This blog has posted a few remembrances and considerations regarding the historians who died this past week. One of our related blogs, HNN, has provided some great coverage of the lives and legacies of Eric Hobsbawm, and Eugene Genovese, but not, somewhat surprisingly, of Henry F. May. Reading across the short essays on Hobsbawm and Genovese it becomes clear that their ability to rally people (including historians) across the ideological spectrum had some influence on the level of coverage they received. Hobsbawm inspired a vitriolic rebuke from Michael Burleigh and warm embraces from Niall Ferguson and Eric Foner; the latter two I imagine would be loathe to embrace each other. Genovese elicited extended remarks from Robert George, the conservative Catholic political theorist at Princeton and the libertarian journal Reason. Apparently, May did not inspire such diverse responses.
In my own training, I encountered these three historians in ways that mirror reactions to their deaths. In my graduate training, the historian who taught Soviet history would ask us to take on Hobsbawm’s analysis of Stalin and the historian of American foreign relations would ask us to defend Hobsbawm’s account of the role of the United States in empire building. The historian of antebellum America used Genovese as THE touchstone for historiographical debate over the world of American slaves and the historian who taught America in 1960s would discuss the personal-political trajectory of Genovese the man.
But Charles Alexander, my advisor and mentor in U.S. intellectual history, made us absorb every molecule of Henry F. May’s two major books–both served as major questions on our comprehensive exams. I have my copies of May’s The End of American Innocence and The Enlightenment in America, with margin notes and underlining that reflect, as I show my students, the different ways I used the books as I moved from a first year graduate student to a budding historian writing his first book. I still get a charge reading the first line of The End of American Innocence: “Everybody knows that at some point in the twentieth centuryAmerica went through a cultural revolution.” All of my work (and much of what we do on this blog) has been a investigation of that contention. It was pretty much that line that made me want to write a book on how movies changed the idea of art and culture in twentieth century America. You can see May’s entire book on line here.
I found professional inspiration for my aspirations in Joan Shelley Rubin‘s essay on May in Reviews in American History. Rubin was, of course, another historian who had great influence on many of us in graduate school, and for me, she was a person I read to learn how to realize my aspirations of writing an work of history that was like May’s. In her 1990 essay, she wrote that May’s book “retains…both emotional power and analytical significance. On the most personal level, the book remains appealing because it captures and preserves figures and movements which seem, even now, exciting, creative, imbued with an energy and purpose I admire.” Indeed, that sense of the immediacy of the history May related made many us realize that he, in 1959, had provided a way to use culture (as well as political and socio-economic motives) to explain any period.
For Charlie Alexander, though, there was also another reason to follow May very closely–May was an excellent writer. So I conclude with a passage from the end of May’s first chapter that simply gripped me. Even though he wrote it the late 1950s, his charge sounded like something intended for what I was about to begin: