History And How To Write It


In the period before the appearance of the new AMERICAN HERITAGE, when the Society of American Historians was studying was of establisliing n sound popular magazine of history, the following article mis written by tlie late Dixon Wecter. its a kind of charter for sitcli a magazine. Wecter lent his buoyant personality, keen mind, mid ricli fund of knowledge to many worthy enterprises. This Texas-born product of Iiaylor, Yale, and Oxford was first of all a writer of history, as his three principal volumes, The Saga of American Society , The Hero in America , and The Age of the Great Depression , impressively attest. He was a valued university tendier and public lecturer; for a time he was director of research at the 11 unling/on Library, ami literary executor of the Mark Twain estate. .Is a sparkling exposition of some fundamental principles, this article will be read with interest by everyone; as a statement of Dixon Whecter’s own ideals of historical writing it has a special poignancy to all who lament his untimely death as a loss to American letters. —Allan Nevins

Achimpanzee with a stack of empty boxes and a banana hanging out of reach soon learns by his own experience. Hut man alone learns from the experience of others. History makes this possible. In the broadest sense all that we know is history. More strictly, it is the road map of the past. True, the terrain never repeats itself to the last detail, any more than does the ribbon of highway sweeping past a motorist. But the contours, with all their variations, give the alert observer knowledge about safe driving and, often, clues about what lies ahead, since resemblances of a general sort occur endlessly. The past is also a fascinating story for its own sake, shedding light upon the eternal behavior of human beings, singly and in the mass, adding richly to any reader’s knowledge about himself and the world he lives in.

Some think ol history as the process of accumulating bundles of {acts, dates, statistics, lor storage in some antiquarian’s bin or scholar’s cupboard. But it is a great deal more, namely, a review of the success and failure of man’s life on this planet. History examines the rise and Tall of nations and cultures, with their heroes and political leaders, and the often ragged record ol mankind’s experiments in living together through war and peace, its struggles lor bread and leisure and faith, its germinal ideas and collective symbols.

History was once written and taught mainly as a tale of intrigue and bloodshed. In those days arose the old French proverb that “happy is a nation which has no history.” By the light of a better definition this saying seems ioolish. A cultural group, and indeed the whole human race, keeps its character precisely because it cherishes some remembrance of things past. Whether this memory is an ennobling one, say, the influence of the Lincoln tradition in American life, or a corrupting one such as the efïect wrought by Bismarck upon the behavior of modern Germany, is another matter. At all events, the remembered past is a present and powerful thing for good or evil. Croce spoke truly when he said that all living history is contemporaneous.

What is “the past”? One of the most elastic ideas ever conceived by mind, it ranges from the remotest records left on earth down to the wake of the second hand as it sweeps around the dial. People who urge us to “live in the present” rarely weigh the literal meaning of their advice. “The present,” that infinitesimal spark gone before we can photograph it on our brain, comes close to being an illusion. “The future” is still more impalpable since its content and impact upon us have not yet been registered. Beside these two concepts, “the past” seems curiously solid and real. It represents time and events met, realized, and built into the fabric- ol understood experience. Man is not only the sole creature able to learn from what happened to others, miles and centuries away, but also the only one capable ol stretching the so-called present to its maximum. We do this unconsciously when talking about “the present day” or “the present generation.” By just such an extension in time, all history that interests us and has something to tell us is living history.

Like other good things, history can be abused and misused. A dull narrator can make even its most meaningful chapters seem drab and unimaginative—an act of exhumation, followed by a grim inventory of the bones. Mr. Dooley once observed that “history is a post-mortem examination. It tells ye what a country died iv.” Condescension toward the past is a graver mistake. For example, the darkness of what used to be termed the Dark Ages existed chiefly in the minds of the analysts.

History can also be abused by carelessness in handling the facts or a desire merely to make them sensational and shocking. Still worse, the muse called Clio can be sold down the river to become the handmaid of propaganda, bra/enly perverting the truth. Tn a mood of cynicism Mark Twain once declared, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” To a history student forced to read between the party lines—the school children of Hitler’s Reich or those under the Soviet Politb’fcro—freedom to learn and reach one’s own conclusions becomes just as impossible as to the student of sciences similarly debauched.