Sunday, March 4, 2007

Tanenhaus dumps on Historians for the State of Public Discourse: But is he part of the problem?

Sam Tanenhaus, Editor of the New York Times Book Review section, remembers Arthur Schlesinger today as the nation's "last great public historian," and laments that the present generation lacks the same ability to engage the public. He writes in today's New York Times:
The notion may sound strange, given the appetite, as voracious as at any time in recent memory, for serious works of history, and in particular the vogue for lengthy, often massively detailed biographies of the founders and of presidents.

But Mr. Schlesinger performed a different function. He stood at the forefront of a remarkable generation of academic historians. Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970, and C. Vann Woodward, who died in 1999, were its other towering figures. All three, reciprocal admirers, wrote classic works that reanimated the past even as they rummaged in it for clues to understanding, if not solving, the most pressing political questions of the present. As a result, new books by these historians often generated excitement and conveyed an urgency felt not only by other scholars but also by the broader population of informed readers.
The present day lacks such scholars, Tanenhaus complains. Could it be that the subject of histories written now is less compelling? No. "The point is not that our leaders have shrunk, but that, in some sense, our historians have." This is the case, he argues, even though "we live in what is often called a golden age of history and biography." The difficulty with historians now, he says, "is not one of seriousness, intelligence or skill. It is rather one of reach." More recent works by historians don't affect "how many of us think about current issues."

This makes me wonder what Tanenhaus has been reading. There have been so many works of history that speak directly to "how many of us think about current issues," that it is difficult to name only a few. Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, is indispensable reading on the issue of immigration; Elizabeth Hillman, Defending America: Military Culture and the Cold War Court-Martial, sets military justice -- a matter of great current interest -- in historical context; Louis Fisher's new work on World War II military tribunals has been indispensable in considering our new uses of them (Military Tribunals And Presidential Power: American Revolution To The War On Terrorism). These topics may seem specific, but historians have also engaged the way the intersection between past and present helps us think about the very meaning of "America" in our current age, with two collections in the past year: Michael Kazin and Joseph A. McCartin, eds., Americanism: New Perspectives on the History of an Ideal, and Mary Dudziak and Leti Volpp, eds., Legal Borderlands: Law and the Construction of American Borders.

All of this work may not have captured the national consciousness. But of course, decisions of Tanenhaus and others about which books to feature in the New York Times Book Review, about which historians to turn to for essays in the nation's top political journals, play a role in determining which historians break through to a broader audience. A regular pool of historians are turned to as the resident historical commentators on all topics. If Tanenhaus finds the current generation wanting, it may be that he needs to broaden his range.

And it is not that historians have shrunk from a national stage. The plethora of history blogging is testament to the efforts of many historians to speak to a public beyond their classrooms.

Tanenhaus sees a role for historians in American public life that we have neglected. Just as Schelsinger made sense for Americans of his "age of anxiety," Tanenhaus urges that if the nation is to get beyond "our own anxious age...historians must help lead the way." I'm not sure that getting beyond contemporary anxieties is in our collective interests right now, but there are plenty of powerful and eloquent historians speaking to broader issues, in their work and, with opportunities, other fora. Tanenhaus can help achieve his own aims by giving them a broader voice.