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Understanding Backward

ISSUE:  Spring 1987
The End of American History: Democracy, Capitalism, and the Metaphor of Two Worlds in Anglo-American Historical Writing, 1880—1980. By David W. Noble. Minnesota. $25.00 cloth, $14.95 paper.
Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History. By C. Vann Woodward. Louisiana State. $12.95.

History has always been the favorite study of those who wish to learn something without having to face the effort demanded by any branch of real knowledge which taxes the intelligence,” Schopenhauer observed in his essay, “On Some Forms of Literature.” No wonder then that “in our time history is a popular pursuit, as witness the numerous books upon the subject which appear every year.” The philosopher’s complaint had little impact, however; and since the mid-19th century historical publications have threatened to destabilize the library shelves. But the confidence that the past might be faithfully recaptured has not kept pace. The problematics of the discipline have undoubtedly become more pressing, and its epistemological difficulties more likely to provoke scrutiny and reflection. Far from leaving the intelligence untaxed, the study of the past is so fiendishly complicated an enterprise that, for instance, two of the most brilliant British historians of our age could get it obviously wrong. To draw only two differing examples from contemporary history, A.J.P. Taylor did not seem to realize that Hitler was primarily responsible for starting the Second World War; and more recently H.R. Trevor-Roper, an intelligence officer in that war, was lured into certifying the authenticity of the Führer’s faked “diaries.”

Such embarrassments suggest that the demands of the historian’s craft deserve more attention, if not respect, than Schopenhauer was willing to concede. Fortunately, other philosophers have written about its presuppositions and cognitive styles, social scientists have found their work pillaged and ransacked for the sake of its enrichment, and advanced theories drawn from semiotics to hermeneutics have been summoned to account for the peculiar way that the past is reordered and imagined and communicated. Historians are themselves increasingly engaged in the attempt to make their profession more self-conscious about its modus operandi. The two small volumes under review represent quite divergent expositions of that effort at clarifying how historians think, though from that perspective neither is especially satisfactory or enlightening.

David W. Noble is a specialist in American intellectual history and in historiography who teaches at the University of Minnesota. The End of American History promises to “explore the role played by political philosophy in providing structure and meaning to the narratives of four major American historians whose writings span the century from the 1880s to the present decade.” He locates a Progressive paradigm that dominated the study of the American experiment, as articulated by Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles A. Beard from 1890 until 1940, when the criticism of a theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, began to force it to yield to a Counter-Progressive paradigm, which was most faithfully expressed in the work of Richard Hofstadter and William Appleman Williams. These four historians—the only voices whose pitch and range the author analyzes—formulated and manipulated certain categories and metaphors that have governed an understanding of the national destiny.

Thus Old World corruption and New World virtue were once pitted against one another in the first paradigm and were later combined under the Counter-Progressive rubrics of tragedy and irony. Privileged property and democracy constituted another antinomy (for example, Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution) that could also be yoked to fit the framework of consensus (for example, Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition.) Played out against time and space was therefore an historiographic echo of the Puritan jeremiad—the genre that was comprised of three themes: exodus into a promised land, then declension that meant punishment for the shirking of moral responsibility, finally prophecy that redemption remained possible. When the Counter-Progressive paradigm was finally formulated, Noble writes, the notion of the American experience as exceptional was called into question, for internationalism and expansionism shattered the faith that the United States might somehow be exempted from the complicity with evil that had earlier driven the Puritans on their errand into the wilderness. The discredited idea of the American past as exceptional supplies the meaning of Noble’s mysterious title, which posits no eschaton, only the sense that scholars can no longer describe the continent as an isolation ward separable from the ethical ambiguity of everyone else’s history. But even though the jeremiad and the paradigms that it has buttressed could be resisted, the author claims, they could not be ignored.

It is odd that Noble should have succumbed so fully to the appeal of Thomas Kuhn’s notion of the paradigm in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. That extraordinarily influential account refers to a “normal science” in which researchers and experimentalists accept the conceptual framework that orders the comprehension of the universe, test and evaluate only the laws that explain it, and seek to resolve certain anomalies. In that sense, however, there is no “normal history,” for though there are orthodoxies, neither the major figures in the profession nor authors of monographs are expected to devise, say, the equivalent of the epicycles that were supposed to make the pre-Copernican cosmos tick. The Progressive paradigm was not authoritative enough to have shaped the writings of so formidable an historian as Perry Miller. And in the Counter-Progressive or Consensus era, historians like C. Vann Woodward, with his focus upon regional and racial conflicts and the discontinuities of the Southern heritage, have continued to function and to be honored, as have neo-Progressives like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., of whom Mary McCarthy once commented: “Arthur just doesn’t like Republicans.” The indebtedness that Woodward and Schlesinger have both recorded in Niebuhr, the thinker who helped smash the Progressive paradigm, suggests the precariousness of Noble’s thesis.

The notion of the paradigm—as Noble has applied it—has little to do with such major historians as Allan Nevins, Bernard Bailyn, Eugene Genovese, Herbert Gutman, Oscar Handlin, John Higham or David Potter, whose works were barely conceived with reference to its amplification or to the resolution of its anomalies. Indeed, one of the most attractive features of the enterprise is precisely its diversity, its plurality, its openness to consenting adults, which again distinguish history from “normal science” under modern conditions. For all the difficulties of finding and evaluating sources and of establishing contexts and meaning, amateurs like Barbara Tuchman are quite capable of writing superb history—and without forfeiting their readership either. She recently reminisced in The American Scholar that, when she once phoned a police precinct to report the loss of her briefcase from a taxi, the cop on the line asked: “Are you the lady who writes those books?” After acknowledging her identity, Tuchman was told: “Those are great books. My sergeant thinks so too.” The New York constabulary is correct: she utilizes original sources and then reaches her own conclusions. But such popular historians, whose work only deepened Schopenhauer’s pessimism, rarely bother to consider the paradigms under which they are operating.

The model that Noble has applied is therefore false, for history as it is commonly practiced also consists, however implicitly, of arguments that do not cease. On the interpretation and meaning of the past, and often on what constitutes facts and their pertinence, agreement is rarely reached—nor does it last for long. Even the brace of scholars whom Noble discusses in his two paradigms split on pivotal questions. Turner and Beard differed on the character of democracy and the virtue of industrialism, as can be inferred from The End of American History itself. Hofstadter, who drifted from democratic socialism to a chastened liberalism, and Williams, a radical whose beau ideal among 20th century Presidents was, eerily enough, Herbert Hoover, hardly inhabited the same political universe. Hofstadter himself moved from a consensus that he deplored to tentative praise of comity, celebrating in his own mordant fashion the two-party system. He called the sixties an “age of rubbish,” the very decade in which Williams’ influence in the profession began to peak because of his hostility to American expansionism, a topic on which Hofstadter was mostly silent. By contrast, Williams mourned the impotence of American radicalism and championed the establishment of decentralized communities. (Even the choices of Turner and Hofstadter to voice the jeremiad seem unwarranted, since Turner was primarily a celebrant of the American experiment, not a critic of its course of empire; and the moral exhortation intrinsic to the jeremiad was foreign to Hofstadter’s skeptical temperament and ironic detachment.) Oddly enough, though Noble admirably demonstrated how the individual historians sometimes changed their minds, he shows no interest in how the conflicts between the two historians in each paradigm might be explained or resolved.

Though such disputes cannot be settled except temporarily, there are essentially two ways in which these controversies might be clarified. They could be momentarily decided by showing internal contradictions or logical problems in the thesis that the historian has advanced. Or a thesis could be measured against relevant facts—so that significant counterevidence could thereby scuttle it. Noble does neither. He does not define a book of history as a stretch of discursive prose about the past that has something wrong with it, nor does The End of American History attempt to expose internal inconsistencies. The author writes intellectual history as a drama of minds rather than selves, but these are not minds that seem limited by dubious assumptions, compulsive biases, blindness to certain sorts of “non-trivial” evidence, mistaken emphases, methodological errors. Noble does not even care that William Appleman Williams himself, in his influential Tragedy of American Diplomacy, pieced together disparate quotations without so indicating—a sleight-of-hand whose exposure would have terrified graduate students. (No wonder then that Handlin suspected that Williams’ Contours of American History might have been “an elaborate hoax,” a “fantasy . . .to the bafflement of librarians who still gave his books nonfiction classifications.”) Not only did Handlin’s challenge on so fundamental a matter as professional qualifications fail to have diminished Williams’ stature among many scholars; it does not reduce his importance to Noble’s scheme either.

What may be even more troubling about The End of American History is that the grand theses of these four historians and one theologian are never weighed against factual evidence of any sort, phenomena about which Noble shows no curiosity. His readers have no way of knowing the truth-value of such discourses; and his book is therefore, as Samuel Beckett said when James Joyce asked him how an idealist like Hume could write a history, “a history of representations.” But of what? That remains unspecified. Such an approach to mind reading, in which abstractions never get anchored anywhere, as though metaphors were little more than trumps in a language game rather than the glimmer of an insight into a nation’s elusive experience, lengthens the odds that intellectual history can contribute to a comprehensive rendering of the past.

If still necessary, Woodward’s memoir can be enlisted to demonstrate how misconceived is Noble’s particular use of the paradigm, for Thinking Back is dedicated “To the Critics[, ] Without whose devoted efforts life would have been simpler but less interesting.” The entire volume is his retrospective reckoning with what his peers in the profession have made of an oeuvre that, more than anyone else’s, has imposed itself upon a vital phase of Southern history— roughly from Reconstruction through the First World War, though Woodward’s work has also touched upon the rest of the 20th century as well. Though none of his contemporaries has dominated a field so completely, Thinking Back also makes clear that Woodward’s interpretations of Redemption, the Compromise of 1877, Populism, and the origins and scope of racial segregation—which tend to underscore the discontinuities of Dixie’s tradition—have hardly gone unchallenged. His comments are gracious and attentive, even though he too sometimes fails to provide enough information to permit readers to form their own opinion. For that a return to the original arguments, and to the sources, is obligatory; but even in this book Woodward still displays a knack for making Southern history relevant.

Woodward’s own stature in the profession is extraordinarily secure, even though expanding intellectual powers and ambitions have not corresponded to the trajectory of his career. As his own reputation has grown, the work on which it has been based has receded in scope as well as in time. Woodward last produced a synthesis in his field in 1951 with Origins of the New South, which won a Bancroft Prize, and has not published a significant monograph drawing upon primary research since that period. In 1982 Woodward won a Pulitzer Prize for editing a Civil War diary that, by all logic, should have been given posthumously to its author, Mary Chesnut, who in fact doctored it so substantially that her Gilded Age revisions raised the question of whether it was much of a Civil War diary at all.

Woodward essentially abandoned historical writing other than essays, introductions, and reviews more than three decades ago; but no explanation is provided for this transformation of his career in Thinking Back, which re-ignites the controversies that have surrounded his judicious and elegant writing about the South. The chapter on The Strange Career of Jim Crow, putting that volume in the wider context of its intended audience of educated white Southerners, showing its unintended impact on the emergent civil rights movement, is especially good. But the aura of contentiousness that has surrounded the books aimed at other professionals might surprise those who know him primarily as a reviewer of other historians’ efforts. His largest audience, the readers of the New York Review of Books, have encountered in that journal a pattern of praise—only rarely modulated with the softest of demurrers—that defies the law of averages. The historians whose books Woodward has been assigned to review cannot all be that talented, unless the training of younger scholars has reached the stratosphere of sophistication. Among the authors who have thereby escaped “the perils of writing history” are his own doctoral students, a dubious reviewing practice which, if it can be justified at all, ought to require that an interest be declared (which Woodward has not done either). He may nevertheless be the most universally admired American historian now working.

That eminence does not prevent him from recording the case for the prosecution, for Woodward has been accused “of being a presentist, a moralist, an ironist, and a one-time activist, of being a chronicler with a weakness for history-with-a-purpose and one influenced by a theologian.” One would almost get the impression that Woodward spends a large chunk of his time at professional conventions getting subjected to such insults and then having to ask other historians to step outside. But he dwells very little on his own life, as though introspection would be taken for self-assertion. Woodward’s modesty and reticence, which are admirable as character traits, are liabilities in a writer; for Thinking Back reveals little of the man who wrote the books. Born and raised in rural Arkansas, Woodward has been among the first major white scholars of the South to be uncontaminated by racism, and yet perhaps a sense of dignity prevents him from explaining enough about how so fine a victory over his environment was achieved. He tells us nothing of how his personality intertwined with those of others; and while it is perfectly appropriate to draw a veil over what was once called private life, neither does Woodward elaborate upon the methods, the research and compositional difficulties resolved in the writing of such seminal studies as Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel, Origins of the New South and The Strange Career of Jim Crow. To hear him tell it, he has operated without any overall theory of history; and though such nightwatchmen as Niebuhr and William Faulkner have manifestly influenced him, Woodward has avoided the climb to the ear-popping altitudes of philosophical meditation.

This peculiar memoir also fails to reflect upon general changes in the profession, which left him, for a while, outflanked on the left, as younger scholars tended to focus even more emphatically upon the injustices that have pockmarked— and indeed permeated—the region’s history. In his braiding of narrative and analytical political history, Woodward represents at his best the sort of work that has been somewhat threatened by quantitative history, which at its worst is so deficient in the human drama to which Woodward has been so sensitive that its monographs read like sports scores that fail to mention the teams. Though intellectual historians have begun to devote much greater attention to the institutional settings within which the forms of culture are generated, Thinking Back will offer them little help, since Woodward says precious little about the academic institutions where his work was done.

In this respect one omission is glaring, since the imbroglio was not confined to the stacks. In 1976 he played an active role in depriving an authority on black history—a Communist—of an invitation to teach a residential college course at Yale. Woodward joined in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to prevent Herbert Aptheker, the literary executor of W.E.B. DuBois and editor of his papers, from teaching Yale undergraduates at Davenport College about DuBois. (In the same program Howard Cosell remained at large to teach sports.) Woodward’s role in that episode was never satisfactorily explained because the Department of History, claiming the need for confidentiality (which Aptheker, whose scholarly reputation was impugned, was himself willing to waive), stonewalled the investigation of a joint committee of the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians. While living in Atlanta during the Depression, Woodward recalls in Thinking Back, he was involved in the defense of a black Communist, Angelo Herndon, charged with insurrection against the state. But the self-proclaimed ironist passes in silence over his effort to keep Aptheker from Yale.

Though Thinking Back was predictably overpraised in the New York Review of Books (by one of Woodward’s former students), it is a generous and genial book, even if not an especially vivid or impassioned one. It is something of an envoi, written in the autumn of the patriarch of post-bellum Southern history. The prologue explains the meaning of Woodward’s title (“personal retrospection as well, of course, as an occupational commitment”). But he might also have considered the aptness of Kierkegaard’s perfect epigram: “We live forward, but we understand backward.” It suggests the peculiar value of the historical enterprise even as it summarizes the predicament of us all.


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