U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Historical Present

A further thought on Mike’s earlier post about the use of the present tense in history: In tribute to John Updike for his now closed life, I’ve been reading his Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy in the evenings. I decided to buy the Everyman’s edition of the four books, bundled together in hardback for the bargain basement price of 23.00 bucks on Amazon.com. Fortunately, the edition has an introduction written by Updike himself in which he makes the following observation on his use of the present tense in the first novel, Rabbit Run, written in 1959 and first published in 1960:

“The present tense was a happy discovery for me. I has fitfully appeared in English-language fiction–Damon Runyon used it in his tall tales and Dawn Powell in the mid-Thirties has a character observe, ‘It was an age of the present tense, the stevedore style.’ But I had encountered it only in Joyce Cary’s remarkable Mister Johnson, fifteen or so years after its publication in 1939. . . . [T]he present tense, to me as I began to write in it, felt. . .exhilaratingly speedy and free–free of the grammatical bonds of the traditional past tense and of the subtly dead, muffling hand it lays upon every action. To write ‘he says’ instead of ‘he said’ was rebellious and liberating in 1959. In the present tense, thought and act exist on one shimmering plane; the writer and reader move in a purged space, on the traveling edge of the future, without vantage for reflection or regret or a seeking of proportion.” [x]

The power of the present tense to communicate experience seems to be its allure. But his notion that the present tense allows no vantage “for reflection or regret or a seeking of proportion” seems to suggest its limits for historical writing and lecturing whose primary purpose is something more than the communication of past experience with pure immediacy.