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The New History And The Old: Critical Essays And Reappraisals

March 2023
1min read

By Gertrude Himmelfarb; Harvard University Press; 209 pages.

“Mickey Mouse may in fact be more important to our understanding of the 1930s than Franklin Roosevelt.” With this pronouncement a devotee of the “new history” recently let fly another rhetorical attack in a long and bitter academic war between the practitioners of the old history and the new. In this collection of essays Gertrude Himmelfarb enters the fray to mount her own counterattack against the new historians.

The “new history” is no longer very new. Indeed, it was in 1912 that the historian James Harvey Robinson announced its birth. He and the new historians who followed him rejected, according to Himmelfarb, the premises of the old history: “that the proper subject of history is essentially political and that the natural mode of historical writing is essentially narrative.” Robinson called for a history of the “common man” that would reject the traditional historical concern with great men, great events, and great ideas to rewrite history “from the bottom up,” utilizing the findings of anthropologists, economists, psychologists, and sociologists. Today the new historians retain Robinson’s agenda basically unchanged, although their approaches to the past have grown even more complex and diverse and now make use of computer technology.

In recent years, Himmelfarb argues, a revolution has taken place in the American academy. The new history has waged war and triumphed over the old. It is now the reigning academic approach to the past; it has, in fact, survived for several generations to become the established mainstream of American academic history. There are at present serious historians who know or can practice no other kind of history.

The distinction between the new and the old history, however, may not be so precise. Thomas Macaulay, the great nineteenth-century Whig historian, in the famous third chapter of his History of England , described the condition of daily life, work, manners, morals, and culture. Capturing the ethos of a particular time has been one of the historian’s tasks since classical antiquity. Details of daily life served this function then as now. Gertrude Himmelfarb, while not a particularly avid enthusiast of such approaches, recognizes their value; it is the dominance of social history and the assumed superiority of the new history that she vehemently objects to.

Himmelfarb points out the weaknesses of this new orthodoxy and, with a sharp and abiding sense of the high stakes involved in these academic disputes, reminds us of the values of the old. In her affection for the old history, she may not be alone: “As the new history loses the glamour of novelty, the old acquires a new allure. More and more often one hears confessions of nostalgia for an old-fashioned history that has dramatic movement and literary grace; for a political history that regards constitutions and laws as something more than ploys in the manipulation of power; for an intellectual history that takes serious ideas seriously, as ideas rather than as instruments of production and consumption…”

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