U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Newness of “New” Histories

fitzpatrick“Prestige derived from prominence in the academic profession has often proved evanescent; it would thus be a mistake to confuse academic status with intellectual importance. For over the long run, the work itself remains—even when it has not loomed large in the collective memory of historians.”

So writes Ellen Fitzpatrick in History’s Memory: Writing America’s Past, 1880-1980 (2002), a fantastic book that I began reading just last night but have been ripping through all today. As a sad confirmation of her assertion, this book, I think, is too little known. But all Fitzpatrick does is leave the reader astonished at how little about the historical profession’s past she knows, astonished to realize that she, like most historians, has been complacent in believing the profession’s “lore” about its own past.

The primary bit of lore that Fitzpatrick strikes out is that the idea of “history from the bottom up” did not achieve dominance in the profession for the first time with the rise of the “new social history” in the sixties and seventies. She writes,

How new, in fact, is this new history? This question has been rarely posed despite all the debate the new history has inspired in contemporary America and all the political passion it has stirred. Few seem to doubt that, whatever its merits, the new history is a product of relatively recent events. However, there is ample reason to think otherwise. For much of the last century, historians have repeatedly concerned themselves with issues and ideas now credited to the “new” history. There has been no linear progression over the course of the twentieth century toward contemporary trends in historical study. But American historical writing has been characterized by persistent efforts and much substantive research on the part of many talented historians, working across a long span of time, to enrich the study of American history in ways that are often thought of as modern.

Fitzpatrick argues convincingly that the self-image of the “new history” emerging from the politics of the 1960s depended on basic mischaracterizations of the “old history” it invented. For one thing, it re-imagined the most prominent Progressive historians—Beard, Turner, Becker, Parrington—as more isolated than they in fact were, as rebels unable to shift the professional inertia of a discipline mired in top-down history, a view that ignored the incredibly deep bench of a broadly Progressive historiography that Fitzpatrick uncovers.

Secondly, the new history held up its interest in the marginalized groups of US history as utterly original and historiographically unprecedented, a notion that Fitzpatrick demolishes. Finally, the “new history” saw itself as the first truly critical account of the United States, the first to be non-celebratory as a basic principle. Fitzpatrick again shows this belief to be unfounded, even as she acknowledges that few historians of the first half of the twentieth century adequately acknowledged the role of white supremacy and settler colonialism in the making of the United States. Still, universally celebratory they were not.

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Fitzpatrick’s study shadows, in a way, the much more famous study of the historical profession over this same basic time: Peter Novick’s 1988 That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession. Everywhere its presence is felt, but on only one occasion does she directly contradict one of Novick’s claims. Novick argued that Progressive historians’ own call for a “new history” was mostly hot air; as he says, it “hardly advanced beyond programmatic statements.” Rather than actually making good on their promises for a new history, Novick credits them with a consolation prize: a lasting legacy in the realm of philosophy of history and historiography, specifically in their contributions to the “objectivity question” that is the heart and soul of his book.

But Fitzpatrick intimates that she finds the “objectivity question” to be a kind of dodge on Novick’s part, and here is where I began to see Novick’s study in a new light:

Historians have tended to stress the prevalence of relativist perspectives and the dominance of Progressive history in much historical writing during the 1920s and 1930s. But relativism—the conviction that historical truth is contingent on the values, intentions, and experience of historians and the world they inhabited—does not capture the substance, the tone, or the passion of much important work undertaken during the Depression years. Indeed, by its very nature relativism describes a posture, a perspective, and what was for some a burning conviction. It does not reveal, nor is it intended to reveal, the actual content of historical scholarship during the interwar years.

Fitzpatrick comes very close to saying what is, I think, fairly obvious: Novick’s That Noble Dream is something like the Aeneid of that “new history” which Fitzpatrick intends to strip of its novelty. It is that history’s epic—although instead of an epic of founding, it is an epic of unfounding. That Noble Dream tells us that the generation of the 1960s broke the historical profession in a way that the Progressives could not, in a way that Beardian relativism could not. That Noble Dream tells us that the 60s generation made good on its promises of a “new history” in a way that the Progressives did not, that the populism of the Turnerians did not. That Noble Dream enthrones the generation of the 60s even as it declares that their actions have left “no king in Israel.”

But with Fitzpatrick—and, on a different level and with a different point in mind, with this great essay by Rich Yeselson on New Left historiography—we can see this story as a generation’s flattering self-image, one that needs new historiographers to challenge and revise.

Fitzpatrick’s book really deserves a wider audience: like a lot of intellectual historical monographs by women, I think it has not gotten the recognition it deserves.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Like many blog posts and comments, mine begins with a disclaimer, in this case, that I haven’t read Fitzpatrick’s book. But my flash drive recalls that Dan Wickberg referred to it in his critique of the 2012 MIH Forum on “The Present and Future of American Intellectual History.” [USIH 4.3.12] He wrote –

    “We have yet to have a really good history of American intellectual history, one that explains how we got where we are, how much our approaches are indebted to those of the past and the assumptions they made, and how much we have departed from them. Ellen Fitzpatrick’s History’s Memory (2002) dismantled the self-serving narratives of social and cultural histories of the 1980s and 90s as “new” departures by showing the “new history” as central to American historiography from the Progressive Era forward. Perhaps we need a history of intellectual history in the spirit of Fitzpatrick’s book. Even intellectual historians can be short sighted when they set out to define the future.”

    Thinking about your post, I looked at a review of Fitzpatrick by Gregory Pfitzer, which suggests some caution may be warranted before we get swept up in the “spirit” to which Dan refers, since for Pfitzer at least, the book is a familiar sort of anti-60s polemic, guilty of presentist generational distortions, ironically similar to those she alleges in the ‘60s generation. He concludes –

    “Historical-mindedness was central to the revolutions of the 1960s, even when employed in the service of rejecting historical tradition. Given the wide range of reactions to the events of the sixties by historians and the diversity of historiographic narratives created to explain them, then, it seems unlikely that any reconciling vision of the legacy of New History is on the horizon. Instead, the evaluations of New History are likely to remain divided between those of the party of skepticism like Fitzpatrick who insist that history should “deepen our indebtedness to the past” and those of the party of nostalgia who continue to believe that history should “liberate us from the past.” [Reviews in American History, 2003, 151]

    We might try to avoid getting caught in such a simplistic framing, which could compel us to choose, as if indebtedness could only be the worship of tradition, or such liberation were possible anyway. To me, the notion Novick “enthrones the generation of the 60s” caricatures his book and the issues involved, and could reinforce the very presentism you’re critiquing.

    Maybe the generational temptation illustrates Novick’s suggestion that the objectivity question generates a lot of heat and less light because it’s less about methodology or epistemology than a matter of identity, “who we are, what we’re doing, and what we’ve done when we’ve done it.” [“My Correct Views on Everything,” AHR 96, 3, June 1991,700]

    That makes it something rather to avoid than to sign up for, a topic rather than a solution. At least we might recall that Novick rejects the stark opposition between the truth claims of “objectivity” and “relativism,” sees the former as a “myth…not just essentially contested, but essentially confused,” and the latter a bogeyman term used only by its enemies. [Noble Dream, 3-6; AHR, 699]. Historian rather than philosopher, he insists he takes no position on the truth claims at stake, that after all there’s something to be said for life without a king, and we might cherish the openness and toleration of the profession while it lasts.

    I’ve surprised myself here, but … well, it’s a happy way to start the new year.

    • Thanks for this, Bill. I too, haven’t read Fitzpatrick’s book (shame on me). But I’m happy to see bits of professional reception in your comment—in part because I too did not remember Novick enthroning the generation of the Sixties. – TL

    • Dear Bill Fine
      Ive read all this with great interest of course. I think if you read the book, you may conclude that I’m not coming at it from an “anti-60s polemic” point of view – nothing could be further from the truth, in fact. I had a fairly simple point to make–which was modern historical interests had deeper roots in the U.S. than many might imagine and that historians themselves tend to accent their differences. I didn’t seek to take anything away from anyone–just hoped to widen the scope of who was included.

  2. Thanks to you, Andy, for the post and for calling attention to Fitzpatrick’s work. I’m now in the middle of reading a bit of older historiography (e.g. Higham’s *History: Professional Scholarship in America*, 1965). So I’ll be anxious to read Fitzpatrick’s work relatively soon. – TL

  3. Thanks so much for your comment, Bill! I think I may have inadvertently colored my account of Fitzpatrick’s excellent book with a touch of polemic that is most certainly not in the book itself. I fell into a language that was maybe a little too aggressive here (“demolish”) to describe the force and freshness that I found in Fitzpatrick’s book; I suppose that made it sound antagonistic.

    And, I think, I didn’t do a very good job separating my reading of Novick from my description of her argument. But it seems like it is the reading of Novick that you (and Tim?) object to, so I’ll double down here: Novick’s book is, of course, a marvelously rich book with a complex theme, but that does not mean that it doesn’t also have its simpler or more direct points. And one of those points–maybe you object to the language–is that history–both the craft and the profession–changed completely with the generation of the 1960s/1970s, and changed in ways that were unprecedented and irreversible. I don’t think there is a way that you can read Novick’s book without coming to that conclusion.

    By “enthroning,” this was what I meant: Novick treats this generation as fundamentally different from any other that came before: more influential, more effective. I think that Fitzpatrick’s book questions that distinction, smoothing out the sharp disjuncture that elevates them into this special position.

    Rather, we can see how consistently their driving passions and commitments have appeared in the work of historians over the course of the twentieth century, and from that longer history take greater heart. The commitment to history from the bottom up isn’t just the legacy of one heroic generation, but deeply interwoven in a very thick tradition of history writing in the U.S. I, for one, like that story better.

  4. Great post, Andy. I’m adding HISTORY’S MEMORY to my list of must-read books.

    The historical problem of the sixties almost always boils down to the change-continuity question, in historiography no less. One way to attack this problem might be for someone to do a reception history of DuBois’s BLACK RECONSTRUCTION. (PhD students looking for a dissertation topic, you’re welcome!) My educated guess is that it was hardly read by professional historians until the sixties, after which it was canonized. The lesson being that yes, progressive historiography in many ways anticipated the social turn, but some of it needed the sixties to happen before it could become mainstream.

  5. Ellen Fitzpatrick – My apologies if I misrepresented your book, and thanks for responding – and for reminding me it’s not wise to comment on a book you haven’t read, even if you hedge and qualify. I was responding to Andy’s post, and drew on the only review I had at the time, but afterward looked at a couple more, and should have followed through to amend my comments.

    Andy – Thanks very much for clarifying your views and helping me to save a little face here. Part of our difference, if there is one, is about what work the concept of “generation” is to do, whether it’s more a chronological marker, a periodizing figure — or an explanatory device. Perhaps incorrectly, I took you to imply the latter, and then to double down by saying Novick “treats this generation as fundamentally different,” and sees changes in the profession as “the legacy of one heroic generation,” which to me implicitly assigns a sort of collective agency to the age cohort as such. An obvious difficulty is this would tend to overlook the intra-generational [in the demographic sense, at least] conflicts Novick treats in some detail.

    Perhaps someone could cite text that goes in a different direction, but near the end of his introduction, Novick seems to speak to the generational device –

    “[T]he reader is urged to be as aware as the author is of the artificiality of periods, and the enormous difficulty of generalizing about historical thought at any time. Generations of historians do not replace one another on cue: at any given moment the historical profession includes individuals ranging from under thirty to over seventy, shaped by very different experiences — and, of course, responding very differently to the same experiences.” [16]

    We don’t really have space here to specify the various changes Novick traces, but in saying that in focusing on the objectivity question he slighted “the substance, the tone, or the passion of much important work undertaken during the Depression years,” aren’t we asking him to have written a different book?

    Finally, while you say he presents history as having undergone fundamental, “irreversible” change, I’d like to take him at his word in expressing an “unwillingness to join the ranks of…failed prophets by predicting the indefinite continuity of present chaos (or some other outcome).” [628].

  6. Bill, I think we might just be reading that disclaimer differently. He offers the sentences you quote to justify the fact that he has broken his narrative into four basically non-overlapping periods, “corresponding to what seem to me to be the introduction of new sets of problems, turning points in historians’ attitudes, or shifts in dominant sensibilities.” He speaks to the question of generations not to wave away the concept (or “device,” if you prefer) as useless but to admit its limitations, as all types of periodizations are limited.

    Similarly, I think our readings of the second passage you quote diverge. I’m not sure how the line you quote addresses the irreversibility of the changes he narrates: just because he holds out hope that the chaos he saw was not eternal does not mean that he believes things will go back to the previous “normal”–to the comity and consensus that preceded the mid-1960s. By irreversibility I meant only that: the status quo ante could not be recreated given the depth and nature of the changes. I can’t see how Novick wouldn’t agree.

    As to the other charge that I’m asking Novick to write a different book, well, the problem is that the material that Fitzpatrick uncovers–the “important work” of the Depression years–is material that Novick said doesn’t exist. ” Speaking of Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. and Harry Elmer Barnes, he writes, “Their writings called repeatedly for the expansion of history’s domain into such fields as the history of cities, of immigration, of women, but with a few exceptions the call went unanswered” (178). If Novick had said, “there were numerous interesting monographs written along these lines, but they are beyond the terms of this study,” I’d be totally content with that, but saying that something exists only in exceptions when it exists plentifully makes it fair game, I think, to charge him with ignoring the Depression-era scholarship Fitzpatrick has recovered.

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