The Great Mutation
By Carl Bridenbaugh
Prepared for oral delivery, this presidential address is printed exactly as it was given by Mr. Bridenbaugh, University Professor at Brown University, at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting, the Conrad Hilton Hotel, Chicago, Illinois, December 29, 1962. American Historical Review 68:2 (January 1963): 315-31.
Books by Carl Bridenbaugh
Here in Chicago, this evening, I propose a causerie, a sharing with friends and colleagues some of my thoughts about history and its possible future in a kind of Lakeside chat. I ask your permission to speculate out loud. Or, perhaps, it is my duty as your President to report on the state of the profession and to suggest tentatively some measures to be taken for the benefit of ourselves and our posterity.
I want to talk about a situation affecting all of us, as historians, whether we be teachers, researchers, or writers, a situation which appears to me to have clustered around it all the elements of high tragedy. As I have tried to understand it, I have been at once puzzled and dismayed. Possibly, if I may lapse into jargon, my predicament is due to the fact that I am one of the inner-directed historians; whereas I imagine the majority of this audience and the readers of the American Historical Review are outer-directed. Were I able to reach such an easy conclusion, I could retire serene and contented. Contrariwise, I would not have you conclude that I think of myself as a sort of twentieth-century Apollinaris Sidonius ironically contemplating and recording the crumbling of a civilization round and about me.
The observations and comments which follow are neither original nor fully and exhaustively developed, but I do submit that the issues with which they deal are pressing and crucial; indeed they involve our very survival as a profession.
The canonical way for a historian to begin a lecture or a piece of research is to ask a question of the past; so let me open with a question addressed to every member of this body whatever his field of teaching or investigation. And it is this:
Can we reasonably assume that future historians will be able to recapture enough of a sense of the past to enable them to feel and understand it and to convey to their readers what this past was even remotely like?
Or, turned about and more succinctly:
How much longer will Society continue to support History as a useful branch of knowledge?
The posing of this question and the answers suggested to it are predicated on my conviction that the greatest turning point in all human history, of which we have any record, has occurred within the twentieth century.
In attempting to epitomize what I conceive to have transpired, I have borrowed a term, appropriately I think, from biology. The nature of human existence has undergone a "great mutation."
The Great Mutation, or historical change, has taken place so rapidly, and life has sustained such sudden and radical alterations (in the long course of time) that we are now suffering something like historical amnesia. In the present century, first Western civilization and now the entire globe have witnessed the inexorable substitution of an artificial environment and a materialistic outlook on life for the old natural environment and spiritual world view that linked us so irrevocably to the Recent and Distant Pasts. So pervading and complete has been this change, and so complex has life become--I almost said overwhelming--that it now appears probable that mid-nineteenth-century America or Western Europe had more in common with fifth-century Greece (physically, economically, socially, mentally, spiritually) than with their own projections into the middle of the twentieth century. Is it possible that so short a time can alter the condition of man?
At this point you must be reminded that these are but one man's musings arising from one man's experience with modern life. Inevitably, then, I become autobiographical, and a little research into my own (a recent) past may assist in making clear what I mean. At least I can be concrete. But let no one take alarm that he is about to listen to an extended reading from the education of Carl Bridenbaugh, though there is some compensation in the unmasking of a personal bias.
My entire life of fifty-nine years has been spent in this century, and I embarked on my thirty-seven years of professional life just as its second quarter opened. My childhood (a happy one and "secure") was spent on the suburban periphery of the sprawling city of Philadelphia, where it was still possible to grow up in a sort of rus in urbe setting as late as the end of the first war with Germany. I think this is significant. Although I attended city schools, on Saturdays and vacations I ranged the fields together with other boys, gathered and sold chestnuts, fished, and trapped muskrats along the banks of a broad creek. The first large fire I ever saw was not a city building but a hay barn, which was situated so distant from the firehouse that the big bay horses gave out before they and the steam pumper could reach the scene. When it was too cold, or rain and snow kept us indoors, we always had books laid aside for such contingencies, which occurred frequently. The reading could be anything from Tom Swift and the Rover Boys to stories from classical mythology, and we regarded this pursuit as a diversion, not as an assignment. Afterward we even talked about and criticized these books. And many summers were spent on my uncle's dairy and fruit farm in central Pennsylvania.
The scene of my college life was a small New Hampshire village. One of my most vivid memories of the year 1921 is the sight of Prexy's father-in-law, a farmer, collecting the town's garbage for his pigs in a two-ox cart, goad and all. I never had any doubts about what was meant in my History I textbook when Luther told the Diet at Worms that "It makes a difference whose ox is gored." On one occasion, a year later, I passed a night in a remote hillside farmhouse, where my presence led to the addition of some prunes stewed in molasses to the regular monotonous evening meal of boiled potatoes and salt pork. Once I assisted as a hutkeeper in the White Mountains on Moosilauke Summit, where for days on end we were shut off from the world outside.
The second quarter of the twentieth century, however, has produced some astounding contrasts. On the physical side, the difference can be illustrated by a casual incident of 1931. Following the trend, my parents had moved into a giant apartment "complex." One morning, while I was visiting them during a Christmas vacation, I came out of the building and found myself walking close enough behind a mother and her five-year-old daughter to overhear their conversation. It was Monday, and the street's curbs were lined with ash cans. To the little girl's question of what they were, the mother replied: "That's right, Gwendolyn, I have never explained to you about furnaces, have I?"
On the educational and cultural side, perhaps nothing so marks the age as the decline in reading, especially reading for enjoyment, and with it, a shrinking of the imagination that reading has always stimulated. Must we abandon Masefield's beautiful poem "Cargoes," and, for the quinquereme of Nineveh, the stately Spanish galleon, and the dirty British coaster, substitute the submarine, the jet plane, and the rocket? A west coast colleague told me of a freshman coed at the University of California who complained to him about receiving a "D" in a history examination, for she claimed that she had always made "B's" in high school history courses. Upon her mentioning the French Revolution, she was asked, "What did you make in that"? "A guillotine," was the quick response of this young woman, who had been educated for life.
Yes, we may smile, but what are we to make of my own rencontre with a psychologist and an anthropologist, younger than I am, but each nationally prominent in his subject. I had been lamenting the failure of several of my best graduate students to recognize an allusion at the end of one of my lectures: "But, as Alice said, it is nothing but a pack of cards." There was a brief silence and then, almost in unison, they demanded, "Well, who was Alice"? Alice is apparently out for the duration-she is as dead as the Dodo. Is allusion as a literary and teaching device now outmoded?
Many historians before me here can testify to the remarkable transformation of the conditions of existence before 1900. Some of the changes have occurred very rapidly, but nevertheless one of my generation finds it difficult to believe that the intelligent young woman, reared in our modern artificial surroundings, who was sent to Nigeria by the Peace Corps, found it impossible to imagine in advance something of the primitive natural situations she would have to face upon reaching her post. She was even innocent of the fact that post cards are, or formerly were, customarily read by several people before they reach the persons to whom they are addressed. The point is that raw nature is beyond the ken of most of the people of the Western world, because they have grown up in the man-made setting of the new world in this century. After all, Gwendolyn must be about thirty-six years old now. But enough of this former tranquillity recollected not unemotionally, for there is no need to labor this for historians, and the present purpose can be served by singling out certain aspects of the Great Mutation that have to do directly with history and historians, both now and hereafter.
Can we historians of this present day and age, let alone those yet to come (who will have been nurtured and educated exclusively in artificial surroundings) succeed in recovering imaginatively what the old milieu of thousands of years was like? My mountain-climbing friends tell me that atop the loftiest Alps, or the Grand Tetons, they come across the dreary spectacle of castoff cigarette packs and ugly yellow Kodak film boxes; they have even stepped on wads of gum. The transistor radio has everywhere created a new urbe in rus, bringing the Huntley-Brinkley news and the Madison Avenue claptrap to the summit of Moosilauke and the High Sierras. Shades of John Muir and his lovely, lonely summers!
The Bureau of the Census announced in January 1962 that shortly the farm population of the United States will drop to fourteen millions; so that it will but equal the number of teenagers. Though he was bred on a farm, my late father, like so many others of his generation, ran off to the city. One day in 1934, he related, not without asperity, an experience he had had that afternoon with a Pennsylvania German farmer. While waiting on the city's outskirts for a bus to bring in a business associate, he fell into conversation with the farmer, who, clad in blue-and-white striped overalls, was standing beside his truck; he too was awaiting the bus. My father remarked that he had once been a farmer. With a contemptuous glance at my father's neat business suit and his shiny black car, the Dutchman turned and started to walk away. Then, suddenly, he whirled around and said, with a sneer, "You say you were a farmer. Well, how would you teach a calf to drink out of a milk pail?" Indignant that his word should be questioned, my father replied, "I don't know how you would do it, but I would take the calf's head between my legs, stick three fingers into its mouth, and thrust its head down into the pail." City folks cannot imagine such things; he had triumphantly proved his origins. The moral of this tale is that such lore is alien to all but a shrinking few these days; in 1840, or 1776, or 55 B.C., it was commonplace. We are the last generation to have from our own meager experience any actual knowledge of what it was like to live in what we may term the natural ages before 1900. It is indubitably true that physically and economically the old, comparatively stable rural society has been transformed into an unstable, urban, industrial society by unforeseeable technological changes.
In teaching history classes I have found it impossible to get students to imagine an event so close to some of us as the Great Depression though I resorted to every narrative device at my command. I have recounted my horror at seeing formerly respectable men, reduced to hunger, rooting through garbage cans on Beacon Hill in Boston in 1933. The students were unmoved. Even less could they comprehend how such sights could have impelled one of our more versatile members to write a sonnet entitled "Christ in the Breadline." How then, can we expect them to make anything out of the highly significant statement of an apprentice to the court of Essex County, Massachusetts, in 1657, that it was a long time before "he could eat his master's food, viz. meate and milk, or drink beer, saying that he did not know that it was good, because he was not used to eate such victualls, but to eate bread and water porridge and to drinke water?"
Somewhat different consequences of the Great Mutation can be detected in the human and spiritual spheres. So deeply has the virus of secularism penetrated our society that religion is very far gone--all newspaper reports to the contrary. The present generation of college students is, in all probability, the last to know anything fundamental about religion, and it knows very little. All of them--Protestants, Jews, Roman Catholics alike--are deeply curious about the history of religion as a novel story, but they have never known real piety. They are passive at best. It almost seems as if they think of God as a new idea that came in with the Eisenhower administration. They may attend divine worship weekly, but as for theology, they never heard of it; theology, like philosophy, is an abstract, technical subject in which you take courses and major, if you like that sort of thing. The common religious and cultural bond of Bible reading exists no more. Both these young people and their elders (including university presidents, many newspaper editors, yes, and some historians) have not even an elementary knowledge of clerical nomenclature. They are not even aware that the word Reverend is an adjective, that it represents a quality, not a title--that it is not the Protestant equivalent for Rabbi and Father. This secularism has so affected our guild that it has become necessary to reaffirm for those who work on the American Revolution that relations between church and state and their exact nature (matters so relevant to current politics and education) played a determining part in the separation of the English colonies from their mother country. And so, it seems, historians, too, have been forgetting their past. In a very real sense, one may regard the series of volumes recently published by the Princeton University Press as one long funeral sermon (or obituary) on religion in America.
Some curious by-products stem from the decline of religion. Toleration has been so emphasized by our public schools that today college students consider the most valid and socially necessary criticisms of any religious group as unfair, unsporting, and bigoted. Thus we have some grounds for the present ecumenical urge in the world: theology no longer counts or interests the majority of the faithful; and how they gape when told that where there is no mystery there is no religion. "Non est religio ubi omnia patent."
Painfully, laboriously, over a long term of years, men worked out series of rules, which they often codified, for getting along with each other with the least friction. Manners, courtesy, etiquette, and protocol made social, political, and diplomatic intercourse easier by reducing the chances of irritation. These were the rules men were enabled to live by together, and we find them in various forms among the Maori and the Iroquois almost as highly developed as in chivalry or Il Cortegiano, or at Versailles, because they were socially necessary and useful. The values they represented have now been distorted, shattered, have disappeared entirely, or at best are on the way out. Likewise, what we call taste--a sense of the fitness of things--evolved slowly, and with it came a deeper appreciation of beauty. Taste is entirely gone, today. With time, no doubt, fresh standards for human behavior better suited to the new day will be devised and accepted, but how will the meaning of these matters, so important in human history, ever be made clear to the generations to whom they are unknown or at least unimportant?
Today, in the cities, we see more people, but know fewer; and these are likely to be exclusively of our own kind (whatever that may be). The democratic urge for equality and the disappearance of the traditional social ranks have produced a resentfulness among many students (some of whom will become scholars) of anything that may be labeled "aristocratic." It is nevertheless discouraging to discover the naïveté in the current tendency to treat the merits (as well as the defects) of the class arrangements of earlier periods with such an absence of historical imagination and judiciousness as to cause investigators to overlook the obvious truth that the old systems were rationalizations of the needs and social conditions of the societies in which they arose--and, that for long stretches of time they suited men and served them well. Not a few aspiring young historians look upon the assertion that modern democracy would not have worked in eighteenth-century America or ninth-century France as pretty dose to intellectual treason. With the poor, however, social classes of some kind will always be with us.
Like nearly any activity in the Western world, historical scholarship has undergone a technological revolution, and we now possess, and probably will add to and improve, remarkable techniques for handling our raw materials, advantages of which previous historians never dreamed. Among other ways, bigness has struck us by proliferating sources and editing, thereby deluging us with an overwhelming mass of data for the study of the last one and a half centuries of history. The new age has built up a stock pile of sources and forced us to resort ever more frequently to statistics. "What is your method of sampling?" a sociologist inquired of me on my arrival at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. I suppose that my reply that those who work in the prestatistical age of history, which is all history save the tiny fragment of the last hundred years, do not sample, but seize upon every scrap of a statistic they can find, only confirmed him in the social scientists' conviction that historians as well as history are the bunk.
There are, however, numerous inescapable ironies about the dilemmas created by inventions of the new age. With more and more scholars employing all the tools and techniques, using all the data processing machines, and also those frightening projected scanning devices, which we are told will read documents and books for us, there is still no machine for digesting the sources. No longer is there, or will there be, the time in which to ponder at length the meaning of the old reliables among the sources.
Notwithstanding the incessant chatter about communication that we hear daily, it has not improved; actually it has become more difficult. In former days, the ablest historians were educated amateurs, or perhaps a better term would be amateur scholars. They were men who had previously been men of action: Herodotus, Thucydides, Caesar, Comines, Macaulay, the Americans Bancroft and Adams, and today, Churchill. These great writers knew life at firsthand, life which they described critically and interpreted reflectively for their readers. Historians of our Recent Past shared a common culture, a body of literary knowledge to which allusion could be usefully made. Everybody knew Alice, and about oxen being gored, and not in the Pickwickian sense. Historians, and their readers, were well "fed of the dainties that are bred in a book," but never so stuffed with mere technical data that they built up a sort of mental cholesterol.
Today we must face the discouraging prospect that we all, teachers and pupils alike, have lost much of what this earlier generation possessed, the priceless asset of a shared culture. Today imaginations have become starved or stunted, and wit and humor, let alone laughter and a healthy frivolity, are seldom encountered. Furthermore, many of the younger practitioners of our craft, and those who are still apprentices, are products of lower middle-class or foreign origins, and their emotions not infrequently get in the way of historical reconstructions. They find themselves in a very real sense outsiders on our past and feel themselves shut out. This is certainly not their fault, but it is true. They have no experience to assist them, and the chasm between them and the Remote Past widens every hour. In our graduate schools we are training a host of skilled historical technicians, but all of us here, I think, will have to conclude that very few of our colleagues rise today to the high level of significant generalization or display either profound analytical powers or marked narrative proficiency. Certainly it is a great event when we get some living characterizations or credible vignettes of the actors of history, and it is an occasion for prolonged applause when we encounter any appreciation of beauty, taste, or humor. What I fear is that the changes observant in the background and training of the present generation will make it impossible for them to communicate to and reconstruct the past for future generations.
Other changes, either a result of or a part of the Great Mutation, have produced specific and far-reaching effects on the historical profession, both as individuals and with respect to our capacities as the preservers, recorders, interpreters, and teachers of and about the past. We historians appear to have lost our former realization of the historical importance of the individual, of the human being. We discourse learnedly of peasants in the mass, as a class, as though each one did not possess an individuality and reveal the eccentricities we note immediately as we look at the paintings of Brueghel. "History is about chaps," the English tell us; yet neither they nor we seem able to remember that chaps still belong in written history. They are the most important part of it--the hard core, if I may coin a phrase.
Equally neglected is the vital, the significant, and above all, fascinating history of the family, especially in our own country. The radical transformation that this basic cultural, social, religious, and political institution is experiencing, if not its eventual elimination as a governing factor in modern life, raises the question of not merely who is to tell its story but whether future historians will be able to understand the central role the family once played in the long course of mankind's history before 1900.
Despite the lessons so richly and brilliantly taught by such American historians as Edward Eggleston, Charles A. Beard, James Harvey Robinson, and Arthur M. Schlesinger since 1900, that a sound knowledge of how people lived, acted, and thought, of the economy, and of social and cultural developments, is vital to any understanding of the end product, which is political action, more and more present-day practitioners almost assiduously avoid acquiring it. Instead they engage in what I call the retreat to politics, a flight back to the old-line political history. Is this because, as a student told me last year, that the history of civilization is too complex to research on, organize, and write about?
I would hesitate to denigrate my colleagues by admitting that they have abdicated because the job is beyond their capacities. But I do want to ask if it is not probable that the future will be far more interested in the character of our civilization, in industrial and scientific advance, and the nature of day-to-day life in Europe, America, Asia, or Africa, than in the political minutiae of the first decades of the reign of George III, the grass roots of Jacksonian Democracy in Pennsylvania, or whether it was merely his faith that defeated Al Smith in 1928. Is there any demand from today's reading public for the old-fashioned kind of political history sufficient to warrant the vast amount of professional time devoted to it? The writing of general history is of immediate practical significance today, for never has the dissemination of historical knowledge (and not just political history narrowly construed) been more imperatively needed. Yet where is there today a single university among the English-speaking peoples where historical novices receive any extensive introduction to the history of the "Life" or "Civilization" of either England or America? And is there available even a passable textbook treating the social and cultural history of modern Europe? Such matters are customarily ignored, if not pooh-poohed.
Again, too many of us have enlisted in the "cult of the contemporary." In 1938, a prominent historian, in commenting on my doctoral dissertation on colonial cities remarked that now, of course, I would move down well past 1865 in my next researches, because few students and fewer readers display any interest in what occurred before the Civil War, and really not much before 1890. This proposal to jettison what are, after all, the prime qualities of history--perspective and balance--astounded me, and it still does. Correctly taught and studied, history embraces the entire past, and it is its totality that is so important, not just the Recent Past. And we owe it to the entire past, the past which supports us, to understand it to the best of our abilities; and we owe it to the future to make this past understandable. Too few of us fully appreciate the manifold merits of historical perspective. It saves us from becoming astigmatic about current events of the Recent Past. The corrosive and softening effects of time cause events to shrink to something like their normal sizes. We are living in parlous times now, and we can take comfort in this connection by recalling Professor William Haller's assessment of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in England: "It was a period of storm and stress seldom equalled, and probably never surpassed." The long-range point of view that the best historians take gives them and their readers an advantage that no other study of human society can impart, and it enables them to contribute some balance to an otherwise topsy-turvy world of scholarship.
Another result of modern complexity is the relentless drift into specialization. Department chairmen no longer ask for a young Ph.D. in the national period of American history since 1783; they demand a beginner whose training is on a narrow theme or in a very short period. Moreover our graduate schools are accommodating them at a great cost to the fledgling and to the teaching of American history. At our own Annual Meetings we make room on the program for railroad history--in a year or so I anticipate further fragmentation with a program on the history of the narrow gauge and then one on the air brake. A fully rounded view of the past, not just of periods, segments of periods, sections of segments of former times, is needed and is the only one that will give meaning to the facts, especially selected facts.
Because of these predilections of today's historians, the flight to political history, the indifference to the history of civilization, the cult of the contemporary, and specialization, there is a mounting tendency to abandon other kinds of history to the social scientists, many of whom are brilliant men but who are even more culturally impoverished than we are. Their greatest deficiency is their lack of human understanding, which is the first requirement of the good historian; they do not understand or care about chaps. They deal in statistics, with units and trends, hoping to deduce laws of society; their works are primarily systematic, reveal little if any historical sense, and they ignore chronology. Many statisticians and sociologists cannot fathom why the figures of a hospital in Rochester, New York, for the years 1950-1955, which indicate a psychosomatic relationship between recent bereavement and admission of patients to the hospital for illness have no relevance whatever for the history of medicine in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, or Europe in the fourteenth century. But those who have read Samuel Sewall's famous Diary, or accounts of the Black Death, know full well that an entirely different psychosomatic ratio would have to be worked out for those generations of people to whom death was a word spoken without euphemism and an event of almost daily occurrence. Realization that historical facts are unique in character, space, and time restrains the historian from trying to fit them into a rigid theory or fixed pattern--and here he can render emergency yeoman service to his unhistorical colleagues in other disciplines.
Perhaps the basic verity of all history is that the past was complex, and that this complexity serves to demonstrate that the Remote Past was of a vastly different order, style, and tone from the Recent Past or the Present. Human beings were just as cussed, unpredictable, stolid, lovable, hateful, intelligent, and stupid then as now; the striking differences we observe derive largely from the mounting artificiality of the environment. In this respect the historian quite rightly opposes, or ought to oppose, certain highly unhistorical attempts at logical ordering and simplification of the past made by social scientists. The historian realizes just how fallacious and unscientific is the folk assumption that asserts that history repeats itself; and, impressed with the uniqueness of events, he prefers the concrete to the generalized or the abstract.
The conclusions to be drawn from these observations or this brief survey of what I have labeled the Great Mutation may be summed up with the remark that material and spiritual changes in the conditions of human existence have occurred since 1900 at a tremendous rate and with a speed that accelerates geometrically. We can no longer speak accurately of "the slow change of time." As I see it, mankind is faced with nothing short of the loss of its memory, and this memory is history. The great question is whether enough of this memory can be recalled now and hereafter to suit the needs and tastes of coming generations. Are we past hope, past cure, past help? The only cure depends upon how far our own and the coming generations of historians in this country and Europe are willing and prepared to face up to the challenge created by the Great Mutation.
As a prerequisite to any treatment, we historians must take stock of ourselves and our obligations. There are great excellencies, virtues, and merits in the study of history that are only too frequently obscured, or by-passed if they are ever fully recognized. Among them is that the study of history, properly undertaken, can be the most broadening, humanizing, useful, and exciting of all learned pursuits. This, not jobs, should prove the greatest attraction, for the reading and studying of history without experiencing the exhilaration of feeling and understanding are like the southern California custom of drinking frozen orange juice in the midst of a grove of ripe oranges.
The finest historians will not be those who succumb to the dehumanizing methods of social sciences, whatever their uses and values, which I hasten to acknowledge. Nor will the historian worship at the shrine of that Bitch-goddess, QUANTIFICATION. History offers radically different values and methods. It concerns itself with the "mutable, rank-scented many," but it fails if it does not show them as individuals whenever it can. What future historians will have to acquire, and it will call out their utmost efforts, is a sense of individual men living and having their daily being, men acting in time and place, or there will be no comprehension. Only then will accounts of men in groups or men in the mass, analyses of forces, of trends, and the whole paraphernalia of graphs and tables make any sense to posterity. This history, and history alone of the studies of mankind, can contribute to the future of society.
Farthest from my intentions is any desire to fasten a label on what I believe we and posterity need from history. Nor do I for an instant mean to imply that all historians should confine themselves to the lines of investigation mentioned. What I want to bring home to you is that a thorough, imaginatively molded knowledge of the life of a former epoch is antecedent to all specialized forms of historical research and analysis. It is the irreducible minimum. Once possessed of it, those who so desire should be encouraged to pursue their favorite kinds of history: economic, institutional, intellectual, yes, even quantification, for we need to know about such matters. The broad, basic knowledge will serve such scholars well when they come to study men's motives and actions in groups and under peculiar circumstances. Lacking it, their history will become progressively denatured, barren, meaningless. Whatever one essays to do with history, he must be soaked in the life of an age if he is to give a good performance, axed there is no public demand for bad history. We dare not abandon such concerns to the biographer or the historical novelist, whose very raw materials are drawn from the works of historians.
We must also recognize that history has severe limitations. As La Roche-foucauld phrased it, "History never embraces more than a small part of reality," to which we ought to add the gloss: and with each year it embraces less and less of reality. However, any former period that we select for examination has its own several degrees of reality, just as our own age has. But such admissions do not give us any excuse for not making every effort to live vicariously in the times about which we study, teach, and write so as to stir the imaginations of the classroom and library audiences. We must find a way to teach about and elucidate a world recorded but imperfectly in the documents and books, for there will fall upon future scholars the task of reading our versions of the past imaginatively as well as accurately.
Our immediate obligation is to strive to avoid, so far as possible, the onesidedness and lack of balance that are caused by the fundamental nature of our training and work, for we must never forget that we are academicians, who, by the very closet nature of our craft, must try continually to keep in touch with present reality so that we may write and teach about the past realistically and with a reasonable approximation to the truth. The younger scholars who served in the last war had this advantage over those who did not participate or who came along later, that they saw something of life in the raw before they retired to the study. The historian can only attain his full maturity as a writer and teacher when he succeeds in combining knowledge and understanding of the real world with his world of books.
Perhaps our greatest responsibility lies in the training of future scholars, and we can concur with point five of J. B. Conant's report in his recent Slums and Suburbs that "the place to begin to set standards in American education is at the last rung of the ladder--the graduate level." If, as Henry Adams thought, the teacher affects eternity, then it is the graduate schools that condition and turn out the teachers who instruct at the secondary, collegiate, and postgraduate institutions that demand our attention. Reformation will have to start there, and it must be "Reformation without tarying for anie."
The brute fact of the situation is that as presently ordered the American graduate schools are not preparing the kind of historians that the future will need. Instruction in these institutions, save in rare and isolated instances, tends to sublimate, almost to suppress, rather than to arouse or invigorate qualities of imaginative and creative thinking. The only remedy I can think of is strong medicine; no mild prophylactic will suffice. In the future, students entering at the graduate level should be required to produce evidence of a broad and ranging general culture before admission; only then can we build on to that kind of education the ever more rigorous training needed from which the student can form a Weltanschauung suitable for his entry into the profession of historian. You will say that this means admitting only young people who are far superior to those we now accept. I reply yes; then let us do so. We might as well revive the cry of the Covenanters at Tibbermore: "JESUS, and no Quarter." I hear many people saying that this is asking too much. I reply this: that while it is asking far more than was previously or is now demanded, it is nevertheless the absolute minimum necessary for the survival of the profession. The future will demand more than most of us are now equipped to give, and without doubt we must attract more first-class, creative minds.
We must find ways to make the past a living past for those students. This will be particularly difficult for most of the urban-bred scholars of today if their work is to show any real, perceptive comprehension of the workings of human nature. The deficiency is environmental, for in former times such understanding was vouchsafed to historians who were raised in the countryside or in the small town, where the eccentricities, idiosyncracies, and individual traits of people were allowed free play, openly, and more often than not encouraged, because they made them more interesting. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and computers just cannot do this sort of thing for us. The deficiency must in some way be overcome.
Historical imagination must be required of all. We need to re-create the past, first in our own imaginations and then make our students feel, sense, share with their imaginations what life in the past was like. Because of the Great Mutation, which has separated the Recent from the Remote Past, this undertaking becomes Gargantuan in its proportions and steadily more difficult. But the obligation remains. In the study, the classroom, and in the writing of history every opportunity must be seized to stimulate and exercise the atrophied imaginations of scholars, teachers, students, and the reading public sufficiently to enable them all to participate vicariously in the story of mankind. Knowledge is not enough. "To know is nothing," said Anatole France, "to imagine is everything."
I would not have you think that I conceive of myself as suggesting anything new or impossible. Not a few of us agree that Herodotus tells us far more about ancient Greece than did Thucydides, the patron saint of nineteenth-century political historians. Francis Beaumont, father of the dramatist, said truly of Chaucer as a historian: "One gift he hath above all other authors, and that is by the excellence of his descriptions to possess his readers with a stronger imagination of seeing done before their very eyes, which they read, than any other than ever writ in any tongue." And so present-day historians will have to unite in putting forth with their minds and their senses one grand effort to feel, to understand, in truth to relive both the Recent and Remote Pasts. Only then will the historian have the right, like the player in Henry V, to ask society to:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
. . .
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history.
. . .
The Great Mutation has made it necessary to focus more than ever before on the physical settings of the past and to become familiar with the several stages on which men played their parts. We cannot any longer afford the luxury of indifference or oversight about such matters since the natural scenery has been changed to an artificial one. The scenes of history loom ever more important. All of us will agree at once that nobody can write or teach intelligently of God and the Middle Ages without a sight of the cathedrals. Consider, too, how much the experiences that Francis Parkman and Theodore Roosevelt had with the forest and frontier life enhanced the vividness and validity of their accounts of the American West. How sure was their touch because they had been on the sites they described. I remember very well that years ago there were those who thought I was wasting valuable time wandering up and down the streets and wharves of the five colonial towns I was studying; it was deemed that I might have better used my time reading documents. But I warn my fellow members of this body that we can no longer tolerate the purblindness of thinking that the scenes of the past can best be re-created in a library. As historians we cannot continue to be insensitive to the whole panorama of the arts and architecture, music, painting, and sculpture and concentrate exclusively on the literary remains of the past. Edward Gibbon did not get his inspiration in the Bodleian; it came to him amidst the ruins of the Roman forum. We must recognize that there is a climate of beauty as well as of opinion, and also that there is, or was, a "beauty of holiness."
Not long ago, the editors of a widely circulated historical journal allotted a major review to a biography of Buffalo Bill while they dismissed with a few words the most original work I have read on the great West in the last thirty years. This work treated the aesthetic and social response of the pioneers to their environment as reflected in architecture. The well-meaning editors did not think of this as history; their failure was one of the imagination. Art and imagination then, these are the talismen by whose aid the scholar transmutes his learning into history.
It will be an even weightier, but just as necessary, task for our successors to try to get into the minds of men long dead, to rethink their thoughts, to feel once more the sentiments that motivated their conduct, to gauge the tragic quality of their lives, to compare these with the present, and to pass the conclusions along to posterity in a form that posterity will recognize as suited to the exigencies of its own times. If, however, the archaeologists and historians can summon up the powerful emotions of Hittite nationalism as opposed to that of the ancient Egyptians by burning the lamp of research, these counsels are not chimerical. At this very day, the Harvard Plutarch, Clifford Shipton, brings us more intimately into communion with the New Englanders of the eighteenth century than the entire corps of scholars who have sought so brilliantly to analyze the mind and to elucidate the political ethos that governed them. All ideas and institutions and movements are rooted in human experience, and are transformed and ruled by it. There is, however, the danger that historians will neglect humanity and be satisfied with rethinking the thoughts of those few who counted and not participate imaginatively with all sorts and conditions of men and women, in their fears, angers, griefs, hopes, satisfactions, joys.
Whatever techniques are applied in research and analysis to arrive at conclusions about the past, the communication of these conclusions in the classroom and on the printed page is a creative act, despite the inane debate whether history is an art or a science. Historical investigations such as compilation and editing can be carried on by cooperative effort--in the argot of the profession, by teams--but can anyone here recall any truly great work of history that did not pass exclusively through one man's mind? And it is this act, by the artist, that is paramount, that is essential to all good history.
All these things we must do and do well, lest we fall into the morass of abstraction. The farther we move away from the Old Past, the more dim and vague our images of it are bound to become. Historians must have some realization of how men who are not historians behave. As Marc Bloc insisted, we must never stray far from the concrete: "Trop d'institutions, pas assez de réalités humaines." If we do stray, assuredly our history will be written and taught in the image of the present and not of the past; and it will consequently be reduced to a nullity. Are we to concede that:
The Past is like a funeral gone by,
The Future comes like an unwelcome guest?
If we do, like the aristocrats of the old regime, we historians will have lost our métier.
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Version © 2001, American Historical AssociationLast Updated: June 10, 2011 11:22 AM