Making History

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What do you think of the new techniques and approaches to writing history, such as “cliometrics,” the sophisticated use of statistics, or “psychohistory”?

They’re basically just new tools. They don’t change the essential job of the historian—that is, to unearth and interpret the past.

I’d like to get your view on some contemporary events in the light of things you have written. In Origins of the New South you dealt with the abandonment of Reconstruction policies designed to help blacks. Some people think that we are now backing away from the racial liberalism of the 1960’s in the same way. Do you see at present such a retreat?

In the sense that both movements had their peak and their decline, yes. We’re on a declining slope, perhaps, from the crest in the late 1960’s. I don’t, however, feel that there’s been the aggressive renunciation that there was in the earlier Reconstruction. There has simply been a slackening of commitment and a diminishing of attention, not an overt and violent reaction as there was in the 1870’s and 1880’s.

The word “populism” is kicked around a good deal during presidential elections. Do you see a possibility of a contemporary variation of the original populism of Tom Watson?

Well, “populism” ranks with “democracy” as one of those sloppily used words that is so mishandled in popular speech that I don’t think t’s definable at all. It has a specific meaning in American political history as the name of a party. I used to quarrel with Dick Hofstadter about the way I thought he turned it into a synonym for reaction in a nonhistorical way.

How about “consumerism,” or the movement that Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda call “economic democracy”? Could they be portents of a new populism? Are they our “Sockless” Jerry Simpson and Mary Ellen Lease?

That is the acme of anachronism. No. There is a good deal of talk of that kind, but in the society we have it’s largely fantasy, I think. There is some feasibility to the idea of the participation of the worker in the management of his work. But it is, so far as I can see, politically hopeless—just an ideal in some minds—to get back to the period when populism crested in the nineties. You’d have to fit it into a certain historical context that no longer exists.

In The Burden of Southern History, written before the Vietnam War, you indicated that the South was special, among other things, because it had known defeat. In the aftermath of Vietnam, do you think that the country as a whole has learned what the South knew?

Well, the mood is certainly different from what it was in the 1950’s, when those essays were written. We were riding the crest of the euphoria of the victory of the forties. Troubles were undoubtedly coming, and I thought we’d better sober up and confront them. Have we learned lessons from Vietnam? The ultimate ones or the right ones? No, I don’t think so. But we’ve realized that our national power is limited, that we don’t always succeed in our crusades, and that we were much too hopeful about the consequences of a Pax Americana than we had any right to be.

In Reunion and Reaction you sketched the development of an abiding political axis between conservative Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans. Is that gone?

It’s very different now. The old party system has vanished and I think we’re on the eve of some pretty drastic readjustment in the vacuum the parties left. Party history isn’t at the center of things any more; we’re in transit. But the alliance you speak of had a lot to do with our history through the New Deal period.

Party loyalty no longer awakens the passion it did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

No. That era has been laid to rest. People think they’re living in it but they’re not.

You mean it’s a case, as someone has said, of men’s bodies living in one age and their minds in another?

Yes, they learn the wrong lessons and acquire the wrong morals from the story.

Can historians do anything to enlighten them and to help?

They can ply their own trade. And hope for the best. I doubt if they can straighten things out in the world.