A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917–1950
The book, Life in the Twentieth Century, the first volume going up to 1950, is a book I never really intended to write. But the end of the century put me into a contemplative mood, I suppose, and induced reflections on this disordered, disheveled, bizarre, path-breaking century—the twentieth century. A crazy epoch of time, of trials and troubles; of tragedies and triumphs.
The twentieth century was glorious, and the twentieth century was damned. It sent humanity through unprecedented horrors on the way to space, to the moon and the stars. It was a century in which science, technology, medicine transformed our lives, and opened up dazzling new prospects and opportunities for suffering humankind.
It was also, as Isaiah Berlin said, the most terrible century in Western history. Two world wars carried destruction to the far corners of the planet—with at least 160 million people killed in violent conflicts, and millions more killed by the whim of totalitarian dictatorships. Those chronicles of human wreckage—the death camps and the gulags—haunt us still.
Democracy, itself, was a major target. The twentieth century was a rough century for democracies. Under siege from without by totalitarian dictatorships; bedeviled from within by economic depression, racism, gross inequality, spiritual vacancy. Yet the century started out in an atmosphere of optimism and high expectation. People of goodwill 100 years ago believed in the inevitability of democracy; the invincibility of progress; the decency of human nature; and the coming reign of reason and peace.
David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, expressed the mood in his turn-of-the-century book, The Call of the Twentieth Century: The man of the twentieth century, Jordan predicted—the man of the twentieth century will be a hopeful man. He will love the world, and the world will love him. Looking back, we recall a century marked a good deal less by love than by hate; a century of irrationality and of atrocity; a century that, for a long, dark passage inspired the gravest forebodings about the very survival of the human race.
Democracy, striding with such confidence into the new century, found itself very soon on the defensive. In the century’s second decade, the Great War showed that democracy could not guarantee peace. Four years of savage conflict shattered old structures of security and order, and unleashed angry energies of revolution. Revolution not for democracy but against democracy: Bolshevism in Russia; fascism in Italy; Nazism in Germany; militarism in Japan. All despised, denounced and—wherever they could—destroyed individual rights and the processes of self-government.
After the Great War showed that democracy could not assure peace, in the century’s third decade the Great Depression showed that democracy could not assure prosperity. A third of the way into the twentieth century, democracy seemed a helpless thing—spiritless, paralyzed, doomed. Contempt for democracy spread among elites and masses alike; contempt for parliamentary dithering; for the liberties of expression and opposition; for bourgeois civility and cowardice; for pragmatic muddling through. Totalitarian gospels appealed to the fears of the rich, the frustrations of the middle class, the yearnings of the workers, the illusions of the intellectuals.
In the century’s fourth decade came the Second World War, threatening democracy with a coup de grâce. Liberal society, its back to the wall, was now fighting for its very life. We forget how deeply defeatism infected the West. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in her 1940 best-seller, saw totalitarianism, in the title of her book, as The Wave of the Future. It was, the gentle Mrs. Lindbergh wrote … a new and, perhaps, even, ultimately, good conception of humanity trying to come to birth. Hitlerism and Stalinism were merely scum on the wave of the future. The wave of the future, Anne Lindbergh said: ... is coming, and there is no fighting it. By 1941, only about a dozen democracies were left in the world.
The political, and the economic and moral failures of the twentieth century had handed the initiative to the totalitarian creeds. Liberal democracy was on the defensive, but it won the Second World War—and it won, again, in the Cold War that followed—fascism perishing with a bang, Communism with a whimper.
The fall and rise of liberal democracy seemed to me a central issue for the twentieth century. I have lived through interesting times, and had the good luck to know some interesting people. I concluded that, if I were ever to do a memoir, I had better do it while I can still remember anything. [Laughter]
The first volume covers half the century; a second will cover the second half. I did not make the scene until seventeen years in the century, so the first quarter of the century is seen through the eyes of my parents, who both had interesting careers, thoughts, and lives of their own.
My father was a notable and influential historian; a great pioneer of social history. My mother was an early champion of women’s history. It’s notable that the Radcliffe Library on the history of women in America has been named for my parents. It’s called The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library of History of Women in America.
Looking back at my father’s life, I discovered that the great bugaboo of the 1920s was not, as one might imagine, Russian Bolshevism, but the British Empire. Big-city mayors—John *Hyland in New York, “Big Bill” Thompson in Chicago—were determined to expose the British conspiracy—particularly as expressed in high school textbooks.
In 1921 the Hearst press found the spirit of Benedict Arnold reincarnated in what they called “Anglicized” school histories. Patriotic societies and veterans’ groups joined the cry against British propaganda in American textbooks. Mayor John Hyland of New York directed David *Hirshfield, his commissioner of accounts, to investigate pro-British textbooks in the public schools.
It is amazing, Mayor Hyland said, to think that any publication intended for the use of schoolchildren should refer to our early patriots as hot-headed mobs, smugglers, and pirates. [Laughter] Our children, he said, must not be inoculated with the poisonous virus of foreign propaganda.
After eighteen months of study, David Hirschfield called for the ban of eight textbooks. The offending books, he suggested were part of Cecil Rhodes’s plot, already manifested in the Rhodes scholarships, to reclaim the United States as an integral part of the British Empire. American historians, it was charged, were selling out to British gold.
The theory soon spread across the country: We demand, resolved the Veterans of Foreign Wars, that treasonous textbooks be thrown out of the public schools in every state. We would be unworthy sons, said the New Jersey Knights of Pythias, if we do not have the spirit and strength to retain in ink what they wrote in blood.
In Chicago, in 1927, “Big Bill” Thompson appealed to German, Irish and Italian, and Polish voters, by denouncing pro-English textbooks for ignoring those real heroes of the War of Independence: the Poles—Pulaski and Kosciuszko; the Germans, Von Steuben and De Kalb; the Dutchman Schuyler; the Irishmen—Montgomery, Sullivan, and Wayne. The villains responsible for these dastardly omissions, Bill Thompson said, are the devilish British and the American bootlickers. [Laughter]
He would, “Big Bill” promised, biff King George on the snoot should the British monarch dare show his face in the Windy City. [Laughter] This led to a Gluyas Williams cartoon in Life—then a comic magazine—portraying mass lamentations in the royal drawing room. Tragedy at Buckingham Palace: King George V learns that he must cancel his plans for spending the winter in Chicago. [Laughter]
My father had written a book called New Viewpoints in American History, and he had a chapter on the American Revolution which began, ironically: The representatives of George V rendered homage a few years ago at the tomb of the great disloyalist and rebel of a former century, George Washington. Irony is often dangerous. And “Big Bill,” informed that New Viewpoints was on the University of Chicago reading list, castigated the “infamous book,” as he called it, and its infamous author, for this blasphemous characterization of the sainted father of his country.
Reading the offending passage allowed to a Boston Herald reporter, “Big Bill” Thompson shouted: From cover to cover, this book would nauseate half a patriot. Whose account of the Revolution should we accept? That of our ancestors, who fought in it, or that put out by the British ruling classes? Once elected mayor, “Big Bill” kept up the attack: I will not rest, he cried, until I have purged this entire city of the poison injected in the heart of the American youth to eulogize England.
Charles Edward Russell, the old muckraker and socialist, testified before the school board that: The world is threatened now with the greatest menace—the advance of the Anglo-Saxon. The English-Speaking Union, Charles Edward Russell said, is the most dangerous organization in the world.
New Viewpoints, my father’s book, was a particular target. Chicago’s Republican Congressman John J. Gorman said that: It teems with un-American and unpatriotic statements—and demanded a Congressional investigation. One of “Big Bill’s” henchmen, a Damon Runyon type called *Sport Herman, tried to remove New Viewpoints from the public library. Frustrated there, Sport Herman brought a copy of what he called the “treason-tainted volume” and burned it publicly in a patriotic bonfire. An applauding Chicago schoolteacher said: Schlesinger should be in a cell in federal prison.
All this caused much merriment in the press. In Chicago and beyond it was rumored that Mother Goose was next on “Big Bill’s” hiss list—[laughter]—because “sing a song of sixpence” was full of monarchical references—[laughter]—and “pocketful of rye” might suggest to simple minds a defiance of Prohibition. [Laughter] A cartoon showed a cop stopping a truck and asking the driver what was inside. Only booze, the driver said. Drive on, brother, said the cop—I thought it was history books. [Laughter]
“Big Bill” reminded some people of the Minneapolis mayor who ordered the Bible removed from the public library, because it referred to St. Paul and made no mention of Minneapolis. [Laughter] William Randolph Hearst was much upset by this: It is not a laughing matter, he said, to have British propagandists invade our schools and mold the impressionable minds of our young American.
It was not just Anglophobia. A more comprehensible motive was the feeling that school textbooks systematically ignored the role of non-Anglo-Saxons in American history. The Hearst press saw a plot to envelop America of today in the myth of Anglo-Saxon origin and kinship. Hirshfield, the New York Commissioner of Accounts, the New York Times reporter, won recognition in schoolbook histories for American heroes of Jewish, Dutch, Swedish, Irish, and African descent.
The assault on American history in the 1920s was thus conducted by multiculturalists ____________. By the 1990s, when multiculturalism materialized as a word and a movement, its champions were left-wing ideologues. Their precursors—their premature multiculturalists of the 1920s—were right-wing demagogues. Ideologues and demagogues united in calling for repression and censorship.
I began, as I wrote about all this, to begin to question the infallibility of memory. For example, I remember my father entertaining a British historian at the time of the Scopes case. The Scopes case was the famous case in Tennessee—Dayton, Tennessee. Some of you may remember a play or a film called Inherit the Wind, where Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan were lawyers on the contending sides. Darrow was the lawyer for Scopes. Bryan was a notable political figure—was also a fundamentalist—and he felt that Scopes should not be permitted to teach Darwinism in Tennessee public schools.
One day my father came down—they were entertaining a British historian—and found him reading the newspaper in certain puzzlement. And he said to my— This took place in the summer, in Dayton, Tennessee. Everyone took their coats off. They were these really blessed days before air-conditioning—or the damned days because air-conditioning.
And the British historian was very much puzzled by the statement that William Jennings Bryan, in speaking to the jury, had his thumbs through his suspenders. My father was puzzled by why the British historian was puzzled by this, and they had a dialogue for a while. Until it became evident that, in England, suspenders referred to garters, which held up the socks. [Laughter] So, naturally, he was puzzled by the notion that William Jennings Bryan had his thumbs through the suspenders.
When I began writing about myself, I soon grew rapidly aware of the treachery of memory. The Hollywood director and artist, Jean Negulesco, wrote a book entitled Things I Did ... and Things I Think I Did. [Laughter] All memoirs should be entitled Things I Remember and Things I Think I Remember. I recall once lunching one day with Dean Acheson when he was writing his superb memoir Present at the Creation. He seemed more than usually wrathful on this occasion. I had a most disconcerting morning, he said, calling urgently for a dry martini.
I was writing about the decision in 1941 to freeze Japanese assets in the United States—a decision that we now know led to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Acheson said: I have the most vivid memory of the meeting in President Roosevelt’s office. The President was sitting at his desk. Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, was sitting opposite him, and I was in a chair by the secretary’s side. I can close my eyes—he said, closing his eyes—and see the scene.
But my damned secretary, Miss Evans, checked the record—found that Mr. Hull had flu and was off in White Silver Springs, recuperating. He wasn’t at the meeting. I can’t believe it, he said. Freewheeling raconteurs—and Acheson was one of the best—improve their tales, until telling reorganizes reality. [Laughter] Conscientious memoirists—and Acheson was one of the best—check the record.
As a historian, I felt a professional obligation to supplement and rectify memory by recourse to documents. I have tried, in effect, to write a biography of myself as if I were writing a biography of someone else.
Instances of misremembering: The biggest, the most savage national debate in my lifetime was the debate in ’40–’41 between the isolationists and the interventionists. As I recalled it, I was an interventionist from a very early stage. But I discovered, in letters that I had written, that until— I spent the year ’38–’39 in England. I was confident that Britain and France could deal with Germany. I was filled with distrust of the Chamberlain government in England, and I felt that the United States did not have a stake in this contest. It wasn’t until the fall of France—when it became evident that Britain and France could not cope with Hitler—that I became an interventionist. But I had misremembered—I’d suppressed my isolationist period.
The atomic bomb: I now believe that the— I was in the Army, in Germany, in August of 1945, and my memory was that we rejoiced—since we were facing the prospect of redeployment to the Pacific war, that we rejoiced in the use of the atomic bomb. I discovered that the letters I wrote at that time—I was appalled by it. I now believe that Harry Truman had no alternative to the use of the atomic bomb—that President Roosevelt would have done the same thing; that, given the prospect of an invasion of Japan, after Tarawa and Okinawa; given the fate of 100,000 British and American prisoners of war in Japanese prison camps, who were dying every day; given the resistance within Japan, to even approaching the prospect of a military coup d’état against the emperor, when he finally changed his mind on all this; that Truman would have been held personally responsible for every death involved in his refusal to bring the war to the speediest possible end.
And, given the fact that he had under his control a weapon that could have brought the war to an immediate end, paid for by the American taxpayer. If he had declined to use it, I would say he would have been held personally responsible for every death of American soldier, sailor, and he would have been impeached. And, I think, properly impeached. So I now have to reverse my objection to the atomic bomb, to an understanding of the problems of the involved.
Confronted with this discrepancy between documents and memory, as I say, I found myself writing a biography of myself as if I were a writing a biography of someone else. I was also interested in telling the young what life was like in the early years of the century—before computers, before television, before jet planes . . . before zippers. [Laughter] As a son of a social historian, I wanted to give some sense of the flavor and atmosphere of the decades through which I have lived; the ways Americans thought, felt, dressed, loved, entertained themselves.
Let me recall superficialities of life in the 1930s. Daily routines were much more complicated then. When we went to bed at night, we had to wind our watches—the battery-powered watch was still to come. When we dressed in the morning, some began by putting on BVDs—a form of one-piece underwear now extinct. The more advanced turned to shorts and undershirts. Though, after seeing Clark Gable in It Happened One Night in 1934, most of us discarded the undershirt—never to be seen again. [Laughter] At least, in my case. The undershirt—a useless and ignoble item—has had a mysterious revival toward the end of the century.
When we bought a suit, two pairs of pants came with the jacket and vest. After putting on pants—no khakis or jeans then—we had to button our flies. The zipper did not appear till the late ’30s, and, at first, did not always work. [Laughter] Thereby sometimes causing acute embarrassment on dates. [Laughter] Garters still held up socks, and we had to lace our shoes. The loafer, or moccasin, was not yet acceptable.
It was in these years that I went over to the bow tie. Many men I admired wore bow ties then: Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Humphrey Bogart . . . Groucho Marx. Bow ties were not not only neat and suggestive of insouciance, they had, in addition, one inestimable advantage—especially for sloppy eaters. [Laughter] It is impossible—or, at least, it requires extreme agility, to spill anything on a bow tie. [Laughter] A spill on a four-in-hand tie ruins it forever. Dry-cleaning never restores a tie to its primal innocence. The same spill falling on a shirt front is easily erased by dipping a napkin in a glass of water and wiping the spot away.
There is also an instructive story, told me by Charles Bolan—Chip Bolan, the diplomat—about *Herve Elfant, a memorable French ambassador to the United States. One day when Bolan was counselor of the State Department, Elfant stormed into his office to make a formal protest about something or other. He was a witty diplomat, and rather given to protest. Sitting down by Bolan’s desk, he leaned over, in order to bang the desk, and thereby emphasize his grievance. As he leaned, he glanced down and saw that his fly was open. Without stopping his flow of speech, he zipped his fly. A moment later, having completed his protest, he straightened up and discovered that he had zipped his tie in his fly. [Laughter] This could never happen to a bow-tie wearer. [Laughter]
When we wanted sandwiches, we had to use a knife to slice the bread—sliced bread was still in the future. When we went outdoors, we put on hats—gray felt in winter, soft panama in summer. Hatless Jack Kennedy killed the hat craze in 1960, much to the chagrin of his powerful supporter in New York, Alex Rose, the head of the hatter’s union—[laughter]—and boss of the Liberal Party.
When we had writing to do, we filled fountain pens from inkwells. The ballpoint pen was still to come. The word processor was beyond imagining. In those days, before computers, as a Wellesley girl—the witty wife of my Harvard classmate—put it: A chip meant a piece of wood, “hardware” meant hardware, and “software” wasn’t even a word. [Laughter] Telephone calls cost a nickel. A Depression joke: President Hoover asked Andrew Mellon, his secretary of the treasury, for the loan of a nickel to call a friend. Mellon replied: Here’s a dime—call up all your friends. [Laughter]
If we had letters to mail, we used a two-cent stamp, which we had to lick before affixing to the envelope. There were two mail deliveries a day in residential areas, more in business districts. A letter posted in Boston before five in the afternoon was delivered in New York before nine the next morning. If the message was urgent we paid 10 cents for special delivery. If the urgency was extreme, Western Union or Postal Telegraph would deliver the message to the door at all hours, day and night.
When we traveled, redcaps were available to carry excess baggage. And suitcases in those primitive days had no wheels. When we were sick, doctors paid house calls. People smoked all the time. Movie houses had balconies. Newspapers cost two cents, and there were still afternoon papers. On Sunday, the New York Times cost 10 cents. Novels cost two bucks and a half; nonfiction three bucks. Afternoon movies a quarter. Plays in the evening up to $4.40. As contrast to The Producers, which now charges $480. [Laughter]
A haircut was 50 cents; cigarettes, 15 cents a pack. Five-and-ten-cent stores—Woolworth’s or Kresge’s—sold things for five and ten cents. Those of us whose pecuniary reflexes were formed in the ’30s are perennially outraged by the prices demanded in the twenty-first century. I simply cannot afford to live, John Updike recently wrote. I simply cannot afford to live daily, it seems to me, as I size up 2000 prices in the dollars of 1940.
Drugs? We had heard of marijuana as an addiction of jazz musicians, and listened to Cab Calloway singing “Reefer Man” and “Minnie the Moocher.” But a sensational and terrible film of 1936, Reefer Madness, warned us where reefers led. As, again, my Wellesley friend said: For the ’30s, grass was something you mowed, Coke was something you drank, and pot was something you cooked in. [Laughter] She added: Closets were for clothes, not for coming out of. [Laughter]
When we drove, we shifted gears and lowered windows by hand. Automobiles had a choke, and running boards, but no seat belts nor directional signals. You stuck out an arm to alert the car behind you to slow down or a turn. Flashy people had cars with rumble seats; flashier ones had convertibles. Gasoline cost 11 cents a gallon. Station attendants rushed to fill the tank, check oil and water, wipe the windshield, and provide free road maps.
Burma Shave, a popular shaving cream, entertained us on country roads with catchy jingles: He had the ring, he had the flat, but she felt his chin, and that was that. [Laughter] Burma Shave . . . So that was some of the flavor of the 1930s, when I was growing up.
And during the war, as Jim said, I was first in the Office of War Information, and then in the OSS. And overseas my chief war achievement was that I was the first person, I believe, drafted into the Army in France. Because of my eyesight, I was originally classified in a lower category—a nondraftable category. But, by 1944, they began to scrape the bottom of the barrel.
And when I was with the OSS in Paris, I received one day a summons from my draft board in Cambridge, Massachusetts, calling me to return and report. And so I wrote them, saying that I was already involved in the war effort, and I would be perfectly happy to join the US Army. But it did not seem to make much sense to return from Paris to Cambridge, Massachusetts. So they agreed to draft me into the Army in France—which took a while before— This was a very low priority—[laughter]—in the point of view of the US Army.
Eventually, I did succeed in making the Army. But the great change in my life was that, as a civilian in a war zone, I had an assimilated rank of major and wore a uniform. Once I went into the Army, because I was immediately reassigned to OSS—and I had to deal with colonels, and brigadier generals, and so on—the OSS thought that I would not be able to deal with them very effectively if I were revealed as a buck private. So, in entering the Army, I doffed my uniform and went in in civilian clothes. [Laughter]
One of the things that occurred to me, as I reflected on my life—I’ve been recurrently struck by the role of coincidence. And I began to feel that the novels of Anthony Powell— Well, let me go back to the recitation of my war record.
As I say, the debate of 1940–41 was more impassioned and divisive than the debate about the Communist Party in the 1940s; the debate about Joe McCarthy in the 1950s; the debate about Vietnam in the 1960s; the debate about Watergate in the 1970s; the debate about Iran-Contra in the 1980s; the debate about Clinton and his impeachment in the 1990s. All these things were much less divisive than the debate between the isolationists and interventionists. It destroyed old friendships—it tore families apart. It was concluded, of course, by the attack on Pearl Harbor.
After the war, when I was demobilized, I worked for a while as a freelance writer in Washington—particularly for Harry Luce, of Life and Fortune. The Luce enterprises employed— Though Luce, himself, was quite conservative, they employed a lot of liberals: Ken Galbraith, Archie MacLeish, Dwight MacDonald, John Hersey, Teddy White. They all worked for the Luce magazines. And Luce, asked why he employed so many liberals—given his deep conservatism—replied: For some goddamn reason, Republicans can’t write. [Laughter]
In 1948, Averell Harriman asked me to come to Paris as a special assistant in the formative days of the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan was a great experience. I mean, it showed the constructive, the generous—and, at the same time, the strategically realistic—side of American purposes. And it was an extraordinary and uplifting experience.
These are the parts of the story I’m trying to tell, in the context of a single life. As I wrote, I began to feel a sense of the interconnectedness of modern life. Not in any sense mystical or metaphysical, but in the sense so brilliantly caught in the novel sequence of Anthony Powell. Powell always pointed out that his name should rhyme with “Lowell,” not with “vowel”—or not with “Colin Powell.” Anthony Powell was a British novelist. He wrote a wonderful sequence called A Dance to the Music of Time. The Music of Time illustrates the way coincidence seems interwoven into the very fabric of contemporary society.
Powell took his title from Poussin’s painting in the Wallace collection in London. Tony saw it as the ritualistic dance of the four seasons—while Time, and extraordinarily sinister figure, plays on the lyre. The seasons break into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear, only to reappear again—unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.
Powell’s subject was the plight of the old governing class in England—undermined by the Great War, and then by the Great Depression—and, at last, beginning to sense its extreme vulnerability. His own generation found itself bemused by new ideas and new guilts; tempted by Bohemia; threatened by coarse new energies and unscrupulous new men; haunted by the fear that, in some sense, the game was up for them.
In the style of beautiful, ironical felicity—halfway between Proust and Evelyn Waugh—Powell shows the ebb and flow within social configurations; the transient and shifting friendships—parties, jobs, marriages, affairs, divorces. Because his characters are sensitive to the barometric pressure of events, they reflect the larger world beyond. The great historical happenings—war, depression, Nazism, Communism, war again—are persistent offstage presences. Characters appear and disappear, and then reappear, in vividly different settings and circumstances. The rhythm of life, sooner or later, bringing them together again, as in the performance of one or another sequence of a ritual dance.
The circularity of life—that is a salient feature, it seems to me, of one’s own experience and memory. How to explain Powell’s law, the inexorable law of coincidence? How is a historian to account for life’s weird circularity? I derive some consolation from Henry James’s remark in “Pandora,” the story he wrote about Mrs. Henry Adams: There are some things that even the most philosophical historian isn’t bound to account for.
Memoirs, as Mark Twain once wrote to William Dean Howells— He said: An autobiography is the truest of all books. For while it inevitably consists, mainly, of extinctions of the truth—shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain, straight truth—the remorseless truth is there, between the lines.
Now, as a historian, the experience of writing about oneself and one’s own time induces some reflections. History is not self-executing. You do not put a coin in the slot and have history come out—for the past is a chaos of events and personalities, into which we cannot penetrate. It is beyond retrieval, and it is beyond reconstruction. All historians know this in their souls.
There is no such thing as human history, one historian said—there is no such thing as human history. Nothing could be more profoundly, sadly true. The annals of mankind, he continued, have never been written—never can be written—nor would it be within human capacity to read them if they were written. We have a leaf or two from the great book of human fate as it flutters in the storm winds, ever sweeping across the earth. We decipher them as best we can, with purblind eyes, and endeavor to learn their mystery as we float along to the abyss. But it is all confused babble—hieroglyphics of which the key is lost.
The scholar who uttered these postmodernist sentiments was John Lothrop Motley, the great nineteenth-century historian of the Netherlands, speaking to the New-York Historical Society in 1868. Despite moments of doubt about the knowability of the past, Motley kept turning out solid volumes recounting the history of the Netherlands. In this regard he was like most historians. Our profession tends to have a limited capacity for sustained abstract thought. It is precisely our addiction to the concrete and empirical that makes us historians. When entering the murky waters of epistemology, we quickly find ourselves beyond our depth. And, to borrow from Stevie Smith: not waving, but drowning.
We happily leave the philosophy of history to philosophers, whose analyses we imperfectly follow—whose theories of knowledge we habitually dismiss as irrelevant to historical practice. After all, we say, philosophers write about history without knowing what it is to write history. We negotiate a rough-and-ready peace with the epistemology and go about our work as best we can.
The terms of this negotiated peace are plain enough. Most historians today accept the truth, spoken long ago by Emerson: No man, Emerson said, can quite emancipate himself from his age and country, or produce a model in which the education, or the religion, the politics, usages and arts of his time shall have no share. Though you are never so original, never so willful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out of his work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew. Above his will, and beyond his sight, he is necessitated by the air he breathes, and the idea in which he and his contemporaries live and toil, to share the manner of his times without knowing what that manner is.
We acknowledge that the historians, like everyone else, are prisoners of their own experience, and slaves to their own preconceptions—that we are all entrapped in the egocentric predicament. We bring to history the preconceptions of our personality and the preoccupations of our age. We cannot shuffle off the mortal coil and seize on ultimate and absolute truths. Purely objective truth, said William James, is nowhere to be found. The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything.
So the historian is committed to a doomed enterprise—the quest for unattainable objectivity. Yet it is an enterprise we happily pursue—because of the thrill of the hunt; because exploring the past is such fun; because of the intellectual challenges involved; and because a nation needs to know its own history. Or so, at least, we historians like to think.
As I’ve suggested elsewhere, history is to the nation as memory is to the individual. As an individual deprived of memory becomes disoriented and lost—not knowing where he has been or where he is going—so a nation, denied a conception of its past, will be disabled in dealing with its present and its future.
Conceptions of the past are far from stable—they are perennially revised by the urgencies of the present. When new urgencies arise in our own times and lives, the historian’s spotlight shifts—probing now into the shadows; throwing into sharp relief things that were always there—but that earlier historians had carelessly excised from the collective memory. New voices ring out of the historical darkness and demand attention.
One has only to note how, in the last half-century, the women’s rights movement, and the civil rights movement, have reformulated and renewed American history. In this sense, all history, as Croce said, is contemporary history. The present incessantly recreates the past. It is these permutations of consciousness that make history so endlessly fascinating an intellectual adventure. The one duty we owe to history, said Oscar Wilde, is to revise it. [Laughter]
When I wrote The Age of Jackson in the early 1940s, I was preoccupied with the dilemma of democratic capitalism made vivid for my generation by FDR and the New Deal. Responding to the felt pressures of the 1930s, I underplayed other aspects of the Jacksonian era. The predicament of women, of blacks, of Indians—all given new salience by the felt pressures of later times—was shamefully out of mind in 1940. As the perspective of 2001 is bound to be different from that of 1941, so the perspective of 2041 is bound to be different from that of 2001.
Most intense revaluation has surely been in the history of race relations. When I went to college in the 1930s, the study of slavery was still colored by the indulgent views of Ulrich B. Phillips. Discussion of the causes of the Civil War was dominated by the denial of James V. Randall and Avery Craven that the war was inevitable, and that slavery was its cause. Rather, Randall and Craven contended, in influential books of the period: It was a blundering generation, driven by fanaticism—especially by the fanaticism of the abolitionists. This fanaticism transformed what they called a “repressible conflict” into what they called a “needless war.”
As for Reconstruction, the views of W. A. Dunning of Columbia and Claude Bowers still hung on. The white South had to be rescued from barbarous freed slaves and their villainous Yankee carpetbagger allies.
Phillips on slavery, and Randall and Craven on the causes of the Civil War, have long since been discarded in the teaching of American history. As for Dunning and Bowers on Reconstruction, I recall an incident that shows how new pressures overrule old perspectives.
In June 1963, when Governor George Wallace tried to block the admission of two black students to the University of Alabama, President Kennedy sent in the National Guard to explain his action. Racial equality, Kennedy said, was a moral issue as old as the Scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution. In that same night, in Mississippi, Medgar Evers, director of the state NAACP, was murdered. The next week, the President invited Medgar Evers’s widow and their children to the White House, to grieve with them.
They were an exceptionally attractive family. When they left I said to President Kennedy: What a terrible business. Kennedy said, sadly: Yes, he said, I don’t understand the South. I’m coming to believe that Thaddeus Stevens was right. That is, Stevens was the great villain of David Wark Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation. Kennedy said: I’d always been taught to regard him as a man of vicious bias. But when I see this sort of thing, I begin to wonder how else you can treat them.
From the Dunning and Bowers school, that were prevalent when John Kennedy went to Harvard, to the Eric Foner school, constitutes a revolution in historians’ handling of Reconstruction. The civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement have brought about tremendous and belated transformation of American life. They’ve also transformed the teaching of American history.
There remains Motley’s despair over the knowability of the past. This despair has recently been reinforced by what has become known as the “linguistic turn.” Since history depends in great part on documents, the historian’s assumption is that documents mean something—and that history written on the basis of documents means something, too. The current—or, at least, recent—intellectual vogues question the whole idea of determinate meaning. Documents, it is pointed out, are nothing more than texts—and the nature of language makes it impossible ever to know the meaning of texts. The past is something we, ourselves, construct.
This line of thought has spread from linguistic theorists and literary critics in France to departments of literature in Britain and the United States, and from departments of literature it has won occasional bridgeheads in departments of history. Motley’s doubts reappear, this time decked out with postmodernist jargon of deconstruction, discourse analysis, intertextuality, and narratology. All history seen in this light is the continuation of ideology by other means—as a projection and manipulation of relationships of domination or repression. Some philosophers of history would even abolish—or, at least, attenuate—the distinction between the stories historians tell and other forms of storytelling.
Of course, most working historians repudiate the idea that there is no real difference between history and fiction. For historians, as the British Marxist scholar, Eric Hobsbaum, has said— For historians, even for the most militantly antipositivist one among us, the ability to distinguish between the two—between history and fiction—is absolutely fundamental.
We cannot invent our facts—either Elvis Presley is dead or he isn’t. [Laughter] In view of the doubts about Elvis’s death, frequently expressed in supermarket tabloids, we can, perhaps, amend Hobsbaum’s statement by substituting the name of someone safely dead, like Julius Caesar. [Laughter] For there is an external reality that exists independently of our representations. We can appreciate Motley’s despair over penetrating that reality and getting history right. Hieroglyphics have no key. But history is not an illusion, or a fiction, or a myth. True as the present is, said William James—true as the present is, the past was, also.
I’m impressed these days by the apparent popularity of the History Channel on television. I hope that this expresses a growing historical consciousness among our people. For we are the world’s dominant power, and I believe that history is a moral necessity for a nation possessed of overweening power. History is the best antidote to illusions of omnipotence and omniscience. It should forever remind us of the limitations of our passing perspectives. It should strengthen us to resist the pressure to convert momentary interests into moral absolutes. It should lead us to a profound and chastening sense of our frailty as human beings; to a recognition of the facts, so often and so sadly demonstrated. As was demonstrated last month on the 11th of September, that the future will outwit all our certitudes, and that the possibilities of history are more various than the human intellect is likely to conceive.
A nation informed by the vivid understanding of the ironies of history is, I believe, best-equipped to live with the temptations and tragedy of power. And since we are condemned as a nation to a superpower role, that a growing sense of history temper and civilize our use of our power.
In the meantime, let a thousand historical flowers bloom. History is never a closed book or a final verdict—it is always in the making. Let historians not forsake the quest for knowledge—however tricky and problematic that quest may be—in the interest of an ideology, a nation, a race, a sex, or a cause. The great strength of history in a free society is its capacity for self-correction.
This is the endless fascination of the historical craft—the search to reconstruct what went before. A quest illuminated by those ever-changing prisms that continually place old questions in a new light. As the great Dutch historian Peter Hale was fond of saying: History is, indeed, an argument without end. That, I believe, is why we love it so much.
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