Professionalism, Audience, Subjectivity in the History Game

That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession Peter Novick, 1988

Okay, not Environmental History per se. But something that any academic historian has been asked to read at some point. And something anyone planning to write should read and think about first.

Peter Novick provides an insider’s view, through correspondence and personal papers, as well as published material, of the development of History as an American academic profession. This was very helpful to me when I was working out a historiography for my oral exam fields, and remains interesting because like to understand genealogies. Novick also addresses issues of professionalism, audience, the historian’s role in society, and (of course) objectivity, in ways that are very interesting and seem quite fresh, even a quarter-century after the book’s publication.

Novick begins his introduction (aptly titled “Nailing jelly to the wall”) by saying “Historical objectivity” is a “sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies” (1). Novick calls objectivity an “essentially contested concept,” and the same might be said for the other concepts he explores. The interesting thing about these controversial concepts, though, is that the fact they are contested isn’t an unfortunate effect of change, or a flaw in our understanding. These concepts exist to be contested. They aren’t answers, they’re questions.

Novick describes a myth of objectivity, which he says includes assumptions about the “reality of the past...a sharp separation between the knower and known, between fact and value, and , above all, between history and fiction” (1-2). Truth, according to this “objectivist” point of view, is “not perspectival. Whatever patterns exist in history are ‘found,’ not ‘made’ ” (2). This mythical objectivity is important, he says, not only because “it has served in sustaining the professional historical venture” (3), but also because of the “numerous...assertions by historians that without such faith they would see no point in scholarship, and would abandon it.” The main issue here, for me at least, is that when you really follow this trail all the way to its source, you end up in a quasi-religious mindset where there are patterns in history because there's a divine plan, even if the god is materialist determinism.

“The e pluribus unum in the myth of historical objectivity,” Novick says, “promised to resolve the contradiction [between many points of view and “reality”], through a unitary convergent history which would correspond to a unitary past” (5). I don’t see why we can’t agree that there’s a single reality, though, and also accept the proposition that it’s unknowable -- both because of its ridiculous complexity and because our own consciousnesses are limited by our experience, environment, and (yes) language. And I don’t think you would have to be brought up with quantum mechanics or postmodernism to “get” this -- it seems like David Hume would be all you’d need.

Novick quotes Isaiah Berlin, who he says follows Hegel in describing the history of thought and culture as “a changing pattern of great liberating ideas which inevitably turn into suffocating straitjackets” (quoting
Concepts and Categories, 7). But while this may be true in the overall history of ideas, in historiography (and to some extent in Novick’s story) it frequently seems that differences of emphasis are mistaken for disagreement. Or that people motivated by the requirements of the profession magnify small differences in order to make space for themselves in an ongoing historiographical dialogue.

“There appears to be a residual great man theory of historiography,” Novick says (9). He later adds to this, that there’s also a residual Whig Interpretation in historiography. While this may be true, it also seems clear that relatively few people in the history of the profession have attempted grand syntheses or new overarching interpretations that have been noticed and read by many people. So these historians deserve a featured place on the “family tree.” In fact, part of my job, I think, is understanding the slight difference between the list of historians who were read by lots of people, and the ones now believed significant by historiographers. Luckily, Novick points out many of the popular “amateurs” in each period.

In his introduction, Novick mentions the choices he had to make in writing, to balance accurate representation of historians‘ positions with a more generalized discussion of their place. He suggests that “what one loses in the ability to unpack the nuances and complexities of individuals‘ thought, in ‘doing them justice,‘ one may gain in the validity of generalizations, and appreciation of the variety of contradictory currents within the profession, and their interaction” (9). It might also be true that, since many of the historiographical arguments seem to involve the selective misinterpretation of historians‘ positions and the setting up of straw men, a less deep approach to their ideas might be entirely appropriate.

Novick seems aware of this issue. He claims that “the philosophical stakes are very high” for historians, especially on the objectivity issue; and yet he acknowledges that as historians we are aware that “protagonists are in fact often disingenuous in their arguments, are following hidden agendas, and are expressing views shaped by ‘extra rational’ factors” (11-12). The question he raises, of course is, do we apply this same close criticism to ourselves? I’d suggest that in several areas, including overstating changes, imposing periodization, and reintroducing substantially similar interpretations using arcane new vocabulary, professional historians bow to the demands of professionalism in ways their amateur predecessors never needed to do.

So is historiography, then, an artifact of professionalism? Would the tree be simpler if we tried to strip away the artificial arguments, and focused on really substantial changes in interpretation? Would this be a worthwhile task?

Novick begins his story in 1884, with the founding of the American Historical Association, and with the “amateur historians whom the professionals sought to replace” (21). It’s interesting that George Bancroft, who is normally grouped with the amateurs, was in Berlin in 1867 (25). And Novick’s claim that Americans completely misunderstood Leopold von Ranke is a hoot. Far from being an objectivist, Novick says, Ranke “was a thoroughgoing philosophical idealist, at one with Hegel in believing the world divinely ordered” (27). Even Ranke’s famous dictum, that history should be written
wie es eigentlich gewesen, is complicated by the fact that at the time Ranke wrote those words, eigentlich “also meant ‘essentially,’ and it was in this sense that Ranke characteristically used it” (28). And in any case, by the time the Americans arrived in Germany, Ranke had retired, “and no American had sustained firsthand contact with him” (29). So much for the solid origins of the objectivity myth.

Novick makes a strong case that it is not often a complete idea that drives debate, but what he calls “dominant vulgarizations” of important ideas (34). If that's true in academic history,
how much more true must it be in popular writing? As an example, he points out that although Darwin believed (at least privately) that “all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!” (from a 1861 letter to Henry Fawcett) Darwin dissembled in “the very first paragraph of On the Origin of Species,” and “As Darwin triumphed, so did crude reductionism--the doctrine that Darwin, privately, mocked” (35-6). These ideas entered history through men like Albert Bushnell Hart, who “like most other readers of Darwin, accepted at face value Darwin’s claim to have ‘worked on true Baconian principles’ and, in his AHA presidential address, urged historians to follow his example” (38).

Novick shows that to some extent the transition from amateur to professional historians was facilitated by a change in literary tastes narrative styles. “Sir Walter Scott,” Novick says, “was, by a wide margin, the most popular and imitated author in early nineteenth-century America” (45). By the 1850s and 1860s, Flaubert and Zola had “introduced the objective, the omniscient, the impersonal, and the self-effacing narrator” (40). But of course, they were novelists and those were
literary devices. “Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman each...employed the organization of the stage play” in one of their works (45). The older historians’ “combination of the ‘intrusive’ authorial presence, the explicit moralizing, and overt partisanship, made their work unacceptable to the historical scientists” (46). The question is, are we talking about style or substance? Were these changes in writing really announcing significant differences in content?  Substantial changes in interpretation, or just the same type of partisanship content hidden in fashionably changed forms?

The “criteria of a profession,” Novick says, are “institutional apparatus (an association, a learned journal), standardized training in esoteric skills, leading to certification and controlled access to practice.” In other words, a monopoly that can impose barriers to entry (48). But in spite of the historical profession’s attempts to institute such a monopoly, “much of the most distinguished historical work continued to be produced by those without Ph.D.’s or professorships” (49). Examples include J.B. McMaster,
History of the People of the United States; Ellis Oberholtzer, History of the United States Since the Civil War; James Schouler, History of the United States Under the Constitution; James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850. The “Pre-professional historians,” Novick says, “had offered their wares in a classically free market” (53). Professionalism’s “visible hand” not only directed historians toward more inward-focused and specialist writing, it also made “provision for those of mediocre talents” (54). The professionalization of history not only shifted power from the reading public to the “bureaucratic organization” (63), it also promoted the idea of historians “bringing their stones to one great building and piling them on and cementing them together” (quoting Karl Pearson, 56). “Almost anyone, properly trained, could mold a brick,” Novick says. “If the maxim of the free market is caveat emptor, the slogan of the profession is credat emptor” (57). I think I remember Arthur Marwick using almost those exact words in a passage designed to inspire young historians; so I guess these issues are still alive.

Novick also calls attention to how much historiography owes to current events. “Prewar [WWI] confidence in progress generally,” he says, “and progress in scientific knowledge in particular, was a powerful limitation on the critique of historical objectivity” (105). The disillusionment the Great War caused “was particularly acute for historians, since it was ‘their’ man in the White House, one of Herbert Baxter Adams’ s first Ph.D.’s, who had betrayed their hopes” (130).

As the story continues, writers outside of professional history continue to be important. “A survey of professional historians conducted shortly after World War II solicited opinions on the best interwar historical work. Of those most often named, a number were by nonhistorians (e.g., Perry Miller, Vernon Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks)” (178). In contrast, Schlesinger and Fox’s twelve-volume
History of American Life was considered “a stillbirth...history with the politics left out.” But a “substantial popular market for historical writing” emerged during the interwar period, served by “amateurs” like Frederick Lewis Allen, Claude G. Bowers, Matthew Josephson (who were journalists), Albert J. Beveridge (a politician), Carl Sandburg (a poet), James Truslow Adams, and Van Wyck Brooks...H.G. Wells’s Outline of History sold more than a million and a half copies in the United States,” against AHR editor J. Franklin Jameson’s American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (less than a thousand) and John D. Hicks’s Populist Revolt, which “took seventeen years to sell fifteen hundred copies” (193). Another group of journalist-historians Novick doesn't mention, who I find very interesting, were "muck-raking" authors like Ferdinand Lundberg, whose America's 60 Families is packed with names and numbers, and makes a point I've never seen in a mainstream history: that every Presidential election but two between the time of Lincoln and the Great Depression, came down to who spent the most money.  The Beards' Rise of American Civilization, 1927, sold over 130,000 copies. (240)

In the Cold War, the story just gets so nasty and spiteful that it’s difficult to find any real historiographical issues at stake.  The public apparently didn’t sympathize, and “best-seller-dom in history was preserved for amateurs like Walter Lord, Cornelius Ryan, William L. Shirer, John Toland, and Barbara Tuchman,” all of whom the professionals despised (372). In the end, I’m not convinced that the Objectivity Question is the most pressing one for historians, or even the central issue of
That Noble Dream.  The relevance question, which Novick also substantially deals with, seems to be a stronger through-line for this history of History in America.

Novick's story shows the incredibly personal nature of twentieth-century professional history, and the small handful of significant personalities. For example, Oscar Handlin, who clearly had a longer-than-average career, appears throughout the book. Handlin appears in many different guises: early on, as a young Jewish historian thankfully allowed to enter the profession; then, in the 1940s, as a consensus critic of the progressives’ “Bulletin 54” (392); and finally as the Pulitzer-winning author of
The Uprooted, announcing that he had “learned to live with relativism.” (607) Novick mentions that critics of The Uprooted (1951) called it “engaged...personal, value-laden.”  Somehow, he fails to mention that it completely abandons even a semblance of objectivity.

Handlin trumpeted
The Uprooted as an epic and acknowledged that in the spirit of epic authors he “did not find it in the nature of this work to give its pages the usual historical documentation” (The Uprooted, 308). This is an interesting statement, coming from one of the stalwarts of what Novick calls objectivism. Handlin’s use of novelistic techniques like interior monologue (Handlin actually puts his words in the heads of Italian immigrant women!) in The Uprooted suggests a position closer to the one characterized for ultra-relativists like Hayden White, than for “hyperobjectivists” like Handlin, who are supposed to find “correspondence of a representation with its the small pieces which together form the record” (quoting Truth in History, 608).

I wonder if Handlin’s narrative choices were based on his ideas about the largely popular audience he addressed in
The Uprooted? Variations in historians’ philosophies and techniques may have been related to their (or their editors') ideas of their audiences in ways Novick didn’t stress. Carl Becker, for example, seems to focus a good deal of thought on “the history that common men carry around in their heads” (Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker, 61). But more to the point of That Noble Dream, I think the inconsistent and shifting positions of Handlin and others in Novick’s account suggest a contingency based not only on changing American politics and culture, which Novick addresses, but also the shifting needs of careers and personal reputations. On that score, Novick is less conclusive, but provides some very suggestive pointers.