Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 2 · no. 2 · January 2002
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Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a member of Indiana University's departments of history and of East Asian languages and cultures who also holds an adjunct position in American studies. His most recent books are Human Rights and Revolutions, coedited with Lynn Hunt and Marilyn B. Young (Lanham, Md., 2000), and Chinese Femininities/Chinese Masculinities, coedited with Susan Brownell (Berkeley, 2001).

Illustration © John McCoy.

 

 

"Too many historians of recent generations, according to Marwick, have been obsessed with theory and with abstractions such as discourse analysis."

The Ends of History
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom

Part I | II | III

Who Killed Cleo

"Who killed Clio?"

This question is one that a small but vocal number of critics of recent trends in the discipline of history have been determined to pose. Was it the feminists, in the classroom, with the blunt instrument of political correctness? Or Dr. Derrida, in the archive, with a postmodern poison? Did the rise of identity politics bring about the muse's downfall? Or was it a longing to be thought "professional" and "scientific"? All of these accusations (and others) have been made about history's death in this strange and now long-running academic variation on the board game Clue. (Some even say that a Butler--Judith--did it.) But even after two decades of culture wars, who done it--and indeed if history's been done in--remains far from clear.

One thing that has made this Case of the Murdered Muse so hard to crack is that those described at one point as the victim's best friends sometimes are decried at others as having turned out to be her worst enemies. Back in 1990, for example, Canadian social historian Bryan Palmer wrote a book, Descent into Discourse, which insisted that Clio was alive and well when in the arms of Class Analysis, but then French theorists came along and did her in. The New Criterion suggests in its April 2001 issue, on the other hand, that the main threat to the muse is posed by Class Analysis itself, personified as a nefarious cabal made up of followers of both Karl Marx and Michel Foucault. And a similar tale is told in Australian conservative Keith Windschuttle's The Killing of History, first published in 1994 and since reprinted twice. Adding to the confusion, some of those who agree with Windschuttle's main points think his title overstates the issue. We are dealing here not with homicide, they argue, just attempted murder, thanks to some brave new protectors stepping up to guard the muse.

This, at least, is how I read three recent essays contributed to the Times Literary Supplement (London), beginning with one by Victorian specialist and conservative commentator Gertrude Himmelfarb that appeared in the fall of 2000. In her review of the first issue of the new Journal of the Historical Society, Himmelfarb celebrated the fact that a last minute infusion of good old-fashioned empiricism had been delivered to the discipline. In her eyes, the Historical Society, a group founded in the late 1990s as an alternative to the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians, is now Clio's best friend. Presumably because its members are determined to do all they can to guard the muse from the slings and arrows of outrageous fads. Contributors to its new journal, Himmelfarb claims, unlike those writing for the flagship periodicals of the two more established American professional societies, are worried by the extent that the study of "religion . . . politics, diplomacy and ideas" have become "casualties of the 'new' (no longer so new) history" of the 1960s-1980s. The Journal of the Historical Society is refreshing, in her view, since it pays "serious attention" to "serious subjects," such as the links between economic practices and democratic virtues in city-states and republics.

Also in the Clio-isn't-dead-but-has-been-endangered category is "All Quiet on the Postmodern Front," a winter 2001 TLS commentary by historian Arthur Marwick of London's Open University. Marwick makes points similar to Himmelfarb about the muse's renewed vitality, after a time of deathbed throes. But the Knights in Shining Armor who came to Clio's rescue, in his account, were not the American founders of the Historical Society but rather scholars based in London (Mark Mazower and Orlando Figes) and much more surprisingly Paris (Yves-Marie Berce). These heroes, he says, have bucked the trends of the day and dared to write in unfashionable ways about unfashionable things. Too many historians of recent generations, according to Marwick, have been obsessed with theory and with abstractions such as discourse analysis. This is thankfully, he claims, not the case with some of the new stars of the discipline such as Mazower (who has written extensively on European wars of the twentieth century) and Figes (author of a narrative history of the Russian Revolution). These two, and others like them, have been bold enough to turn their attention to the things that good history writing should always be about: how "events are experienced, the outcomes of those experiences, and the place of events in complex chains of causation."

The third TLS essay that I have in mind is a review by C. Bradley Thompson that appeared in the summer of 2001 and is likely to be of particular interest to readers of Common-place, since it focuses on the historiography of the American Revolution. "Over the past thirty years," Bradley laments, "narrative historians of the Revolution have been fighting a losing battle against those who would turn history into a social science" and who "scoff at the idea that one can study the motives, ideas and actions of autonomous moral beings." It is unclear, from his account, whether Bradley thinks that we have learned anything much of value from the "monographs of ordinary people doing ordinary things" that have proliferated in recent times. "Midwives, witches and wenches" (favored topics for new historians), though, seem of at best only cursory interest to Bradley, and he has little time as well for general theories that look for grand patterns and thus ignore the "contingency and drama" of a year like 1776. When Clio is in good shape, he suggests, historians concentrate on Great Men doing Great Deeds. He thus welcomes the resurgence, in studies of the American Revolution, of biography-driven works such as Joseph Ellis's Founding Brothers (New York, 2001), Bernard Weisberger's America Afire (New York, 2000), and John Ferling's Setting the World Ablaze (New York, 2000)--the three specific books he reviews. Nothing is better for a muse made anemic by a diet of social scientific pap, Bradley suggests, than spending time with authors unafraid to focus on the "riveting history of the great political events" for which Adams, Jefferson, and Washington (not "deep-lying and slowly moving social structures") were responsible.

The case--at least to those who feel, as I do, that Clio is not just alive but in fairly good shape right now--has just grown curioser and curioser over the years. And recently, New York University Professor Tony Judt, a well-known scholar of modern European intellectual and political life, has taken his readers completely through the looking glass via a tellingly titled essay, "The End of History," which appeared in the New Republic last May. This article is worth a close look. After all, as a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and other general interest publications, Judt is an unusually influential conveyor of ideas about the state of the discipline to the public at large.

The essay in question, which was not Judt's first to complain about the direction the profession has taken, was cleverly disguised as a review of Kathleen Burk's Troublemaker: The Life and History of A. J. P. Taylor. One of Judt's main claims is simple: Taylor would have little chance of getting tenure these days--if he was "fortunate enough to find employment" in the first place. Why? Because "the people whose words and actions" interested that great historian of modern Europe were "elderly white Christian men." Moreover, Taylor's publications were jargon free and "too frequently to be found in accessible media outside the guild"; he was more interested in nationalists than in theories of nationalism; and he did not allow his concern with detail to keep him from venturing "broad claims." History since Taylor, Judt implies, was attacked from many directions and everything from obfuscation (in the realm of terminology) to democratization (in the realm of historical actors deemed worthy of study) took their toll on the discipline. Indeed, Judt gives us a complex vision of the death of Clio that is reminiscent of the denouement to Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express: the revelation that so many blows were struck renders it pointless to try to figure out who exactly did in the victim.

How Judt's essay strikes a reader is likely to depend heavily on her or his position. It has doubtless evoked more than a few hearty calls of "Here, here" from professional historians who share his gloomy vision of the state of the field. And it has surely made gripping reading for some people fascinated with the past who work outside of the academy and are curious about what has been happening in history departments on American campuses. But professional historians who do not think of the discipline as dead, dying, or even very sick--a large group in which I count myself--are likely to be annoyed by essays such as his and Himmelfarb's. This is in part because of our sense that seeing such articles will leave members of that second category of readers just described with an erroneous impression of the state of history writing and history teaching today. To many of us, Clio seems, at worst, to be experiencing more than her fair share of growing pains just now. If she feels worn out, this is due to trying to stretch in new directions, attempting to cover more topics and peer into more corners of the world than ever before. To portray this inquisitive and adventurous muse as incapacitated seems to us peculiar to say the least.

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