U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Carl Becker, ROOM 237, and the Work of Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction

In 1931, Carl Becker delivered what remains the single most famous Presidential Address in the history of the American Historical Association.  Entitled “Everyman His Own Historian,” Becker’s speech continued his by then decades-old assault on the “scientific school” of history, which believed that the historian’s task was simply to correctly assemble the facts of the past, which would, in turn, interpret themselves.  In its place Becker proposed a vision of history that was both more relativistic and more populist. His address was greeted with a standing ovation and has been celebrated in the ensuing decades as both laying the foundations for, and anticipating, many of the changes in history writing that would take place over the course of the next several decades.   But Becker himself expressed disappointment in his speech shortly after giving it.  And, as historians have pointed out ever since, Becker’s bracing new vision of history was full of internal tensions and contradictions.[1]

Although the relativism of Becker’s understanding of the historical endeavor has been most discussed over the years, Becker’s populism—reflected in his title—is what I was reminded of when I watched the recently released documentary Room 237, which focuses on five rather obsessive readings of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and read the controversies it has aroused among some film reviewers.[2]   

I

The relationship of Becker’s “Everyman” to history is (at least) twofold.  First, according to Becker, Everyman is an historian, whether he knows it or not (the gendering is Becker’s, it should be said). Becker begins by defining history in the broadest possible terms:  “History is the memory of things said and done.” Obviously everyone does this. And, to emphasize the point, Becker tells a story of “Mr. Everyman,” who consults a “book in MS” in his vest pocket and discovers that he has to pay Mr. Smith a bill for coal.  But when he arrives at Smith’s office, Smith discovers, consulting another historical record, that he did not, in fact, deliver coal to Everyman, but had to turn the order over to Mr. Brown, whom Mr. Everyman subsequently pays.[3]  Though this little tale involves specifically grappling with a particular event in the past – the delivery of the coal – Becker then makes a much more general point:  we all think of ourselves as living in the present, but in fact, the present as we usually understand it is, in Becker’s words, “specious,” a fleeting instant that only makes sense supplemented both by the remembered past and the anticipated future.  Doing history, in the sense of remembering things said and done in the past, is thus not only necessary for accomplishing particular tasks. It is necessary for simply living in the world:

[I]n a very real sense it is impossible to divorce history from life: Mr. Everyman can not do what he needs or desires to do without recalling past events; he can not recall past events without in some subtle fashion relating them to what he needs or desires to do. This is the natural function of history, of history reduced to its lowest terms, of history conceived as the memory of things said and done: memory of things said and done (whether in our immediate yesterdays or in the long past of mankind), running hand in hand with the anticipation of things to be said and done, enables us, each to the extent of his knowledge and imagination, to be intelligent, to push back the narrow confines of the fleeting present moment so that what we are doing may be judged in the light of what we have done and what we hope to do.

Two things follow from this state of affairs. First, just as everyone has a slightly different set of memories, each person’s history is unique.  And, second, “all living history…is contemporaneous,” as it is, by definition, made to make sense of a present that is little more than a construct of memory and expectation.

While, in “Everyman His Own Historian,” history at first seems to be nothing more or less than the process of being in the world, in the concluding segment of the address, Becker draws a fairly sharp distinction between professional historians and everyone else.  Of course, historians are their own historians just like Mr. Everyman, concerned with practical events in our own pasts. But unlike Mr. Everyman,

our profession, less intimately bound up with the practical activities, is to be directly concerned with the ideal series of events that is only of casual or occasional import to others; it is our business in life to be ever preoccupied with that far-flung pattern of artificial memories that encloses and completes the central pattern of individual experience. We are Mr. Everybody’s historian as well as our own, since our histories serve the double purpose, which written histories have always served, of keeping alive the recollection of memorable men and events. We are thus of that ancient and honorable company of wise men of the tribe, of bards and story-tellers and minstrels, of soothsayers and priests, to whom in successive ages has been entrusted the keeping of the useful myths.

But our calling as story-tellers and soothsayers is itself circumscribed by our present circumstances…and by Mr. Everyman.  Historians will, like Mr. Everyman, be guided by their (perhaps less practical) present concerns in understanding the past, and our histories will thus change. And, warns Becker, we must always be concerned about what Mr. Everyman thinks:

Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research. Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world.

While this warning concedes much power to Mr. Everyman, Becker is still drawing a stark contrast between him and the professional historian.  Mr. Everyman’s chief concern is with practical affairs like paying coal bills.  His relationship to history in the more usual sense, as it is practiced by professional historians, is, at best, as a consumer.  Though history in this sense generally concerns things that are not of immediate interest to him, we, as professional historians, must somehow produce history that speaks to Mr. Everyman–“to correct and rationalize [the past] for common use”– lest we, and our work become irrelevant.[4]

II

I thought of Becker and his “Mr. Everyman” this weekend as I watched Room 237,  the documentary by Rodney Ascher about…well, much of the controversy about this film, I think, has to do with a misunderstanding about what it is about.  Though critics have generally liked Room 237, its detractors tend to think it’s a very bad film about Stanley Kubrick’s The ShiningHere, for example, is Jonathan Rosenbaum, in what is probably the most cited negative review of the film:

Like so much (too much) of contemporary cinema, Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 is at once entertaining and reprehensible. Alternating between the extravagant commentaries of five analysts of Kubrick’s The Shining (Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Julie Kearns, John Fell Ryan, Jay Weidner), it refuses to make any distinctions between interpretations that are semi-plausible or psychotic, conceivable or ridiculous, implying that they’re all just “film criticism” and because everyone is a film critic nowadays, they all deserve to be treated with equal amounts of respect and/or mockery (assuming that one can distinguish between the two) -– that is, uncritically and derisively, with irony as the perpetual escape hatch.

Ascher’s film alternates among its five commentators, none of whom appear on camera, as Ascher illustrates (and occasionally pokes subtle fun at) their arguments with scenes from The Shining (some of them editorially altered) as well as other footage from other films and sources. To Rosenbaum, the result is a film that treats art as a puzzle and reduces criticism to problem solving, with the added insult that any solution is as good as any other.

Apparently like most other critics, I saw Room 237 rather differently. This is a film less about The Shining than about five people who each have an obsessive relationship to it.  Room 237 is ultimately about the way people (or at least some people) relate to a work of art in an era in which they (and billions of their fellow people) can consume that work of art over and over and over again, if they are so moved.  And it is also about the way people relate to their past, both because, for most of the commentators, the moment that they first encountered The Shining is itself important to their understanding of the film, and because most of the commentators read The Shining as a meditation on the past (for those who know the film, the importance of the past within the movie to the events that take place on screen is pretty incontrovertible).  But they utterly disagree about what past the film is about. One, a European historian, sees the film as a meditation on the Holocaust; another, a former foreign correspondent, sees it as a film about the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans; yet another, presents it as Kubrick’s confession that he had been involved in faking the moon landing footage. Rather than presenting his material one theory at a time, Rodney Ascher organizes his film more thematically, allowing each of his interviewees to hold forth on a particular aspect of the film, sometimes reinforcing, but more often contradicting each other’s views.  Bolstered by an interesting and effective use of visual material, Ascher’s film builds its audiences sympathy not so much for the content of its interviewees’ views as for the passion of their connection to the film.[5]

Ascher’s subjects suggest the limits of Becker’s understanding of “Mr. Everyman,” especially in our age of digital reproduction. As we’ve seen, Becker’s Everyman is very focused on concrete, practical affairs. He’s necessarily deeply interested in things said and done in the past—one cannot live in the world without being so interested—but his interest is dominated by his immediate experience.  In a sense, I think Becker underestimates the investment that people have in larger understandings of various pasts that stand at further remove from their immediate experience, including, among many others, the development of the sports teams they root for, the music they remember from their youth, the political pasts of their countries, the narratives of their faiths, and so forth.  Becker, of course, acknowledges the importance of such larger narratives, but presents them as both dependent on the really important material facts of the age and terribly fragile and likely to shift and dissolve as those material facts change.

In fact, people are extraordinary narrative and meaning-making machines.  To the extent that living in the world involves having an interest in things said and done in the past (and I think Becker is right that, if we think about it for any length of time, everyone must be so interested), the range of things that Everyman (and Everywoman) is deeply interested in are going to be greater than he suggests.

And Becker’s understanding of the relationship of the larger public to the professional historian is also a little off. To begin with, most of what professional historians write really doesn’t connect with—and isn’t designed to connect with—an extra-academic audience (though the notion that academic history writing should connect with a broader audience remains a powerful, and useful, professional myth). And when it doesn’t, our work does not necessarily fail to do work in the world, in part because, far from lying unread, it may be read by various narrower publics.  Nor are professional historians necessary to get the broader public interested in pasts beyond their very local and very practical ones. Indeed, much actually popular history is not written by professional historians…especially not academic ones.

One of the oddest things about Becker’s description of professional historians is his desire, despite his commitment to even the past being subject to historical change, to assimilate his profession into a kind of timeless archetype. We are “of that ancient and honorable company of wise men of the tribe, of bards and story-tellers and minstrels, of soothsayers and priests.”  What’s most odd about this is that it seems to deny that there is anything particularly distinctive about modern historical practice (no more than around three centuries old at the time Becker wrote) or even the modern historical profession (less than a century old at the time).  As Becker surely knew, however, each of the roles in his “wisemen” list was itself changeable and timebound.  Among the things that changed these roles, including the place of we professional historians, has been changing access to information.

The relationship that the commentators in Room 237 have to The Shining would have been virtually unthinkable in an era before the home video revolution.  In fact, the movie was released in 1980, near the dawn of the home video era, which meant that those tempted to explore its densely patterned surfaces could do so to their heart’s content.[6]

The internet has vastly accelerated the access that people in the industrialized world have to information of all different sorts.   So much so that, especially outside of our profession, many seem to be under the impression that the information age has virtually eliminated the public’s need for professional historians.  This was David Frum’s dismissive conclusion in his 2010 New York Times review of Laura Kalman’s Right Star Rising: A New Politics, 1974-1980:

[T]he question it raises — and it’s not a question about this book alone — is: What’s the point of this kind of history in the age of the Internet? Suppose I’m an undergraduate who stumbles for the first time across the phrase “Proposition 13.” I could, if I were minded, walk over to the university library, pull this book from the shelf and flip to the index. Or I could save myself two hours and Google it. I wouldn’t learn more from a Google search than I’d learn in these pages. But I wouldn’t learn a whole lot less either…

At least when you are writing American political history, recent technological change should force you to think: What am I doing and why? People can watch Richard Nixon’s resignation speech for themselves on their phones. Government agencies post inflation and unemployment numbers stretching back to World War II. If I am to tell the story of the recent past, I must tell more than is instantly accessible to any moderately motivated citizen. Rather than (for example) recite the campaign finance law’s contents, I should help my reader to understand its subtle, far-reaching and perverse effects. Otherwise, who needs me?

I think Frum underestimates Kalman’s book and overestimates the power of Google. But his review certainly suggests that what today’s Everyman/woman needs (and especially what s/he thinks s/he needs) from professional historians is rather different from Becker’s vision of soothsayers and bards saving the past from collective forgetfulness. We often seem to live in an age in which forgetting has been rendered almost impossible. And while Becker took a broad definition of history and used it to make the (then rather extraordinary) claim that Everyman was, in fact, his own historian, today people like David Frum apparently believe that any “moderately motivated citizen” can be an historian in the more narrow—and linguistically common—sense.

While Jonathan Rosenbaum is wrong to think that Room 237 presents itself as a guide to interpreting The Shining, let alone as a guide to interpretation in general, the film unquestionably concerns our culture’s current fascination with interpretation, a fascination shared by David Frum in the review I just quoted.

I personally find the extraordinary explosion of cultural and historical interpretation (on- and offline) to be vibrant and exciting, a kind of democratization of the humanities.  But it raises new challenges for historians, especially when we operate in the public sphere.  Although one occasionally still encounters—usually in a culture-war context—the view that history should be about just the facts, that interpretations are at best superfluous, this “scientific” view of history, already battered by Becker’s generation of “new historians,” is less and less common.  The challenge for professional historians today is to distinguish our interpretations from those that we reject…perhaps even to articulate some standard or standards that distinguish professional historians from Everyman/woman who now has access to the riches of Google.

Unlike Jonathan Rosenbaum, I don’t fear that our public interpretive discourse—whether on The Shining or on history more broadly—is beset by a kind of interpretive relativism that sees any understanding of any cultural object as good as any other.  Indeed, the interpretive explosion suggests to me a new relevance for formal education in the humanities. While once, close reading was something you stopped doing after college (or even high school), now, more than ever, it’s the way millions of Americans relate to the tv shows and movies they consume.  But historians and other humanists have not, as far as I know, carefully articulated this argument for our increased relevance. And we have more grappling to do with how our relationship with Mr. and Ms. Everybody has changed since Carl Becker’s day.  Among its many other virtues, Room 237 might serve as a goad for such a rethinking.


[1] The text of “Everyman His Own Historian” can be found here.  Milton M. Klein, “Everyman His Own Historian: Carl Becker as Historiographer,” The History Teacher, 19,1 (Nov. 1985), provides a nice overview of the place of “Everyman His Own Historian” in Becker’s thought (.pdf available here).

[2] Room 237 made the rounds of the festival circuit last year, but only received a (relatively) broad theatrical release last Friday. It was simultaneously released on Movies on Demand, so if you’re a cable tv subscriber, you can rent it now.

[3] Laurel Thatcher Ulrich  (“Mr. Everyman Buys Coal,” originally published in the September 2009 issue of Perspectives on History) has noted that both the amount of coal Mr. Everyman has purchased in Becker’s story and the price he pays for it are extraordinarily high, but that’s a paradox for another day.

[4] The tyranny of Mr. Everyman with which Becker concludes is very typical of American thought in the era of the Great Depression.  Becker acknowledges, even celebrates, the power of the common man, but there is a tinge of anxiety about how that power might be used.

[5] Ascher’s relationship to both his interviewees and the object of their obsession—as well as his cinematic technique—is similar to what can be seen in his earlier documentary short, “The S from Hell” (available free online) which concerns people’s reactions to the Screen Gems logo that appeared following many tv shows starting in the 1960s.

[6] It’s easy to forget how hard film study used to be.  Not to pick on a single, great book of that earlier era, but one of the many problems with Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler (1947) is that he was forced to write about many of the films in it essentially from memory, having seen them years earlier but being unable to screen them again.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. A couple of random thoughts:

    1. I don’t think people use Google as much as they ought. Frum has imported his middle-to-upper-middle-class biases into that assumption.

    2. There are two kinds of complexity, or cultural complexity, at work in this post.

    There are “everymen” who relish the details of the past, immersing themselves into the complexity that is basically historicism (think *Confederates in the Attic* and various other types who escape the present into a world of historical fantasy—antiquarians and intense hobbyists). This exhibits are very limited kind of close “reading” of the past. The meaning that arises from this type of historical explanation is limited, singular in relation to the individual. America is full of these types of people—it’s the most accessible type of historical complexity. It’s fine, but it only gets you so far as a citizen.

    And then there are everymen who appreciate the complexity of interpretation, which translates I think into the everyman as a more reflective, more social meaning-making machine. This depends on one’s level of education—particularly, as you noted, on one’s skill in the liberal arts. The liberation gained from that type of study exceeds escape and gains us access into the meaning-making minds of others. This art is difficult to obtain, and out of the reach of Frum’s magical Google mystery machine.

    So in a way I sympathize with Rosenbaum’s regret, but I don’t appreciate his argument for bringing forward the “right” kind of meaning. Rosenbaum should be encouraging his readers to appreciate what kinds of meanings give a film the broadest appeal, in the present. This means encouraging complexity while providing, when possible, some means of sorting.

    3. As you note near the end, this post is an excellent argument for the role of historians in general, and intellectual historians in particular, in promoting the liberal arts. The art of close reading, practiced to foster multiple layers of interpretation of the past, is something historians are supposed to do well. Intellectual historians often tackle complex texts—complexity that is evident in both obvious (e.g. unfamiliar terms, difficult terms, complex forms) and less-than-obvious ways (e.g. imported assumptions, deep language structures, historical resonances). Either way, we (professional historians) are theoretically providing a service, a kind of ongoing practice for readers (and historians) in obtaining the deepest kinds of reading skills. We do this, I hope, not to maintain job security and cultural capital, but to aid the larger democratic project of understanding. We cover all of the contingencies of deep exploration (of artifacts, texts, people, events, etc.) in order for the general public to decide which kinds of interpretive complexity are most useful in maintaining or advancing civil society. – TL

    • Interesting thoughts, Tim!

      1) I agree that some people don’t even really use Google and most people don’t know how to get the most out of it when they do. The internet sometimes makes research look a lot easier than it. Real research — even real online research — still involves rather specialized skills that most people don’t have.

      2) I also agree that different people have rather different relationships to the past and to historical artifacts. Nevertheless, Becker’s Everyman is more singular in his focus on the practical than many, if not most, people actually are.

      3) I think professional historians’ relationship to the general public (when we have one), at least in the early 21st century, is more discursive than Becker (or to a certain extent your final sentence) suggests. However much we might on occasion want to be treated as soothsayers, our voices will always be just a part of a larger, complicated, public conversation about the past. And how we take part in that conversation–and how we convince those outside our tribe that our voices might be worth listening to–are questions that don’t have permanent answers, either in theory or in practice.

  2. I think, as usua,l Jonathan Rosenbaum – arguably one of the greatest film critics of his generation! – is actually onto something here. I don’t think its the job of a critic to encourage a multiplication of meanings and readings of a film or any text. I’d say the effort should be the contrary: to offer better and more faithful readings of a text and discourage dubious ones. But I’ll admit mine is an older fashioned perspective.

    • I don’t disagree with you — or Jonathan Rosenbaum — about the job of the film critic. I disagree with him about what Room 237 is about. I don’t think the film itself is an act of criticism about The Shining. Nor do I think it is a visual essay on what the job of the film critic is. And, for whatever it’s worth, I actually think the interviewees in Room 237 are trying to offer better and more faithful readings of The Shining, however ludicrous some of the results.

  3. You might be onto something here. The movie is about psychological obsession, in much the same way that Zodiac was not “about” serial killings or the zodiac case but the drive of the cops.

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