be great ... so much as representative," he later calls on historians to meet the critique of Saul Bellow and show how "the ordinary person could achieve a kind of greatness through his struggles with the culture that surrounded him." Far from being representative, then, Tanenhaus's ideal historical figures are the ones who transcend their societies' boundaries and attain distinction and eminence.

As Frederic Smoler noted in his response to Tanenhaus, academic history is largely anti-heroic these days. With good reason, if you ask me. While there are clearly a number of figures from the past who have shaped the course of history, to write about them hagiographically is to miss out on the larger fabric of the past. People do not rises to greatness without being influenced by the society and culture around them. Studying context explains a great deal and often serves to demystify, and in the process humanize, the supposed heroes. To be sure, Tanenhaus warns that historians "must be careful not to underestimate ... the larger impersonal forces in and against which individual lives unfold." But to set out to write a history of individuals striving for greatness virtually ensures that the narrative will ignore the importance of context and, as a result, fail to capture the whole picture.

My second problem with Tanenhaus's ideal of historical practice is related to the first. As Scott McLemee pointed out, it is not as easy as it once was to write coherent narratives of the past. In 1945, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. could write The Age of Jackson without so much as mentioning the Trail of Tears. To do so now would be seen as a willful whitewashing of the past. In 1945, it was good enough for a Pulitzer.

I don't mean to bash Schlesinger. Rather, my point is that the more we learn about the past, the harder it becomes to create coherent narratives out of it. This is not a bad thing. In general, I think we'd all be better served if we were much more humble in our pronouncements on history and its contemporary significance. The past is messy and there are no easy lessons in it.

Tanenhaus, though, sees the breakdown of narratives as a bad thing: "every nation is defined to an important extent by its unifying myths (stories), however unstable, and that we sacrifice something if we don't seek to give those stories some credence even as we examine and revise them." Let's be very clear about this: Tanenhaus believes that we shold be granting credence to myths. While few historians would disagree with his assessment that mythmaking is a key component of creating national unity, even fewer would see it as their responsibility to help prop up those myths. Historians' first responsibility is to the past, not to the nation. To switch those priorities is to risk distorting the past for present concerns.

In short, Tanenhaus's views on the way that historians should work are profoundly ahistorical and, if implemented, would result in presentist history that fails to accurately portray the past. While there's no such thing as the Historical Truth that can be written, following Tanenhaus's advice would miss the mark by a long ways.

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