Becker’s shift, from a pragmatic view of the Declaration’s political purpose to a bedrock faith in the Declaration’s principles, reflected a broader transformation. By the Forties, the Progressive faith in progress through conflict seemed ill-suited for a world that had witnessed the rise of fascism and communism and the horrors of the atomic bomb and the Holocaust. The last important work generally considered to be part of the Progressive school was Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Age of Jackson, which he finished in the spring of 1944, just before heading to Europe to work with the Office of Strategic Services. Like other Progressive histories, The Age of Jackson saw its period in terms of the conflict between capitalists and democrats. Just a few years later, however, Schlesinger published The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (1949). Suddenly, America’s internal divides seemed relatively easy to bridge. Liberals and businessmen could both agree on the basic virtues of a free society and “the ultimate integrity of the individual,” which was what America stood for in the fight against totalitarianism. “The non-communist left and the non-fascist right must collaborate to keep free society truly free,” Schlesinger wrote. The decisive reelection of Harry Truman, in 1948, over not only the Republican Thomas Dewey but also Strom Thurmond’s racist segregationists and Henry Wallace’s quasi-communists further proved, for Schlesinger, that “the job of liberalism … was to devote itself to the maintenance of individual liberties and to the democratic control of economic life—and to brook no compromise, at home or abroad, on either of these two central tenets.”
Along with Schlesinger, Boorstin, Hofstadter and Hartz laid the groundwork for the consensus interpretation that would dominate the writing of American history for about two decades. But the pendulum eventually began to swing back toward conflict.
Interpretations are always simplifications: if pushed too far in one direction, they lose touch with reality. This had happened to the Progressive school in the Forties and Fifties, and it happened to the consensus school in the Sixties and Seventies. In the latter case, historians began to realize that their emphasis on consensus was obscuring bitter conflicts that erupted with some regularity. It is possible to agree about the desirability of liberty and equality but to disagree deeply, even violently, about what those words mean and how they are to be realized in politics, society and economics. Slavery and the Civil War stood as proof of this and, predictably, consensus historians had no convincing way to deal with them. Hofstadter put it best when he suggested a cartoon of the consensus view of the Civil War: “a Reb and a Yank meet in 1865 to survey the physical and moral devastation of the war: ‘Well,’ says one to the other consolingly, ‘at least we escaped the ultimate folly of producing political theorists.’”
The idea that a deep consensus governed American life began also to look untenable in the face of the political, social and cultural conflicts of the Sixties, some of which called into question the fundamental assumptions of postwar liberalism. Back in 1949, Schlesinger had argued that Americans disagreed only about the timing and method for implementing civil rights. By the middle of the Sixties, in the wake of massive resistance, race riots and the rise of the Black Power movement, Schlesinger’s sanguine attitude seemed naive. As citizens fell away from the center, it was unclear whether even a great deal of digging would uncover underlying commitments uniting Goldwater conservatives, the New Left, Black Panthers and radical feminists.
By the time of the Bicentennial in 1976, it was difficult for anyone to agree on what America meant and what in its history, if anything, could be celebrated. Demographic changes within the American historical profession itself also played their role. One of the conditions that gave rise to the consensus school was the basic homogeneity of the American professoriate, especially after communists were mostly purged from teaching positions in the late Forties. Historians for the next generation were white men with good salaries living in a prosperous and mostly peaceful nation. By the Seventies, however, departments were starting to hire their first women, blacks, Latinos and Asians—many of whom brought different experiences and perspectives to American history.
The result of these changes was a renewed emphasis on conflict—but not only the economic conflict between the haves and have-nots that had animated the Progressive project. New fields, organized around racial, ethnic, gender and religious conflicts, focused on groups whose struggles had contributed to an American story that was becoming increasingly diffuse. Dissertations in social history quadrupled from 1958 to 1978 as young scholars sought to recover the experiences of women, slaves, free blacks, Native Americans, immigrants and children. Yet like isolated individuals in the liberal state of nature, the different fields of American history were atomized—they seemed to have nothing tying them together, no central theme to imbue experience with deeper meaning. “History was once called a habitation of many mansions,” reflected the Southern historian C. Vann Woodward in 1982, “but it has been more recently described as scattered suburbs, trailer camps and a deteriorating central city.”
Woodward was no reactionary. His intellectual background was like that of most consensus historians—he had visited Soviet Moscow in the summer of 1932—but his historical focus on the South after Reconstruction, a time of riots, lynching and Klan violence, meant that he was never tempted to downplay the centrality of political and economic conflict in American history. Throughout his career, he remained committed to racial equality and the search for a usable past. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to his best-known work, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), as “the historical bible of the civil rights movement,” because it demonstrated that the South had not always been so steadfastly committed to segregation. Yet by the late Sixties, Woodward’s commitment to liberal integrationist principles had begun to look retrograde to a new generation of activist historians.
Around that time, Woodward joined with Hofstadter to plan a new series of books called the Oxford History of the United States. His main goal was to revive the art of historical narrative for a general readership, believing a democratic public should not “confront the present and the future with outdated misconceptions of the past.” In some quarters this focus on storytelling was seen as a betrayal. In response to an essay for the New York Times Book Review announcing the first volume in 1982, Woodward was assailed by a younger social historian who claimed that the call for a new narrative history represented “anti-intellectual Luddism,” reflective of the New Right’s “demand for a return to simpler times and simpler tales.”
The series proved popular from its inception, but progress was slow. Only four volumes were published by the time of Woodward’s death in 1999. Since then, a handful of additional volumes have appeared under the editorship of David Kennedy, but after 35 years the project remains only two-thirds complete, and the reason for the project’s slow pace isn’t just that narrative history is less common than it once was, or that historians have largely retreated (like the rest of us) to their own respective silos. Narrative problems are ultimately analytical problems: historians no longer know how to tell a narrative history of the United States because they no longer know what to think about the United States.
Perhaps they’re right to be cautious. In framing a narrative about a nation, there’s always the danger of letting description shade into prescription—as Hartz saw when he wrote about the “compulsive power” of consensus. Stories about the past are bound to leave things out, and any narrative will eventually come to grief as neglected groups disrupt settled assumptions to make themselves known. Yet we can acknowledge those dangers and still recognize that Woodward was also right. The task for the next generation of American historians will be to draw a new roadmap of our country’s history—simple but not simplistic, rigorous but not rigid, inclusive but not incoherent. As our most recent history has shown, we refuse this task at our peril: if Americans are not offered realistic stories about their country’s past, they may well choose mythological ones.
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This essay appears in
issue 13 of The Point.
To read the rest of the issue
(featuring an extended symposium
on the question “What is America for?”)
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