[Editor’s Note: This is the fifth of six weekly guest posts by Andrew Seal — Ben Alpers]
I just spent two lovely winter days in the town of Ithaca, poring through the papers of the historian Carl Becker. The papers are great: he was a good, if not especially personal or intimate correspondent with a few dozen noted historians, jurists, and other public intellectuals, such as Frederick Jackson Turner, William Dodd, Felix Frankfurter, and Max Lerner. And the Cornell collection fortunately includes copies of some of Becker’s outgoing letters from other universities’ collections, making it much easier to see both ends of the correspondence. And, of lesser utility but great physical impressiveness, there are a half-dozen or so sizable boxes of Becker’s notecards on a variety of projects, their preservation perhaps less a true resource for interpretation than a tremendously effective reminder of the sheer diligence and intensive methodicalness of a prior generation’s working practices.
What is clear from the correspondence, at any rate, is how revered Becker was as an intellectual authority, both because of his powerful revisions of famous figures and events from both the American and European pasts and also because of his literary verve: he was a historian as a man of letters, an American Macaulay or Burckhardt or (more contemporaneously) Huizinga. He wrote wittily about the Revolutionary Era, he wrote magisterially about the philosophes, he wrote passionately about the threats to democracy and to freedom that emerged from the challenge of new forms of rule (or what we might today call governmentalities) in the 1930s and 1940s. He did not really develop a school of younger scholars, but he often reached what was much closer to a mass audience than we typically find with an academic historian of his time. A number of his books were published—and relatively heavily promoted—by trade houses, and he wrote for many of the larger opinion journals. Moreover, he wrote what appears (I’m just going by the correspondence at this point) to have been a fairly widely-adopted textbook on “Modern History” for high schools.
Today, I think, we remember Becker not so much for his style, although an instantaneous brush with any of his writings makes us aware of it, nor for the originality of his interpretations of major figures or events, or even for his contemporary stature, but for his pivotal place in the “objectivity question,” as Peter Novick’s 1988 That Noble Dream has termed it. Becker’s 1931 Presidential address at the AHA conference, titled “Everyman His Own Historian,” is justly renowned as a cleverly disquieting and genuinely profound meditation on the problems that a commitment to utter “objectivity” is supposed to settle, if not to vanquish. “Even the most disinterested historian has at least one preconception, which is the fixed idea that he has none,” Becker answers, and elaborates:
Left to themselves, the facts do not speak; left to themselves they do not exist, not really, since for all practical purposes there is no fact until some one affirms it. The least the historian can do with any historical fact is to select and affirm it. To select and affirm even the simplest complex of facts is to give them a certain place in a certain pattern of ideas, and this alone is sufficient to give them a special meaning. However “hard” or “cold” they may be, historical facts are after all not material substances which, like bricks or scantlings, possess definite shape and clear, persistent outline. To set forth historical facts is not comparable to dumping a barrow of bricks. A brick retains its form and pressure wherever placed; but the form and substance of historical facts, having a negotiable existence only in literary discourse, vary with the words employed to convey them.
Those are some of the key sentences of the address, which you can read in its entirety here and a great post on this blog about it here, but I don’t want to tarry too long with “Everyman” because it is, after all, the best known of all of Becker’s works today and perhaps the only one really actively read. I would rather move on to asking why this is, why Becker is almost never now, and has not for a long time been, a resource for intellectual historians (or other historians) apart from “Everyman,” his most theoretical contribution.
Next week, in the last of my six guest posts, I want to do a little more exploring of why I think Becker would be a fine candidate for a revival among intellectual historians, but this week I wish just to open the question of whether I am perhaps missing a hidden Becker readership, or whether Becker has, in fact, gone “hors d’usage,” out of circulation. And, at the risk of making the following superfluous if I’m wrong and Becker is more widely read than I know, I’ll offer a few factors—quirks of intellectual history and historiography—that have produced this relative absence. One, which I’ve already remarked above, was the apparent lack of a school established in Becker’s name. He did not, I believe, have many influential graduate students; I’m not sure that he even had a proper festschrift. Other than that, though, I think these contributed:
First, the field of “Midwestern early 20th century historians” or “Progressive historians” or “New Historians,” terms which describe essentially the same body of scholars, is crowded. When Richard Hofstadter wrote his study of the Progressive historians in 1968, he specifically cut out Becker as less influential than Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard, and Vernon Louis Parrington. I think Hofstadter was in fact wrong to distinguish his trio from Becker, but his opinion was nonetheless influential, and we can perhaps see its effects in the relatively marginal role Becker plays in David S. Brown’s much more recent treatment of the “Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing,” 2009’s Beyond the Frontier.
Second, Hofstadter does make an additional point which I feel is more compelling: Becker had no single book, at least on American history, which became the book. He was an oeuvre-kind of guy, someone whose new book was always exciting, but who had no single benchmark book against which his new works would be judged. Hofstadter is probably right that this lack made him less memorable and, perhaps, more diffusely influential.
Thirdly, Becker’s style, a crowning glory for his contemporaries and still unquestionably elegant, is nonetheless a bit rococo, with flourishes that are difficult to assimilate back into an argument. Becker loves to catch his reader off-guard, and so skimming is perilous—not an ideal style to command for our present age, perhaps.
These, at any rate, are some preliminary thoughts on Becker’s current status and how it may have gotten that way. But tell me, what is Carl Becker to you?
 There are a couple of monographs about him from the late 50s, a biography from the early 60s, and a collection of his letters compiled by the late Michael Kammen, who also spent most of his career at Cornell and was in many ways the actual intellectual heir of Becker.