The Present State of Historical Writing
By John Spencer Bassett, professor of history at Smith College and secretary of the American Historical Association
As this report is being written the American Historical Association is completing the first forty years of its existence, a comparatively brief period in the life of a great cultural society, but nevertheless a period rich in progress and actual achievements. In 1884 the big universities had one or two professors of history where they now have ten or more. Most colleges had one professor of history, but he usually taught it in connection with political economy, political science, or public speaking. To-day the average college has from two to five teachers of history, and political economy and political science have been made separate departments. Forty years ago history was taught in a perfunctory manner in the public schools; now it has a strong place in the grades and in the high school. In university, college, and public schools, as compared with 1884, history is now being taught several times more in quantity and several times better in method.
With this brilliant advance we have a right to expect history to be in a better position with the men and women of the country than ever before. Since more of them have studied it in school, ought we not to expect that a very large part of our people should be interested in reading history, that a great demand should exist for historical books, and that a large and powerful group of historians should be writing many histories to meet this demand? But no such conditions exist. From the librarians who hand out the books which the people read, from the publishers and booksellers who distribute the books that are published, and from all other competent observers of actual conditions comes unvarying testimony that history is less read to-day than formerly, and that it is not in strong demand at this time with the people we are accustomed to call the “educated class.” Such was not the case forty years ago.
The attention of the writer was pointedly called to this situation a few years ago on reading a circular received from a popular “literary agency,” whose business was to find markets for articles whose authors could not dispose of them without assistance. This particular circular, after enumerating many kinds of writings that were salable, said with brief emphasis: “But no history is wanted.” It is possible that the writer of the circular had some pique against history, and his pique may have been responsible for the curt respect he paid the subject; but it is not to be doubted that his business instinct would have made him willing to take historical writing to sell, if he had thought it possible to sell it.
Here is another indication of the same change in the attitude of the public. Forty years ago history had a place in the magazines. Witness the series of articles on the Civil War published in The Century Magazine, and later brought out in four large volumes with the title, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Such a series would sink any magazine to-day. I find that in 1884 the Century published twenty articles that may be said to have been historical, Harper’s Magazine published twenty-one, and The Atlantic Monthly published twenty-two. Let the reader turn to these same periodicals for 1924 and see how many historical articles appeared in them in that year.
Every well-wisher of history is doubtless concerned to know the reasons why this vast amount of history-studying has not led to a wider popular interest in the subject studied. It is the writer’s purpose to examine the methods and aims of the older group of historians, to contrast with them the methods and aims of the new school, to discuss the influence of the methods of the new school on historical style, to point out some of the undesirable habits into which our writers have fallen, and to offer the testimony of some persons whose experience qualifies them as experts in the situation. It is not to be expected that any one person can lay down rules for others to follow. But it is not too much to hope that the readers, and especially the younger men and women who are giving themselves to history, may be incited to make an examination of the subject, each according to his or her individual needs. For there is no single road in which all feet may walk. Each man goes as his own nature makes possible; and it matters not how he goes, if his steps lead to the achievement of the best in him.
In considering the development of history in the period under discussion, it is necessary to point out the relation between style and some of the characteristics of the present school of history. It may even seem that in condemning the effects which some of the current practices exert on style, the writer is condemning the practices themselves. He does not mean to condemn them. He merely writes, as he sees it, of the situation that has come about. He would be pleased if the situation proved to be brighter than it is here painted.
Moreover, nothing that occurs here is intended to express dispraise for the splendid gains to history due to the arrival of the so-called scientific spirit in history. The value of detachment, criticism of evidence, dependence on original sources, and devoted examination of every available source in order to arrive at the truth, these are priceless things and they can never be relinquished. They have to do with the content of history, and in that sense they are the essentials of the new school. Our business is with the form in which the new school expresses itself, and style and content must be kept distinct in the mind of the reader, although in the discussion it may sometimes appear that they are not as truly distinct as can be desired. Much as we might like to recover the pleasant manner of writing of the old school, it would be regained at too high a cost if it meant discarding the recent gains in spirit and content.
Historians Before 1884
Speaking broadly, it is convenient to take the year in which the American Historical Association was founded as the dividing point between the old and new schools of history. This organization was so completely a product of the new spirit then moving in our profession, and it has so completely dominated the field since it was founded, that its creation may be taken as the time at which the new ideas took the lead over the old. It is true that the men who brought in the new spirit were active before 1884, and it is also true that most of the men of the old school came willingly into the Association; but speaking roughly, it is not possible to point to a date earlier than 1884 at which it can be said that the new prevailed, nor to a date much later than 1884 at which it can be said that the old school was still in the ascendant.
Before this notable year, then, the historians in the United States may be ranged in three classes. First were a small number of distinguished writers whose books were received with great favor by the intelligent public on account of their accepted ideas and agreeable style. Among them the best were Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman, men not equally great nor esteemed by the public in proportion to their excellence. Making due allowance for the shifting standards of the times, their fame continues to this day.
In the second we may place a number of industrious and conscientious writers, less known than the members of the first group, because they worked in restricted fields. They were earnest in the cause of history and gave us books of real value. Among them can be placed Charles Gayarré, J. R. Brodhead, Henry C. Murphy, Edward B. O’Callaghan, Gilmary Shea, John G. Palfrey, Henry Onderdonk, Jr., Gabriel Furman, and others of worth and local fame. Most of us living to-day have never known the works of such men, or if known we have forgotten them. But in their own times they had firm recognition and most of them are still held in great esteem in their own communities.
Into the third class may be put a large number of delvers into the past, men who discovered hidden facts in small things and set them down with zeal and joy. They were interested in the “ antiquities “ of places, in the details of battles, in genealogical phases of history, or in the remains of the early settlers. Men like these gave life to The Historical Magazine, which the devoted but peppery Henry B. Dawson edited for many years, and lengthened the days of The Magazine of American History, which Mrs. Martha J. Lamb kept alive by many sacrifices until she finally died at her post in 1893.
The characteristics of the old school may be stated as follows: (1) Many of its members, but not all, lacked the critical spirit, with the result that they did not weigh evidence severely. In fact, they were inclined to accept as true whatever had got accepted by historians who had already written. (2) Most of the writers in the school, especially those who had the widest vogue, were accustomed to ignore the parts of history that did not seem brilliant. They sought the striking, not only in their choice of subjects, but also in their selection of incident to be made into their narratives. In this process they ignored things relating to every-day life as too common to dignify their stories, and avoided the history of institutions because they considered it dry. (3) It was the custom of these writers to make up their accounts of events by skilfully combining what other writers had said about the same subject. Some of them made little use of original sources which the new school rightly considered the very essence of good history. (4) They did not always restrain their personal feelings in the matters under investigation, with the result that their narratives were apt to defend some particular idea or to attack some other. They had not discovered the sanctity of detachment. (5) Out of the foregoing facts it came about that much that was done by the old school was superficial even where the author had worked with conscientious industry according to the standards before him. Practically the whole body of history prepared by the old school has had to be rewritten by their successors.
It was characteristic of the historians of the old school that they were treated with marked respect by the general public. The men of the first class, nationally known, were received wherever they went as men of national distinction. Those of the second class had relatively similar respect in the smaller areas in which they labored. And this recognition was given as much to history as to the men who wrote it. The age still looked upon Clio as one of the Immortal Nine.
Of all our historians, the one who profited most by this recognition was, perhaps, George Bancroft, who is written down in the early minutes of the American Historical Association as “the father of American History” (Papers, 11, 6). Rising into fame through his History of the United States, he entered politics and was once a member of the President’s cabinet and twice a minister to a foreign country. Setting up his household in Washington in his later life, he became a social lion. He was visited, invited, praised, and honored by the highest people in the land. There was no senator nor cabinet officer who was not pleased to receive his dinner invitations, and his New Year receptions were attended by callers in shoals. He was as popular in his day as a successful play-writer would be to-day. All this superstructure of success was built up, no doubt, by the careful use of specific talents; but it rested fundamentally on his fame as a historian. There was no congressman in the capital who did not know of him as “Bancroft the Historian,” and by special action he was given entry at will to the floors of each house of Congress.
Most of these historians were men of independent means : some of them were rich. They had the training and opportunities which usually go with wealth, and in them were developed the standards of taste that commonly come with more than one generation of leisure. Most of them had libraries of their own and counted them adequate for writing history, so that they knew little about the dispiriting desks of public libraries or official-document rooms. Bancroft and’ Parkman had copies made from archives and even from books in libraries, and Prescott ordered books and transcripts from Europe with a liberal purse.
It is also true that writing history was then financially profitable, as we may see in the following cases : For the Conquest of Peru Prescott received $7,500 in cash the day the book went on sale, the edition being 7,500 copies, and for an English edition issued at the same time he got £800. Many later editions were issued, and the total returns were large. Some of Washington Irving’s books were accepted by the public as history. For his Columbus, his Voyages of Columbus, the Alhambra, the Granada, the Bonneville, and Astoria he received for the American edition $41,875, and for the English editions $24,500. Of Motley’s Rise of the Dutch Republic 15,000 copies were sold in the first year. Bancroft realized a fair fortune from the sale of his history, although a wealthy marriage was the basis of the free expenditure which his high state involved in his later life. When Jared Sparks returned to Boston from Mount Vernon with Washington’s papers, to be used in his Writings of Washington, he was greeted by Anna Storrow in these words: “I hear you are the richest, the busiest, and the happiest man in New England, perhaps in the world. Long may all this continue !” Returns like these are, perhaps, beyond the day-dreams of the present historian.
The New School
While the old school was at its highest point in the United States, there came into the country the first signs of a movement that was destined to lay it low. It rested on a fundamental kinship to the revolution in natural science then subduing the world. It was critical, impersonal, committed to the study of details, and bent on revising every field of history then written. It expressed its aspirations in declaring that it had “the scientific spirit,” which, indeed, was no exaggeration. In its earnestness for truth, it put aside as unimportant the form in which history was written. It did not think of what this meant for the standing of history as a branch of literature. It was too busy with research to think about forms of expression. To its votaries nothing seemed worth considering as an end except the one thing in mind, the realization of truth. Aside from its influence on historical style and its influence on the position of history in the mind of the people, this turning of the historians to the tenets of the new school was the most important thing that has happened in the writing of history in modern times.
The school was rooted in the general revival of ideas in Germany associated with the work of Wolf and the Brothers Grimm; but it was Leopold von Ranke who gave it definite form. His position at the University of Berlin from 1825 to 1871 gave him a wonderful opportunity to shape history in Germany, where so many things were then new. This end was accomplished through a notable group of pupils, who in turn became teachers, among them Waitz, Giesebrecht, and Von Sybel, and also through the series of stately volumes in which his ideas were exemplified. Of his writing Gooch says: “Ranke was beyond comparison the greatest historical writer of modern times.” He was also notable for having established the first historical seminary. He gathered a group of his best students around him at Berlin, each working on his own problem, meeting at stated times. This form of instruction has become the foundation of advanced teaching in history from that time to this. It is the keystone of the new school.
It was not until Ranke’s influence ripened through the success of his many activities that it began to spread in a notable way to other countries. In France and England the old school was well established and doing work acceptable to the age. But in 1868 Victor Duruy, wishing to introduce the seminary method of instruction, induced the government to set up the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. Among the instructors gathered by this school was Gabriel Monod, a great teacher, a noted editor, and the founder of the Revue Historique, which became the organ of the new history in France. The Ranke influence was carried to England by students, notably by J. R. Seeley, who became regius professor at Cambridge in 1869. Stubbs took a similar place in Oxford in 1874, and he was thoroughly imbued with the new spirit. In 1873 Oxford set up the honors school of modern history and Cambridge followed suit in 1875 with her history tripos. Ranke’s influence was even more marked in Italy, then awakening to a new era of national aspiration, even as Germany had awakened fifty years earlier. It is not possible to dispute the vigor of a system of ideas that had such wide and deep progress in the nations of Europe.
The new school came to the United States by means of returning students who had gone to Germany for instruction. Among them was Charles Kendall Adams, who instituted at the University of Michigan the first historical seminary this country saw. Another was Herbert B. Adams, a student of Wilhelm Ihne’s at Heidelberg, who conducted the department of history at Johns Hopkins. Herbert B. Adams took a leading part in collecting the historians of the country into the American Historical Association in 1884. He was made secretary of the organization and gave it freely of his time until the day of his death. The movement spread rapidly. It was a day of reorganization and rapid expansion in our highest education, and the new school easily took possession of the field.
The American Historical Association was in sympathy with the new school. It manifested this fact by electing Ranke its first honorary member, describing him in its minutes as “the oldest and most distinguished exponent of historical science.” In accepting election Ranke wrote: “It gives me great satisfaction to belong to a society pursuing beyond the ocean the same aims that we on this side are striving to achieve.” While the impulse creating the association came from the young men, the membership included most of the old school, and cordial relations existed between the two wings.
The new type of history had to fight for existence. “Dull and formless scholarship,” growled the reviewers, having in mind the clear and charming pages of Prescott. But the young enthusiasts did not falter. They were the new men and the old men died off, so that the new school speedily possessed the field. The critics died off, also, or at least they ceased to carp about style. Perhaps they thought carping useless. Undoubtedly it was wasted effort.
Ranke summed up his purpose in writing history by saying that he tried to tell a thing WW es eigentlich gewesen, as it actually happened. That spirit characterizes the entire school that has sprung up under his influence. He never claimed that history was an exact science, but he agreed that it could be written in the scientific spirit. He was pronounced “colorless,” and it is true that he did not yield himself to “tides of emotion and outbursts of passion.” Restraint and cold white light suited him better. It was the despair of Carlyle, who loved a fine emotion and a towering passion, and he seized on Ranke for the prototype of his “Professor Dryasdust.” To which Ranke paid not the slightest attention. He continued to write history wie es eigentlich gewesen.
The Attitude Toward Style
Ranke’s motto implies informational history, and such history became the ideal, consciously or unconsciously, of the school that he founded. It was naturally so, for in trying to tell a thing as it actually happened one is trying to impart information. The writers were deeply absorbed in finding the truth and presenting it as it unfolded in their own minds.
They lost sight of the equally important problem of how to offer information to the minds of their readers. They read a great deal and took notes. Often when they sat down to write they copied note after note into a slightly digested text. Now and again they found that some author had taken a doubtful position, and they introduced into the text a full discussion, with pros and cons, in their efforts to settle this doubtful point, thereby showing what critical minds they had. These earnest searchers for truth sometimes showed a strong indifference to the rules of rhetoric, they were even careless about grammar. One needs only turn to the doctors’ theses of recent years to find many illustrations of these habits. We might be quite impatient of such things, were it not that they have come through an intense search for truth, a thing so valuable in itself that we might pardon any reasonable sacrifice made in its search. But we may well ask, before condemning ourselves to perpetual darkness, if it is necessary for history to become dull in order that it may be written in the scientific spirit.
Professor Robinson seems inclined to answer the question in the affirmative (New History, page 51), for he says in this connection: “The conscientious historian has come to realize that he cannot aspire to be a good story-teller for the simple reason that, if he tells no more than he has good reasons for believing to be true, his tale is usually very fragmentary and vague. Fiction and drama are perfectly free to conceive and adjust detail so as to meet the demands of art, but the historian should always be conscious of the rigid limitations placed upon him. If he confines himself to an honest and critical statement of a series of events as described in his sources, it is usually too deficient in vivid authentic detail to make a satisfactory story.”
Now it is interesting to observe that Professor Robinson himself has written books of history scientifically admirable, which at the same time are clear, striking, and interesting narrative. His text-books in European history could not have had their wide success if they had been, to use his own words, “fragmentary and vague.” They are not vague because they deal with the known facts of the field. Had he been writing with a great deal more detail he might have found it necessary to be vague. But he confined himself to that part of his field that was known.
Herein lies an explanation of much of the dulness of some of our history. The writer is groping in some field on which the information is limited, and he undertakes to debate the doubtful points before his reader, who has not acquired enough interest in the subject to pay attention to the debate. Such debates used to go into footnotes, but they are more and more tending to appear in the text. They are highly valuable, but they do not belong in a text that is not intended for the technical reader. “An honest and critical statement of a series of events as described in his sources,” says Professor Robinson. The word critical here may be misleading. If the statement embodies the result of criticism, digested in the author’s mind and placed in his text as he has adjusted it after mature reflection, it is well. But if it means that the author is to exhibit the critical process to his reader he may not be surprised if the reader is bored. The historian must be critical and the reader should feel that the author is critical; but the average reader does not expect to be called in to see how it is done.
Moreover, it is not just to have history set over against fiction, as though one must write dull arrays of facts or write fiction. The historian does not have to invent in order to tell a clear story. He tells his story, not as the novelist tells one, without limitations, but as one who walks at will within the two walls of fact that keep him in. He does not leap over the walls, but he may walk between them in whatever kind of a line he chooses. His tracks will be rough or symmetrical, as he chooses. He who invents is no historian; he is a falsifier. The new school has lost much good energy in allowing itself to become mystified on this point.
Another point on which it has lost energy by losing hope is by asking itself if history can be literature. The earliest writers in the school, while jumping at the idea that history is a science, were quite willing to say it could not be literature. But as it became evident that history is not a science, they became less confident that it is not literature. At present we are halting at the door, sometimes within it and sometimes without. John Morley defines literature in its most restricted form as “all the books—and they are not so many—where moral truth and human passion are touched with a certain largeness, sanity, and attraction of form.” This is a strict standard, but history is not afraid to be measured by it. Always dealing with the moral life of man and with his passions, whether they be expressed in his struggle in the fields of government, economic development, or some less strenuous endeavor, history presents herself to the historian and asks for a treatment that has “a certain largeness, sanity, and attraction of form.” Can such a thing be done?
A characteristic commonly accorded to literature, not mentioned in Morley’s definition, but implied, perhaps, is imagination. For example, an account of the geological evolution of the earth’s surface could possibly be written with the aid of a powerful imagination which would be both science and literature. The imagination is useful to the historian or scientist in enabling him to hold his picture in mind as he paints it. If he writes a lucid and charming piece of prose, it is literature as truly as if he had written a novel or a poem. If Maeterlinck’s Bee had been written by an entomologist it would have been as truly literature as when written by a dramatist.
A Changing Type
During the last forty years the number of men and women writing history in the United States has largely increased. This result would have occurred through the growth of the country alone and through the spread of education and the development of the educational idea, by which it has come about that a great deal more stress is laid upon history than formerly. It has also been due to a renewed interest in knowing the story of the progress of society here and elsewhere in the world. The type of history that has come to prevail is vigorous and appeals to the man with intellectual taste. The tendency so strongly manifested in the last few years to add to political history the study of social and economic development indicates that we shall have in the future a still larger interest in the subject.
The increased interest in history has produced a stronger call for men to teach and write it. Moreover, the demand came by way of the colleges and universities. Now there were not enough men of the old type interested in history-writing to respond to the demand, and so the deficiency has been made up by calling into service another kind of person.
The old historian was a man of leisure. He had enough means to live on while he got started in the new profession. He could afford to take time to get ready to write. When Prescott decided to become a historian he first mastered modern languages, including English, and then he gave several years to the study of literary expression. Coming across Mably’s essay, Sur l’Etude de l’Histoire, he read it through ten times in order to absorb its ideas. He made a careful study of the literary structure of Voltaire’s Charles XII and Roscoe’s Leo X and Lorenzo de Medici. He felt that this kind of preparation was necessary before he took pen in hand. On the composition of his first history, Ferdinand and Isabella, he spent ten years.
Prescott could not have subjected himself to this kind of training if he had not had independent means, nor would he have done it if he had not had a well-developed aesthetic sense. To him the painting of an historical picture in words was like an artist’s painting of a picture on canvas with pigments. Like the artist, he took time to master the technic of his art.
The aesthetic sense is not a thing that comes hit or miss. One has it by inheritance or by long training in the things that stimulate taste and intellectual harmony. It is more apt to be found in persons who are born of and trained in families of long standing in the upper classes of society than in persons who have sprung from the class that is accustomed to the plainer ways and thinking of the world. The leading historians of the past, for the most part, belonged to this class.
The men going into history to-day do not come from the same social class. An undergraduate body at one of our large universities will contain many students of striking personality, the inheritors of culture by family and class tradition. But of that class almost none go into the graduate schools in the arts. They pass freely into the professional schools of law, medicine, and engineering, but they eschew the non-scientific courses leading to the doctor’s degree. Those who offer for the latter courses, and they are numerous, come from another stratum of society. They are usually graduates of the small colleges, the holders of fellowships and to a considerable extent self-supporting while they are students. It is out of such young persons that we are recruiting our college and university teachers who are to be trainers of culture for the future.
It would be untrue and also unkind to say that these persons do not make good teachers of their subjects. As a class they are as satisfactory in imparting information and in doing the pedagogical tasks intrusted to them as any teachers we have ever had. They have good minds and strong determination. Some of them show, despite their early lack of taste, remarkable grasp of its quality. But the majority take a long time to acquire it, and some never manage to reach it. So much the more is it necessary to take some thought of forming their taste in their early training, so that they will create an atmosphere of culture in their lecture-rooms and in their writings. Left alone they are apt to fall into the dull and dreary habits of amassing information without grace of form and without charm of expression.
At this point I wish to repeat my caution that I am not criticising these men as research scholars. In that respect we have to-day a better situation than we have ever had in the past. The democratic way of selecting our teachers and writers by the process of natural selection has given us sound and industrious scholarship. The youth of the day are being admirably trained in colleges and graduate seminaries. If to this kind of training we add training in the art of saying things well, we shall have in an approximate way the best results of a democracy.
Probably we need, also, a little more of the spirit of scholarly independence. The spirit of history with us is closely tied up with the desire for an academic career. The young instructor looks to the master who trained him for the help that will lead to promotion in academic rank. Sometimes he goes so far in this respect that he is not willing to give his own spirit full rein to go where he is led by his own thought. Of course, he is not openly conscious of his timidity; but it is at the bottom of his attitude toward his task. If he follows it until the freshness of youth is gone, he becomes a hopeless conservative. It is in the daring of a free mind that we find new life. Nor is it desirable that every man live in fear of the critics. The appearance of a new school of thought is no calamity. Let it battle as it chooses against the old school. Out of the contest will emerge a result which will stand the test of truth.
In this respect we must proceed with caution. Too much daring is a possibility. The youth who ventures into a new view without duly considering his grounds may make a mistake from which many years’ labor will not more than free him. It is a calamity for such a man to acquire at the beginning of his career the reputation of being a headstrong fool. Counsel leading to that result is bad. But between the extremes of a too great caution and a rash aggressiveness is a proper middle ground, and he who is wise by instinct can be made to find it. It is out of the men who are wise by instinct that we shall have our good historians.
Another respect in which the personnel of the historians as a class has changed is found in the way in which history-writing in our day has passed into the hands of the teachers of history. The process is as old as Ranke, who was as eminent a teacher as writer. In the old school the historian was rarely a teacher, except as he taught in his books. Moreover, the profession, once it was acquired, was sufficient to give him standing among his fellows, and it yielded him a considerable sum of money. He was willing to risk himself upon it.
This union of history-writing and history‑teaching has had some good results. Chiefly it has given the research scholar a standing place. It is hard to see where he would have obtained the means of sustenance while carrying on his research, if he had not a college or university position to rely upon as a means of support. Research in itself does not command enough popular interest to yield that essential return to its devotees. Moreover, the publication of books embodying the results of research gives the scholar additional impetus to conduct his studies, and it is not likely that so many of these works would have been carried to completion if professors had not been engaged in preparing them. Another favorable phase of the matter is that the formulation of a professor’s ideas as worked out in his investigations tends to quicken his interest in teaching; and this assertion applies particularly to the young professors. Finally, we have had some professor historians who have achieved excellent results in each field, notably Guizot and S. R. Gardiner, to say nothing of Americans now living. For all these advantages history owes a debt of gratitude to teaching and to the colleges and universities that have made it possible for research to go on.
On the other hand, there are some disadvantages for history in giving her this close dependence on the good-will of another and, to some extent, a different kind of intellectual work. They are so strong that it is worth our while to recount them here and to give the historical student the opportunity to weigh them as they bear on his own personal problems. They may be summed up in the following way:
1. The professor-historian must divide time between two purposes, and since teaching pays his salary it has the preference, not only in his own mind but in the minds of his employers and most of his associates. It follows that he has to write when he finds the time for it, and live where there is employment, regardless of his accessibility to the materials he needs for writing his books. Frequently he is placed where there is little intellectual stimulus and among colleagues who do not appreciate his researches. Or he may fall upon a place where the surroundings, physical or personal, are so charming that he is enticed into wasting time in the mere pleasure of living. This latter peril, often overlooked, has been the undoing of many a man who entered the struggle of his career with a firm determination to produce books. If he overcomes it, he does it by manly resolve and self-isolation. These difficulties are greater in the United States than in most European countries, because of the greater distances our students must travel to have access to good libraries. In England, for example, one is always in possible reach of the British Museum, wherever he teaches.
2. He has to divide his interest. No man can serve two masters. In the Bible it says that he will love one and hate the other. With respect to the historian who is also a teacher, it is not always true that he will hate one and love the other; it often happens that he comes to love neither. It is necessary that one love in a supreme way the thing he is doing, if he is to do it in such a manner as to lead to the best results. The professor-historian, through taking up one thing and putting down another, may get supremely lost. Sometimes we meet a man who says that he likes teaching and writing equally well, and that he does not know how he could get along without either. Such a man is rarely encountered, and when met he is rarely doing his best in either line.
3. The duties of the pedagogue and the duties of the historian are quite unlike, and the mind trained in the one may not be most adapted for the other. On one hand, there is the obligation to train and go over the elements of a subject. It is necessary to see that the students who go to college for the “activities “ do the minimum of honest labor that is set as a faculty ultimatum. If the professor is dealing with advanced students he must guide their investigations, hear their discussion, and read their theses. This is important work; it may be even more important than writing good history. But it draws out mental faculties unlike those demanded in writing the history that the people wish to read.
4. Finally, history has rights of her own. She deserves and demands a house of her own. Her former state was to be held as one of the highest of the nine muses. The world to-day is bigger and more complex than when she was accorded such dignity. To do her duty by it demands more sacrifice, more ability, and greater service than in olden times. If she does what is expected of her she is a better Clio than ever existed before. It is not treating her with proper courtesy when we tell her she must share lodgings with the pedagogue. It is true that the pedagogue has come up in the world. He is no longer a slave. He is more worthy of Clio’s companionship and he has benefited by the association. But Clio would be more highly respected if she set up her own establishment again.
Of course, it is not very kind to the pedagogues to ask them to give up history-writing, which would well-nigh have disappeared during the last thirty years if they had not kept it alive. In fact, the professors want to write history, and there is no way of keeping them from it as long as they want it. They will go on writing it for many years. But it is possible that, with the growth in this country of a leisure class, or at least of a class of men no longer slaving to make themselves richer, we may find a few men of comfortable means who are willing to devote themselves solely to history. For such men the world will have honor that dollars could not buy and posterity will have blessing, quite as great as if they had endowed benevolent institutions.
Another development of the existing school is the dependence on notes taken as one reads. The old historian depended to some extent on his memory, which is a bad system for any man with a memory less brilliant than Macaulay’s. To supply memory’s deficiency we take notes. We take them whenever we come across something of interest. We give them subject titles and file them alphabetically. When we sit down to write we take them out and use them, if we can find them. Now there is a danger in this process, and it has doubtless been a contributing cause of some of the dull history that has been written. A fact remembered is partly assimilated in the mind. A fact tucked away in a collection of notes and forgotten is not assimilated, and when it is brought out for use the writer may be so much engaged on his task of putting together that he does not assimilate. Good books are written in the mind before they are ever put down on paper. The point is that the student should be careful. He need not discard note-taking, but before writing he should spend ample time reflecting upon his notes, throwing out those that are not germane, and getting into the proper perspective those he decides to use. No mechanical contrivance he may have will take the place of a rich, sane, and patient mind.
The Opinions of Two Editors
This discussion of the existing situation will be brought to a close with the opinions of two editors, requested by the writer and furnished by the editors through their sympathy with the purposes of the committee. They come from Doctor John Franklin Jameson, managing editor of The American Historical Review, and Mr. Ellery Sedgwick, editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Any observations these gentlemen make on the writing of history will be gladly read by students and others interested in history. Whether one agrees with them or not, he will derive much benefit from seeing how the problem appears to them.
Doctor Jameson writes as follows :
“You ask me how the problem of your committee, the problem of considering what could be done to improve the writing of history in this country, looks from the point of view of the editor of The American Historical Review. I must say, at once, that I think there can be few points of observation from which that problem can look more urgent or more deserving of thought. Such an editor naturally sees rather more than most others see of the year’s product of printed historical work, and certainly he sees an exceptional amount of historical writing in manuscript, offered for publication in his journal. It is distressing to see how little of it is attractively written. Of the printed matter, others have the same opportunity to judge. It is more distinctly in the editor’s province to speak of that which comes to his desk in manuscript, and most germane to the present purpose to speak of that which comes from the younger writers, because they are the ones, rather than their more hardened elder brethren, on whose minds the exhortations and suggestions of your committee may be expected to produce some real effect.
“The manuscripts that come to me are not marred by errors of grammar nor by the grosser faults of composition. Minor defects, it is true, abound. Sentences begin with ‘However ‘ and ‘ To be sure’ and ‘ Coincidentally ‘ and ‘Due to,’ just as they do in the newspapers. Adjectives are used without precision— ‘tremendous’ often does duty for all adjectives of magnitude. ‘Data ‘ in this Latinless age is regarded by some as singular. As to smoothness of expression and consequent ease of reading, it often seems impossible that the writer can have read a single paragraph aloud, else he would have perceived that he was driving over corduroy and not concrete. But the larger and more general fault is a great want of attractiveness. You will not think me to be pleading for flowery rhetoric, and if you remember some of the articles I have printed, you will not suspect me of maintaining too exacting and lofty a standard of style in the case of those I do not print. The plain truth is that, by quite ordinary standards, many of our historical investigators and writers are sadly lacking in the sense of form. Your committee is quite right in inquiring earnestly why this is so, and what can be done about it. It is possible to maintain (it has been done) that history has no business to be either interesting or attractive; but it is not possible to maintain that austere position and at the same time complain that what we write has no effect upon the public mind. And on the whole we all wish that historical writing should be influential.
“What is the reason for these deficiencies? Mainly, I think, that many of those who undertake the writing of history enter upon it with too little of general or literary cultivation, and this is largely because of the habit of specializing prematurely. The more restricted college curriculum of former days did not lay this temptation before the student. I bless Heaven that when as a freshman I resolved to devote the remainder of my years to history, the utmost the college offered in the way of courses in history was one course during one year. I had to spend my college years on a dozen other studies. There was time enough for history afterward. Nowadays I see young men trying to make themselves good historians by ‘taking’ nothing but history and reading nothing but history, and the university programme, with its ambitiously exaggerated multiplication of courses, aids them in the attempt to do so; but it cannot be done that way.
“There is, moreover, a definite tendency on the part of young men, especially in co-educational institutions, to avoid literary and cultural courses as being feminine. Such courses, they think, are for girls. Though the masterpieces of literature and art and music have mostly been made by men, the American young man has somehow persuaded himself that all this realm is Frauensache. It would be agreeable to know more about the best that has been thought and said in the world, but if to follow a literary course will make us seem ‘sissified,’ it is better to avoid it; there is History 243 that we have not yet ‘taken.’ The result is to be traced in the plain fact that the young women write much better than the young men.
“Another observable fact, which points in the same direction, is that on the whole the students of European history, young or old, write better than the students of American history. It is, by the way, a great pity that we can so rigidly classify our workers into these two varieties. As a rule, they are completely the one or completely the other. They make their choice early, and for the rest of their lives the student of European history knows very little of American history, the student of American history very, very little of European. I do not know whether there is any greater evil than this in our system of training historical workers. Now the student of European history can hardly escape some contact with European literature and culture, and it will have its effects, however rigidly he may try to confine himself to his Fach. The student who has dedicated himself early to American history has perhaps done so because he has a narrow, a purely national outlook, or because at his institution the materials for working in American history seem abundant, those for European history insufficient, and he is too poor to go to Europe; or perhaps because he has not acquired, and shrinks from the trouble of acquiring, that command of other languages which is obviously requisite for the study of European history, but which he (wrongly) thinks is not needed in purely American historical studies. But these purely American studies, however ardently pursued, will not of themselves do much to improve his literary taste. Out of 216 American subjects in the last published List of Doctoral Dissertations in History now in Progress, I can count only 25 whose study would lead the young investigator into the paths of American or other literature; and of the American historians whom he would be reading, few would serve him as models of style.
“As for the remedies, while it is perfectly true that the time for cultivating the sense of literary form is in the undergraduate period, or earlier, I recognize that it is not very helpful to say so. The student’s resolve to make history his life-work is ordinarily not taken much before the end of his undergraduate period. Our real problem lies in the question, what can be done at that late hour to cause him to pay more attention to the quality of his writing. With the need of improvement well impressed upon his mind, and with some free time to devote to it, he is sure to improve. The most direct mode of helping him will be to cause him to read largely in well-written histories, to read continuously and with his mind on the mode of presentation, not, as too often now, to use the great historians merely for looking up points, to make notes, and then to dump his notes undigested into a thesis. But I do not think the professor of history in charge of graduate students should limit his efforts to the promotion of historical reading alone. He should try to lead them into wider fields of literature, should persuade them to repair their deficiencies in cultural subjects, to multiply their contacts with the world of letters, or to increase and enrich whatever humanistic knowledge they may have already acquired. It is easy to say that, if a young man’s brain does not naturally generate interesting thoughts, you cannot pump the power into him; but who of us has not risen from the reading of some notable work of literary art—Sohrab and Rustum or Anna Karenina or Java Head—with the feeling that, for the time being, at least, he was capable of richer thought than was within his power before those stimulating contacts?
“It will be asked—it is always asked upon any suggestion of educational improvement—how the time for all this is to be found. I answer without hesitation, by shortening greatly the time required to be spent on the doctoral dissertation. The amount of time now devoted to that lucubration—more than a year in many cases—runs beyond all reasonable limits; in Serjeant Dunning’s phrase, it ‘has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.’ The competitive ambition of graduate schools may be gratified by the consciousness of producing the world’s biggest theses, but as to the real good of the student, these swollen volumes of 400, 500, or 600 pages, and the amount of labor expended upon them, are out of all proportion to the benefits. In practical operation a doctor’s degree in history is a certificate that the young man or young woman is about fit to begin teaching history in a college. The young man would in most cases be far better fitted for that work if, after varied minor researches in a seminar, he should get the indispensable practice in more extended investigation by preparing a dissertation half as long as is now common (and half as expensive to print), but on a subject so chosen that he would derive from it more varied training, through the use of a wider variety of sources, and if he would use the time thus saved to read—to read histories or whatever else—and to give thought to the ways and forms of presentation, whether in the class-room or in writing.”
Mr. Sedgwick’s letter is the free statement of a man who has given the subject much thought, and it is thrown off in the interval of a busy editor’s life. It presents ideas in a personal and direct way; and for this reason it will be especially valuable to those who are accustomed to theorize. His ideas of the kind of history that would find favor with the reading public will be of service to the historian who asks himself : “What kind of history should I endeavor to write ? “ The letter is as follows :
“I am only too glad to give you my personal views on the interesting subject of your letter of November 13th. They are of their nature desultory, and simply reflect the experience of an individual who has for a good many years been in touch with a considerable audience of educated people.
“Interest in history has undergone a long and slow decline. The reason is not inherent, for there has certainly never been a time when the lessons of history called for so wide an application. It is the historians themselves who seem at fault. They have catalogued and dissected and subdivided history after the Lin- naean plan, dear to the scientific heart, but repugnant to normal human interest. Great historical enterprises, such as the Cambridge History, are written by a small and read by a large group of specialists. When they come into the hands of the general public, it is usually through the efforts of the persistent publisher. The ordinary man feels the terrifying complexities of the subject, and knows that to master it in any degree he must wade through a whole series of volumes. He craves two things—a general synthesis whereby he may try at least to see history steadily and whole, and the return of that old-fashioned preoccupation with the leaders of the race, which used to stimulate the imagination and give the personal note which most of us still desire.
“Whatever the learned historian may say, a book like Wells’s Outline has been a very great stimulus to the study of history. Any man of information can see the bias of the argument and uncounted instances of emphasis wrongly placed, but Wells at least gives him the habit of perspective. On the other hand, Wells does not give him those individual, imaginative portraits which once drew the world to Macaulay and Carlyle.
“I believe, therefore, that we need, first, more general histories in which the current of the narrative flows continuously through some considerable period, and, second, biographies in scale. Two volumes on President Cleveland or three on Mr. Gladstone represent to the ordinary man mere mismeasurement. Indeed, I wish as a publisher that I might undertake a considerable group of biographies of not more than 40,000 words, somewhat in the character of sustained essays on the significance of individuals. For such a series I should predict marked popularity and usefulness.
“You make special inquiry regarding the attitude of an intelligently conducted magazine toward history. Speaking for The Atlantic, I may say that I incline instinctively toward the publication of original and racy documents— the story of a Quaker in the Revolutionary War, the record of an early journey across the plains, anything of a private and conspicuous sort which might suggest from its character the realities of other times. I am also always inclined toward unpublished material dealing with episodes of importance. Perhaps the best stroke of this kind that I have been able to accomplish was the Diary of Gideon Welles, of which a great deal first appeared in The Atlantic.
“Finally, there are certain lives in history which have a magnetism peculiar to themselves. You simply cannot exhaust our public with Lincolniana, provided the material is genuine. Garrulous stories from nonagenarians who have heard Mr. Lincoln speak at Cooper Union are not wanted, but the smallest attested facts, if they are characteristic of him, will be widely read and quoted.
“Perhaps I should amplify what I said about original history by laying special stress upon the desirability of publishing important extracts from diaries. There is nothing like a personal journal for giving a reader at once a sense of the individuality of the writer and a convic tion that the views he expresses are absolutely unvarnished. It is like overhearing an unguarded conversation, and comes home naturally to a man’s interest.
“I should like to add a word concerning the great importance of the projected Dictionary of American Biography. Valuable from every point of view, it will, if the conduct of the enterprise compares with that of its great British prototype, have an influence which cannot be measured upon the historic preoccupations of our people.”