Skip to main content

Stitches In Time

ISSUE:  Spring 1989
Selvages & Biases: The Fabric of History in American Culture. By Michael Kammen. Cornell. $24.95.

Close to the month when this book was published, the National Assessment of Educational Progress imposed the inverse of “future shock” by disclosing what American schoolchildren knew about their country’s heritage. About a third of high school juniors did not know the purpose of the Declaration of Independence or could come within half a century of the date of its drafting. Almost half of the students could not define laissez-faire, or describe the aim of the Monroe Doctrine, or identify Senator Joseph McCarthy or the Scopes trial. More than two-thirds were ignorant of the purpose of Jim Crow laws or were unable to guess within half a century when the Civil War was fought. The NEAP findings profiled a maturing generation that would not understand the underpinnings of the system that it would inherit, legatees that might be doomed to hum only the songs of innocence rather than experience.

How fortuitous then that one of America’s most prolific and indefatigable historians should publish this collection of essays that coincided with the release of a report that exposed such immunity to the past. For Michael Kammen indicates that “the material in this book represents a major preoccupation of mine throughout the past decade: how historical inquiry (in the broadest possible sense) has been, is being, and might fruitfully be conducted in the future, with particular reference to the American scene.” Virtually all of the chapters in Selvages & Biases struggle to refine the craft and to clarify the self-consciousness of historians, whose vocation is defined as “a way of knowing.” However indirectly in some instances, these essays attempt to respond to the question that became the title of a volume of Carl L. Becker’s correspondence that Professor Kammen earlier edited: “What is the good of history?”

The answers are often chiseled in the form of pithy generalizations: “History helps us to achieve self-knowledge and thereby a clearer sense of identity. . . . It helps us to acquire moral knowledge and thereby enables us to make sensibly informed value judgments. . . . It improves our understanding of the actual relationship between past and present, as well as the potential relationship between present and future.” Historical knowledge may not put anyone ahead of the curve, but it can help us avoid “the fallacy of retrospective determinism”—and thus give the living the courage to try to become more autonomous. This particular discipline can also enable us to become “more cognizant of human differences and similarities, over time and through space,” and above all “to provide society with a discriminating memory.” To back up his claims, the omnivorous Kammen cites an awesome number and variety of works; he must have been able to read Braudel before breakfast. Though trained as a colonialist, this Pulitzer Prize-winning author and editor of more than a dozen works defies the boundaries that separate specialties to suggest the vitality, scope, and what he calls—a little preciously—the problematique of his profession. Especially intriguing is Kammen’s flair for using as primary sources the correspondence of professional historians, whose activities have usually been deemed too dull to merit a shredding party. Their private papers he has probably combed more assiduously than anyone else.

The catholicity of Kammen’s curiosity and the virtuosity of his touch give Selvages & Biases a distinctly personal stamp. He explores the challenges of local history, the ambivalence of the Dutch master Johan Huizinga toward America, the splendor of the Hudson River Valley landscape paintings, the idea and image of the life cycle, and the Victorian career of Moses Coit Tyler (who became the nation’s first professor of American history—at Cornell, where Kammen himself teaches). A brief review therefore cannot do justice to the diversity of Selvages & Biases. But both professional and lay readers are most likely to be drawn to Kammen’s general ruminations on the theory and practice of history; these reflections constitute most of the book.

Whether tracing the contours of cultural history or recording the impact of the social sciences, these essays are engaging in tone rather than profound in perception. They are chatty and genial and often exhortatory but not deeply critical or skeptical; they vibrate with high intelligence if not with brilliance. Too often the prose is water-logged with quotations, which are rarely pungent or piquant or lapidary or clever. The need to quote authorities sometimes comes across as compulsive, but Kammen too rarely picks out the strikingly arresting phrase or passage. In a sense his learning has not been assimilated effectively enough to construct the sort of argument that can snap a case shut. Rarely do these essays crystallize into a provocative and fresh position that would force the reader to agree—or to summon the resources of rebuttal. Anyone tackling Selvages & Biases is therefore apt to empathize with Harry Truman, who kept asking for a one-handed economist, since his Council of Economic Advisors kept telling the President: “On the one hand. . . . But on the other hand. . . .” Professor Kammen is also ambidextrous, at the cost of forthrightness.

These may be some of the occupational hazards of the ambitious tour d’horizon — the impulse to summarize a paradigm in a paragraph that most of Kammen’s colleagues are too timid to essay. But sometimes the author demands too little of himself. He claims, for instance, that some practicing historians find abstractions superfluous and cites particular studies in Renaissance history, in early modern Italian history, in modern French history, and in Chinese biography. “It is obviously still possible to write masterworks in which theory (as opposed to explanation) really does not figure at all,” he concludes. The trouble is that the reader could supply a different but equally valid list (if less varied) than the titles that Kammen has rattled off. Nowhere does he slow down enough to demonstrate precisely what makes these particular works by Garrett Mattingly, Eric Cochrane, Eugen Weber, and Jonathan Spence “masterworks.” Nor does Kammen wonder if these books might have been even more impressive had their analysis been elevated to a higher interpretive plane. Too often the examples that Kammen brandishes seem capricious rather than convincing.

Or consider Kammen’s assertion that “History cannot be autonomous. Thinking in such parochial terms is not intellectually fruitful or fulfilling.” He then cites the letters that two sociologists exchanged with the late Richard Hofstadter, whose major books attracted a serious and literate readership. Kammen observes that “[David] Riesman and [Daniel] Bell entered the historian’s world view; and by doing so with critical empathy, they must have expanded Hofstadter’s ken of the cognitive horizon, even though he may not have altered a sentence in consequence.” But the evidence in no way proves Kammen’s initial prescription, but instead something quite different: after pleading that history should not be autonomous, he offers the illustration of sociologists who could insert themselves into the cognitive world of the historian. Moreover Kammen can only conjecture—he cannot show—that Hofstadter’s work was bettered by such interdisciplinary contact. Maybe it was (such connections “must have expanded Hofstadter’s ken”). But then maybe the work wasn’t improved (“he may not have altered a sentence”).

The characteristic failure of many of these essays to formulate a one-handed statement is apparent in the conclusion to the shrewd but shapeless “Vanitas and the Historian’s Vocation,” which first appeared in Reviews in American History. Kammen concedes that his “final point is virtually banal, even though great glosses could be composed about it. We historians, as a guild, will almost always enjoy the last word.” But then Kammen realizes that there is no such thing: “The last word may indeed never be spoken; there can always be another.” Nevertheless, he backtracks, “the latest word will most likely be said (or written) by a historian.” What that precisely means, or what relevance it has to anything else that posterity might value, Kammen does not specify; but by then Kammen confusingly sabotages his point by giving William James—a philosopher and psychologist, not an historian—the last word of his own essay.

Kammen’s hospitality of mind and method can be too capacious for his own good. Though not a Marxist he writes that “the Marxist approach to history, which had so few advocates in the United States a generation ago, has many more today; and some of them produce work of the highest quality and importance.” Two sources are cited: Lee Benson’s paper and responses to it, which appeared in the obscure Social Science History; and a collection of interviews with radical historians, entitled Visions of History (1983). Benson’s essay is hardly germane, for it does not survey the work of Marxist historians and is not written by a Marxist. Of the 13 interviewees in the second work cited, five are not Americans. Of the Americans, two are not specialists in American history. Of the remaining six interviewees, Staughton Lynd, David Montgomery and William Appleman Williams did not see fit to mention the influence of Marxism upon their work in Visions of History; and two of the others (Herbert Gutman and Vincent Harding) hedged and modulated their admiration for this approach to history. Only Linda Gordon, perhaps the least known, was unequivocal in acknowledging its impact upon her work.

Since the title of Kammen’s book adopts technical terms in weaving, this reviewer is tempted to complain about its weakest stitching, which is especially apparent in the opening chapters. Generalization and evidence are sometimes poorly woven together, though such connections may be the most significant feature of the historian’s enterprise. To be sure historians frequently joust over which sorts of evidence are relevant: whether the subconscious, as mapped by Freud, or the ego, as illumined by Erikson, or the mystical or the satanic can be reckoned with at all (or none of the above); or whether the arithmetical average of whippings on antebellum Southern plantations reflected the intimidation that was instilled in slaves; and how many quotations—and which particular voices from the past—ought to be marshaled to prop up a generalization. Because such issues are devilishly difficult to arbitrate, they are very often the stuff of historical debate. Their irresolution is suggested even in a work that some reviewers have demolished for twisting its sources to fit a thesis, like Gar Alperovitz’s Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam (1965), which a leading diplomatic historian, assessing the 1985 revised edition, deemed “far from a model of meticulousness.” Alperovitz was “careless in the use of quotations,” Yale’s Gaddis Smith proclaimed in the New York Times Book Review. “He stretches conclusions over gaps in the evidence [and] ignores what does not fit the pattern of his argument. . . .” Amazingly enough, however, Smith called such “mistakes . . .relatively minor. They tarnish his argument but do not destroy it. . . .” By contrast Selvages & Biases has no single argument that the clumsy presentation of evidence might have compromised. But what Kammen does cite is often weak or irrelevant or arbitrary.

In showing the effects of “popular (or plebeian) culture” in “trickling up” to an elite, Kammen cites Irving Brant’s Storm over the Constitution in helping to push FDR toward his Supreme Court-packing scheme. Kammen makes Brant “strictly a journalist at the time,” and calls the book “strident.” But Brant was hardly a myrmidon of “popular (or plebeian) culture”; he later wrote the standard, multi-volume, scholarly biography of James Madison. To prove that historians have unethically orchestrated favorable reviews of their books, Kammen first cites the case of James M. Beck’s The Constitution of the United States. But Beck was an attorney, not a professional historian; his machinations are the only instance that Kammen cites. How the profession handles quality control of its publications is indeed intriguing, and Kammen claims that “an implicit debate over the ethics of book reviewing had been under way at least since 1913.” But the chief evidence that Kammen locates seems to be a letter that a professional pioneer, J. Franklin Jarneson, wrote—a private letter, hence the “implicit debate.” Kammen does not demonstrate that the ethical problem was ever publicly ventilated.

Since this volume is subtitled “the fabric of history in American culture,” one may criticize the author’s tendency to obscure how frayed that fabric is. When Jacob Burckhardt’s Force and Freedom casually charged that “people of American culture . . .have to a great extent foregone history, i.e., spiritual continuity,” Kammen calls the statement “anti-American,” though the remark is also virtually an incontrovertible truism. In a 1974 essay, the author mentions that the leading fictional best seller was then Gore Vidal’s Burr, while Alistair Cooke’s America was perched atop the non-fiction list. Kammen does not pause to consider whether such a confluence has been typical of the publishing world’s greatest hits. An op-ed piece that appeared in the New York Times in 1979 recognizes the cultural problem, and cites anti-historical attitudes that Jefferson, Emerson, and Henry Ford exhibited. Kammen quotes three declarations: Jefferson’s 1789 letter to Madison that “the earth belongs . . .to the living. . .the dead have neither powers nor rights over it”; Emerson’s hope (formulated in his essay “Nature” in 1836) that religion ought to be a matter of present revelation and not just tradition; and the flivver king’s declaration to a journalist in 1916 that “history is more or less bunk.”

Kammen not only objects to the implication of such statements, however, but attempts to show that they were not representative, that “three of the most interesting Americans in our pantheon” elsewhere testified to the value of studying the past. He quotes Notes on the State of Virginia, which includes a plea for the centrality of historical study in the secondary-school curriculum. But why give such a proposal greater weight than Jefferson’s plan for the curriculum of the University of Virginia, in which history was to be studied as “interwoven with politics and law”? What about his letter to John Adams: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past”? Wasn’t Jefferson then speaking with a more American accent?

Emerson is an odder case for ambivalence, though Kammen quotes the 1841 essay on “History” (“Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history”). Far more could have been cited to indicate how uncommitted Emerson was to the past and its comprehension (unlike, say, his British counterpart Carlyle, who wrote an immensely popular history of the French Revolution). The Adamic myth of natural simplicity prior to experience, the myth that legitimates the erasing the past, beguiled Emerson; and the legacy that he bequeathed to Americans accorded little respect for tradition or an appreciation of how it needed to be understood or mastered before it might be transcended.

Disdain for history as “bunk” is undoubtedly the most famous remark that Ford ever made; but for all its resonance, it did not go uncontradicted. An iron sign at Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum quotes from a wiser Ford: “The farther you look back, the farther you can see ahead”—bad advice, presumably, for drivers peering into rear-view mirrors. But the provenance of this aphorism is not cited; and the antiquarianism that the Dearborn museums represented was designed more to charm than to instruct. Nor is Kammen bothered by Ford’s later reliance upon ghost-writers and public relations counselors to present and advertise himself as effectively as possible.

It is, of course, possible to exaggerate the anti-historical cast of the American mind. Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt were elected presidents of the American Historical Association before their countiymen voted them into the White House, where amateur devotees of the past like Truman and Kennedy have also resided. Among the reasons for the debacle of George McGovern’s candidacy of 1972, the doctorate that the Senator from South Dakota held in American history was never mentioned as an explanation. But Selvages & Biases might have been a stronger work had it addressed more directly—and estimated more accurately— the dangers facing a culture that is so historically innocent, that permits the ruptures in continuity and memory that nationally-administered tests reveal. Such chasms are as appallingly wide as any modern civilized society has dared to risk. Many Americans seem to believe that they can make up culture as they go along, that the debris of the past need not be carefully sifted for political judgment and guidance. They ignore at their peril the Madisonian warning that “a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy.” So melancholy an outcome may be the only “cure” for a citizenry that suffers from amnesia.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading