U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historians’ Choice: A Poll from 1952 and The Red Scare

In researching last week’s post, I ran across a reference to a poll of historians taken in 1952 that quizzed respondents on what were, in their views, the “best” works of history published “recently.” The poll was organized by and reported in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, the forerunner of the Journal of American History. Re-reporting it now may seem a bit antiquarian but there are (as far as I know) relatively few comprehensive exercises such as this in the history of our profession, so it does have some rough merit for the snapshot it provides. At any rate, we get the opportunity for discovering some titles that have gone out of circulation, and for re-weighting certain relationships between historians or between their works.

But the most interesting aspect of the poll is the story of the historian who conducted it and wrote it up: John Walton Caughey. 1952 would have been a remarkable time for him to have been conducting a poll like this: in 1950 he was fired from his position at the University of California after refusing to sign a loyalty oath. Some time after this article went to press, he was reinstated after a court case,[1] but in the “Directory of Contributors” for MVHR 39.2 (Sept. 1952), in which this poll appeared, Caughey is still listed as “editor of the Pacific Historical Review” rather than given a university affiliation, which all other contributors have. It is notable, I think, that PHR retained Caughey as editor during the time he was blacklisted. It is also possible that this poll was a small means of employment for Caughey while he was fighting his UC firing; the PHR editorship was unfunded, according to this account and it is not difficult to imagine that the staff of MVHR also reached out to a fellow scholarly journal’s beleaguered editor. So in some small way, the Red Scare is, remarkably, the midwife of this poll.

Caughey would not be silenced in the least by this attempt at intimidation but thrived after reinstatement; he went on to write potently about civil liberties and civil rights, particularly about school integration in Los Angeles. He even marched in Selma. Caughey also found great professional success: he served as President of the Western History Association and as the President of the MVHA at the time it and its journal was changing its name to reflect a much more national member base and range of scholarly interests. (Incidentally, Ray Allen Billington, a historian as Western as rawhide, seems to have been leading the charge in the name change. In a panel I was on regarding Midwestern history at the OAH last week, a number of people encouraged the idea that the MVHA’s transformation into the OAH in the mid-1960s was a sort of abandonment or even rejection of the regionalist passions that had inspired the original formation of the organization. This note in the September 1964 issue of the JAH gives some insight into how the people in charge regarded the switch in terminology, but Caughey was another Western historian and apparently quite proud of the fact; I think the participation of these two Westerners at least complicates the possibility that the name change was meant as a verbal cold shoulder to regionalists, whether Southern, Western, or Midwestern historians.)

Back to the poll, though. Also of interest is the classes into which the poll’s organizers divided the eligible books. The pollsters provided three different lists: books published between 1920 and 1935; books published between 1936 and 1950; and biographies. They encouraged write-ins but jogged respondents’ memories with starter-lists: “59 titles offered for the years 1920-1935 and 64 for 1936-1950, and… 69 biography titles.” Respondents were told to vote for no more than ten on each of the first two lists and no more than twenty on the biography list. Obviously, 1935 is simply the midpoint of the thirty years between 1920 and 1950, but choosing that break does create two quite distinct lists and seems to conform rather well to a process of cohort replacement or generational turnover. No historian aside from Henry Steele Commager, I believe, appears on both lists.

Here are the results, with the total number of votes each title received and then a percentage out of 103 (the total number of ballots returned):

Titles Receiving More than 25% Support, 1920-1935

  1. Main Currents in American Thought, Vernon L. Parrington (84 votes; 81.5%)
  2. The Frontier in American History, Frederick Jackson Turner (83; 80.6%)
  3. The Great Plains, Walter Prescott Webb (66; 64.1%)
  4. The Rise of American Civilization, Mary Ritter and Charles Beard (58; 56.3%
  5. The Colonial Period of American History, Charles M. Andrews (54; 52.4%)
  6. The Declaration of Independence, Carl Becker (51; 49.5%)
  7. Life and Labor in the Old South, Ulrich B. Phillips (50; 48.5%)
  8. A History of the United States, Edward Channing (40; 38.8%)
  9. The Maritime History of Massachusetts, Samuel Eliot Morison (36; 35%)
  10. New Viewpoints in American History, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. (32; 31.1%)
  11. The Populist Revolt, John D. Hicks (30; 29.1%)
  12. The American Colonies in the Eighteenth Century, Herbert Levi Osgood (28; 27.2%)
  13. The Supreme Court in United States History, Charles Warren (27; 26.2%)
  14. The American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement, J. Franklin Jameson (26; 25.2%)

Titles Receiving More than 25% Support, 1936-1950

  1. The Growth of American Thought, Merle Curti (51; 49.5%)
  2. The British Empire before the American Revolution, Lawrence H. Gipson (45; 43.7%)
  3. Ordeal of the Union, Allan Nevins (39; 37.9%)
  4. The Civil War and Reconstruction, James G. Randall (35; 34%)
  5. The Atlantic Migration, Marcus Lee Hansen (35; 34%)
  6. The Age of Jackson, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (35; 34%)
  7. The Economic Mind in American Civilization, Joseph Dorfman (35; 34%)
  8. The New England Mind, Perry Miller (32; 31.1%)
  9. The Flowering of New England, Van Wyck Brooks (29; 28.2%)
  10. The American Mind, Henry S. Commager (28; 27.2%)
  11. The Road to Reunion, Paul H. Buck (27; 26.2%)

Biographies Receiving Greater than 50% Support

  1. R. E. Lee, Douglas S. Freeman (83; 80.6%)
  2. Admiral of the Ocean Sea, Samuel Eliot Morison (83; 80.6%)
  3. Lincoln the President, James G. Randall (74; 71.8%)
  4. Theodore Roosevelt, Henry F. Pringle (72; 69.9%)
  5. Jefferson and His Time, Dumas Malone (72; 69.9%)
  6. Benjamin Franklin, Carl Van Doren (67; 65%)
  7. Grover Cleveland, Allan Nevins (62; 60.2%)
  8. Roosevelt and Hopkins, Robert E. Sherwood (62; 60.2%)
  9. John Quincy Adams, Samuel Flagg Bemis (60; 58.3%)

Rather than give you my analysis, I really want to hear from you as to what surprises you (or doesn’t), what you observe, what you think should have been present or what you can’t believe was actually included.

[1] There are two PHR articles abut Caughey’s life; one, by Norris Hundley, Jr. indicates that he was reinstated in 1952, if I’m reading it correctly; the other, by Stephen Dow Beckham, states that he was prevented from teaching until 1954. Apparently, because he was acting on the State of California’s behalf as an expert witness in some litigation over oil reserves, he got to keep his campus parking spot and office, however. Just not his salary.

[AS Edited 7:31 MST for phrasing.]

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ralph Henry Gabriel is a notable absentee. I’ve always liked his Course of American Democratic Thought (1940) which receives a half dozen citations in the bibliographic essay at the end of Curti’s Growth of American Thought. A number of the “best” books (Curti, Schlesinger on Jackson, Morison’s book on Columbus, Van Wyck Brooks’ Flowering of New England) received the Pulitzer prize, which might suggest that the historians polled weren’t giving this question too much thought.

  2. Thanks for this Andy. I don’t think these lists are too surprising, but it’s worth pointing out some interesting absences. Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought and The American Political Tradition, both published in the late 1940s, don’t make the list. Neither does Caroline Ware’s The Cultural Approach to History, nor Alice Felt Tyler’s Freedom’s Ferment, which was one of the original synthetic works on antebellum reform movements. Woodward’s Origins of the New South was published in 1951, so I guess that explain why it’s not there, but his teacher, Howard K. Beale, who helped to move the study of Reconstruction away from the Dunning School is also absent. Edmund Morgan’s The Puritan Family isn’t included. John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom was published in 1947. And, of course, W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction. In other words, a lot of works that would later be regarded as classics of American historiography did not appear to the historians surveyed in 1952 as important. Political history and intellectual history are both well represented; social and economic history not so much.

  3. W. Stull Holt of the University of Washington wrote an article based on this survey called (IIRC) “Who Reads the Best Histories.” He found that few of the books had sold well at all (though this was before the era of academic paperbacks, and just as college enrollments were taking off).

  4. Wow, thank you to all three of you for these great comments.
    Andre, thanks so much for pointing me to that Holt piece–I will look it up–it sounds fascinating.
    Dan, Those are all really good titles, and to me the absence of Hofstadter is the most difficult to explain, as there are a few books on the 1936-1950 list from the latter half of the 1940s. For what it’s worth, Caughey does include a number of titles that received between 6 and 19 votes (he doesn’t tell how many each title received, just that they landed somewhere in there) and both Hofstadter books you mention, Beale’s The Critical Year, and the Alice Felt Tyler show up.
    Bob, I think you are very right to flag the presence of a number of Pulitzer winners; there are also a stunning number of multi-volume works, which also indicates to me that reputation likely, as you say, played a large part in the voting. I have to confess that I haven’t read Gabriel, but I’ll try to do so–thanks for the recommendation!

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