U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thinking Historically about Historians

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:

“In the long run, I suppose, one’s attitude toward the beginning of the contemporary period depends on one’s prediction of its outcome.  Since my emotions about the current scene are divided, my interpretation of the past is divided also. It is not hard, retrospectively, to find the standard American culture of 1900 or 1912 seriously inadequate.  Neither intellectual or social orders are likely to be overthrown unless they are inadequate.  Yet revolution, and this kind of revolution in particular, has its cost.  I have tried to understand both conservatives and radicals.  My major purpose has been to show the size and complexity and some of the meanings of the change, and not to draw up a balance sheet of gains and losses.
If this book helps the reader to understand the revolution that got under way by 1917, it may make it easier for him to live through it, or even, in some small area, to influence its outcome.  I take it for granted that this culture revolution is still going on.”

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Isn’t it amazing that a book purporting to cover only 5-6 years can have such lasting influence? If that’s not a powerful argument for historical specialization, I don’t know what is.

    My memories of the contents of this book are more impressionistic and vague than yours, Ray. For starters, I do not recall my advisor *requiring* it, but it appeared on my list nonetheless. I said this while commenting on another post, but the circumstances of my reading of *The End of American Innocence* were as memorable as the book itself. I read it over a Christmas break at home—bored with the conversation of my relatives and trapped in small town with limited outlets for relief. My own sense of dislocation and alienation lent a focused intensity to my reading that overshadowed some other books on my list.

    No matter how I came to the book, I was impressed by the fact that May was doing the kind of work I wanted to do—well before it was fashionable for cultural/intellectual historians. How? He fashioned a sturdy study on a limited period that held forth large implications (i.e. modernity, large-scale cultural change)—even while he avoided making sweeping claims about the *whole* of American cultural and intellectual life that were specifically rebuked at Wingspread in 1978. In other words, H.F. May was an exemplar for future study in our field 20 years before the profession forced changes.

    But even if one disagrees with me on the point about “sweeping,” May was right in pointing out the intellectual and cultural dislocations—the alienation—that resulted from turn of the century events. This is accepted as common place in the profession today. This historical fact still resonates. Proof that we’re still dealing with adjustments to modernity comes every month or so when another conservative intellectual seeks to roll back a policy or cultural change that came out of the Progressive Era (e.g. evolution, women’s rights, government regulation, environmental awareness, pluralism, and on and on).

    Perhaps I overstate May’s importance. But I want to emphasize, with you Ray, the ongoing importance of May’s work to those of us dealing with the present consequences of changes that have occurred over the last 100-120 years. May paved the way for us. – TL

  2. Tim, thanks as always for you comments and reflection. I must confess that my admiration for May has been as much for his ability to write well as for anything he might have done for the theories that we all try to use in our work. I had trouble reading Ann Douglas’s Terrible Honesty because I couldn’t get beyond the difference in writing between her book (heavily indebted to a number of literary theories) and May’s work. I felt that when I read May, and Woodward, and Masur all around the same time and realized they wrote at around the same time that I had discovered some lost society of writers who spoke to more than the historical training I saw around me. I wish I could say I’ve paid that group for my debt to them.

  3. And the touch about William Dean Howells coming home from his birthday celebration–the key celebration of the tripartite nature of American Victorian culture–and then looking in the mirror and confessing that it was all wrong, all terribly wrong! Man, May could write. And the placement of that reflection–after the celebration, late in the Introduction…I still give a lecture that is half that book (often on my tippy toes in excitement). The power of the pen is vital in our profession, no?

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