- Historic Sites
History And How To Write It
August 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 5
Yet history, along with kindred social studies like ethnology, anthropology, and sociology when honestly used helps enormously to splinter those barriers of prejudice and explode those lies which create hatred between races, sections, and national groups. Few indeed are the bigots and reactionaries found among true historians. Anybody setting out sympathetically to re-create the past can hardly help becoming less of a provincial himself, in both time and space. Among history’s inescapable lessons, for example, are the folly of aggressive war, the stupidity of persecuting others because of their race or opinions, and the futility of trying to destroy the freedom of the mind.
The American record is not (lawless, as we all know. The nation whose literature and history lack vigorous self-criticism is more apt to illustrate the suppression of free speech than the attainment of alleged perfection. But on the whole, from the Founding Fathers on, the American panorama is one we need not blush to own, one in which we may often take hearty pride. This is a history good citizens need to know, to understand their world and to be able to improve it. With our faith in majority government we see the importance of clearer self-knowledge for those expected to do the thinking and voting.
This need applies not only to the nation, but to each region and state with its especial traditions and interests. Yet masses of local records, letters, diaries, private papers, business archives, and old-timers’ recollections are being lost year after year, by decay, fire, and death, all through simple ignorance. A lriend of mine remembers an intelligent young woman in St. Joseph, Missouri, who after hearing a talk a couple of years ago on the centennial of the Hannibal St. (oe Railroad—in which the speaker described its background of courage and hope as it battled great odds to become an important feeder into the frontier West—came up and told him, “I didn’t know that was history. I didn’t know the Midwest had a history. 1 thought history was Plymouth Rock and Bunker Hill.”
Ignorance about what happened in our town, state, region, and country, as well as to our neighborsill this age when all nations are neighbors—is bad citi/enship in any policy-making democracy. So it has always been. But today, when we find ourselves the foremost champion of democracy in times of unprecedented physical power, such ignorance is not only shameful but dangerous.
And yet a century ago the reading of history was much more popular among educated people than it seems today. The school and college student used to get at least a smattering of Xenophon, Thucydides, Caesar, Livy, Plutarch, Tacitus, and then in his adult years, for pleasure, read not only Gibbon and Macaulay and Carlyle but our home-grown historians like Washington living, Prescott, Parkman—best sellers all. Jl the decline of Latin and Greek is responsible for ground lost on the former front, the blame for our retreat on the second sector lies gravely with those now writing American history.
For all its huge, able, often highly original output, the last half century of American research has yielded almost no great books worthy to stand as literature beside the classics of our first hundred years. Industry minus art, accumulation lacking charm, data without digestion—such shortcomings explain this popular allergy against American history as written. A great many school texts are pretty repulsive, while history lor the adult seems hardly more inviting. Alter diligently harvesting the grain of fact, too few investigators seem to have time left for threshing out the chaff or milling the Hour. Their energy is exhausted long before the job is done—so that readers have to choose between the pedant’s dry straw and the half-baked loaf turned out by historical romancers.
How not to write history is the first question. Surely it need not be penned in the grand manner once the vogue. The Duc de Sully always put on court dress before sitting clown to work on his memoirs, just as French surgeons in the day of Lisfranc used to garb themselves for a major operation in white tie and tails as befitted the august encounter between life and death. Edward Gibbon, though among the greatest of historians, often wearies modern readers with his massive style. The so-called father of American history, George Bancroft, had a hankering for resonant periods like “The pusillanimous man assents from cowardice, and recovers boldness with the assurance of impunity.” The stilted-heroic in writing is now as much out of fashion as the equestrian statue.
Then came the scientific approach to history, which tightened up research methods, fostered thoroughness, and pruned away some of the flowers of rhetoric. Under the guidance of many German and a few British and American scholars who gloried in the epithet “colorless,” historians began to think themselves successful when their writing grew chilly and impersonal. But it is well to remember that the pioneer of that tribe, the Prussian von Ranke, called history both a science and an art.