Americans, we often hear, are uninterested in history. Certainly there has been nothing in this country to compare to the quite extraordinary revival of narrative historiography in the 1980s in virtually every European country. In the major countries— Britain, France, Germany, Italy—several multivolume works on national history compete for attention, each representing distinct methodological, cultural, and narrative traditions. In France, for instance, Fayard’s six-volume Histoire de France bears the mark of the detailed, documentary scholarship of the Ecole des Chartes, a scholarship focused firmly on politics and the state. This tradition has been unjustly overshadowed abroad by the reputation of the Annales school of social history, whose adherents emphasize “the structures of everyday life.” On the other side, Hachette’s five lavishly illustrated quarto-format volumes by leading Annalistes like Francois Furet, Georges Duby, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladourie testify not only that Annalistes are capable of writing brilliantly for le grand public, but that they, too, have made the turn back to questions of politics and of the doctrines and beliefs governing political action. In the smaller countries, the size of the readership dictates that representatives of differing traditions contribute to a single grand enterprise; one example is the sixteen-volume History of Denmark, edited by Olaf Olsen, the Keeper of Antiquities at the National Museum in Copenhagen.

The Danish example is quite instructive for anyone who contemplates the state of the discipline in America. This was abundantly evident at the American Historical Association’s 104th annual meeting, held in the last days of 1989 in San Francisco, where close to two thousand historians congregated to discuss a broad range of historical subjects.[1] First, like Americans, Danes are supposed to be ahistorical and intellectually lazy. Second, Mr. Olsen, the Danish History’s general editor, was for many years fashionably interested in Marxism and Maoism, despite—or maybe because of—the fact that his field was Viking history. The son of a Communist historian who was notorious for his sarcastic harassment of students he considered “bourgeois,” Mr. Olsen followed the trajectory of the academy in the 1970s, but has now returned to a less ideological position, interested, once more, in what the past was and not in how it should be judged by contemporary preferences. Third, these volumes, like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe, are uniformly well written, disproving the claim that the results of serious, up-to-date scholarship cannot be rendered in commonly understood language, or that the issues of history cannot be made interesting to the ordinary citizen. And fourth, forty thousand subscriptions to the sixteen-volume set, at a price of about seven hundred fifty dollars, have been sold so far in a country of five million, where print runs of less than one thousand copies are standard for works of fiction, and where serious nonfiction often cannot be published without generous public support. This corresponds to sales of about two million copies in the United States. Can anyone imagine publishing a history of the United States—or any combination of histories—on that scale and at such a price, and managing to sell two million copies?

If the answer is no, it has a good deal to do with what many American historians think they ought to be doing and how they ought to do it. Unlike their leading European colleagues, they have not stopped fighting the ideological battles of the 1960s, even though the victors in those battles are now in control of the academy and its hiring process. These historians seem more interested in tormenting the records of the past to fit currently dominant intellectual predilections than in writing works of general interest or significance, works of broad narrative history that might bridge the gap between original research in specialized fields and the much-lamented historical ignorance of the American public. In fact, American historians sneer at those who do undertake that task, which was formerly considered an essential cultural activity. Simon Schama, the author of Citizens, the best-selling history of the French Revolution that appeared in 1989, has come in for particular denigration on this score.[2]

One important current preoccupation of the American historical profession is feminism—not, of course, as a subject of study, but as a political effort to import the agenda of upper-middle-class American feminism of the late 1980s into the study and interpretation of the past. The theme of the meeting in San Francisco (although other topics were discussed as well) was the French Revolution, a subject one would have thought to be of some general interest. Nevertheless, the main local news story about the meeting, in The San Francisco Chronicle, announced “Feminism on Historians’ Agenda” and featured an interview with Ellen Friedman of Boston College. In the article, Professor Friedman announced gleefully that “women’s history is expanding its influence in the universities, which are becoming more receptive to a feminist view of the past.” Not a word about the main theme of the meeting or, indeed, about the important controversies concerning the French Revolution and the legacy of revolution in general, controversies that help explain the world-historical changes we are now witnessing in Eastern Europe. As far as Professor Friedman was concerned, the most important aspect of this annual meeting was that women were now found on all the panels: “there is representation and participation everywhere .... I keep hearing we’re in the post-feminist age... but the academy tells a different story.”

Indeed it does. About a year and a half ago, when the program of this meeting was being put together, I suggested to one of my local colleagues that the meeting might include a panel on the expansion of state power in Western Europe in the early modern period (1500-1800). Not only was this subject of some general interest, including as it did the changing role of politics and religion in Western societies, the methods and institutions of power, and the role of war in promoting or hampering political change. It was also an area that in recent years had seen some of the most exciting scholarship in any area of European history. The response I got was surprising: “Well, yes, why don’t you go ahead and propose a panel on that. By the way, you should know that the program committee will not consider a panel proposal that does not include at least one woman, so be sure you find one.” I already knew that the American academy was hopelessly ideologized, far more so than the European universities had been even in the worst days after 1968. But somehow it had not occurred even to me that people I still naively persisted in thinking of as serious historians would regard the sexual composition of a panel as more important than the substantive interest of the subject to be discussed.

In the event, I had too many other commitments at the time to propose a panel, but I did not forget the admonition. In San Francisco I verified that, of the one hundred forty-odd panels, none was without at least one female participant, and there was a solid core of all-female panels (all of them with feminist subjects). Had I not had the earlier conversation, I would doubtless not have noticed this. With that conversation in mind, however, I naturally found myself wondering how many women panelists had been included for quota reasons, and how many because they happened to be among the best people for that particular subject. I also wondered to what extent panel subjects themselves were now subject to a sort of censorship: in other words, a decree that the annual meeting will only discuss subjects of interest to feminist historians. Finally, I speculated (dangerous thought) to what extent subservience to this crude form of feminism was now a litmus test for appointment in the academy, a speculation I may at some point have cause to test. I don’t know if Professor Friedman cares about this, or cares that other women historians are being treated—and, evidently, choose to treat themselves—as components of a quota. Probably not. But the underlying assumption is quite troubling for anyone concerned with the future and the broader relevance of history as a cultural activity.

The very notion of history as a cultural activity had an alien ring at the meeting. I almost said an “archaic” ring until I recalled the very different situation in Europe. There, as I have said, the profession has largely recovered from the illnesses that so viciously beset its American members. There are, certainly, many European historians who think that history should leave out politics and focus on daily life, social beliefs, and the supposedly ignored achievements of women and minorities. The undeniable fact, however, is that leading historians in every European country have dared, once again, to say that history should play a role in contemporary culture, and that it can only play such a role if it is about the important things—about the passions, conflicts, and beliefs of the past and about how those beliefs have produced the modern world. These historians have also understood that the only way to make good on these promises is to write, and to write well, in order to bring the drama of the past to life for modern audiences.

One who has done this magnificently is François Furet, who is probably today the world’s leading authority on the French Revolution. He was, naturally, present at the AHA meeting, though none of the local media found it worthwhile to interview the man who single-handedly overturned the Jacobin and Marxist orthodoxy that was dominant for almost a century in French revolutionary historiography. Furet is in many ways an awkward figure for contemporary American historians. He began as a fully accredited Annaliste in the 1960s, emerging from the school of Fernand Braudel at the old Sixth Section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris. As early as 1965, he infuriated the guardians of Jacobin-Marxist orthodoxy by producing a political history of the French Revolution that dared to point out its negative aspects, and to argue that the Terror of 1792-94 was not a justified necessity but a prefiguration of modern totalitarianism that grew naturally from the egalitarian extremism and moralism of the revolutionary leaders. In his most recent work, Furet takes a more positive view of the Revolution as a whole, viewing it as the first consistent experiment in political democracy. He has also argued in France that the Revolution is, finally, “over,” and that the French should now learn to see its passions and divisions as part of their past and culture, but not as reasons for internecine hatred and conflict today. During the bicentennial celebrations of 1989, Furet appeared on innumerable talk shows and magazine covers, earning nationwide recognition and proving a popular interest in events of two hundred years past—an interest that sparked some contempt at the AHA meeting.

This was evident at a panel discussing “The Origins of the French Revolution.” Michel Vovelle, a French colleague of Furet’s who is still committed to an old-style Annaliste focus on attitudes and their social constraints as determinants of behavior, rather than on politics, could not attend the meeting but sent in a paper criticizing Furet for having changed his mind too often. According to Vovelle, “Furet I” was crudely anti-Jacobin and anti-Communist (Vovelle is himself a Communist), “Furet II” believed that people might have political beliefs independent of their social origins or earlier world view, and, in 1989, “Furet III” simply popularized the conservative view that the Revolution was over and that a liberal democracy was the standard of the future. Very curiously for a Communist, Vovelle went on to argue that the Revolution was not over at all, as could easily be seen from Eastern Europe: there, as in France in 1789, the people were rebelling against arbitrary rule that had lost all legitimacy; there, as in France, a sophisticated public opinion and articulated political culture had developed too far to tolerate the limits imposed by an archaic despotism. Unfortunately, Furet was not at hand on this panel to make the obvious retort: that the East Europeans wanted freedom, not terror, and that the East European dictatorships were the true heirs of the revolutionaries who seized absolute power in the name of the people in order to institute brutal oppression.

In a panel devoted to his own work, Furet maintained that he had not contradicted himself, only deepened and broadened his views. In the 1960s and 1970s, he had to make the case that a non-Marxist and non-Jacobin interpretation of the Revolution was serious, not merely an expression of counterrevolutionary resentment. When it became clear, by the early 1980s, that the evidence did not support the Marxist view that the Revolution was a struggle between bourgeois and nobles and that it represented the victory of industrial capitalism in France, Furet could go on to a more general study of what the revolutionaries believed, and how much popular support they in fact had. The result of this work appeared in Furet’s 1988 volume in Hachette’s Histoire de France, which I mentioned above. Setting the Revolution in the context and the continuity of French history from the mid-eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, Furet saw it primarily as an explosion of genuine democratic ideology, growing out of the Enlightenment and the broad, sophisticated public opinion that existed in France by the 17 80s. As the first experiment in true democracy in Europe, it was not a failure, though the Terror showed that it would be a long time before stable democracy would be possible in France.

If Furet is right that the Revolution was above all a political phenomenon, neither predetermined by class structure or beliefs, nor driven by deep social forces beyond individual control, he has undermined an important pillar of the leftist version of history. That this is clear to many of the Left emerged from an impassioned plea by a young American historian, Gary Kates, for historians not to “abandon the Revolution” to the conservatives. In recent years, the Left has seen revolutionary societies around the world collapse in ignominy or sink into the kind of desperate poverty that they inevitably produce. In order to maintain the progressive, socialist world view in the classroom, leftist historians had two choices: either to jump aboard the bandwagon of feminist, social, and black history, with its wide spectrum of methods for attacking American democracy as flawed and useless, or to emphasize the French and Russian Revolutions of the past as great steps forward (whatever some of their consequences might have been). If serious scholars can now show that even the French Revolution was a failure as far as improving the life of the people was concerned, if they can show that it brought not freedom but violence, terror, war, and poverty, the very concept of revolution as a positive notion is in danger.

To counter this, Kates called on historians to prevent the revisionists (Riret, et al.) from imposing their emphasis on politics as the only way to study the French Revolution. If we look at the politics of the day as the main feature of the Revolution, Kates complained, we minimize its impact as a pedagogical tool today. What he meant was that if we study the Revolution honestly we may not be able to use it to advocate radical change today. I could not help wondering precisely what it was in the old Marxist revolutionary legacy that Kates found so valuable: he is a man of my own generation, someone who has had to live through the distortions of scholarship and the social and economic difficulties of academics in the past decade or so, difficulties caused in large part by ideology taking the place of scholarship. Why would he possibly want to strengthen the ideology?

If I drew any one lesson from the meeting, it was that American historians, in too many cases, still have not faced the challenge that Gertrude Himmelfarb posed when she accused the so-called New History of “leaving the politics out,” that is, leaving out the one dimension worthy of general interest, the stage for those actions that affect us all. As I have mentioned, this New History is already old in Europe, where it coexists, often quite happily, with a revived and vigorous political history that explicitly addresses itself to an enlightened and curious public. American historians often give the impression that they do not want to engage the grand issues, write the broad synthetic treatments, or offer the drama and conflict of the past for the edification of the present. In other words, they do not want to sustain our culture because, in many cases, they despise that culture and wish to undermine it. We do have, in America, important living political narrative historians, though many of them are actually of foreign—usually British—origin, like Simon Schama, Geoffrey Parker, and the splendidly promising recent arrival, David Cannadine. But they are a distinct minority. One reason most American academic historians have abandoned the effort to contribute to a sympathetic understanding of our culture is older than current ideology: it has to do with the Teutonic traditions of the American doctoral dissertation, one of whose rules seems to have been: Write all you know as obscurely as possible. Hence the inveterately passive constructions, abstract nouns, and impersonal sentences so prevalent in most American historical writing.

But there are exceptions. The best American work of history of 1988 (and possibly of the decade) was Battle Cry of Freedom, an epochal history of the Civil War with all the politics left in, but also with a rich panorama of life in all its aspects: social, familial, spiritual, and economic. And it was written by an American, James McPherson. There was something symbolic in the fact that he was not at the AHA meeting, and that there was not one panel dealing with the political or military history of the Civil War—the most dramatic event in American history, and the one still most familiar to that culturally starved and deprived creature, the common citizen.


  1. The 104th meeting of the American Historical Association took place at the Hilton and St. Francis hotels in San Francisco from December 28 to December 30, 1989. Go back to the text.
  2. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, by Simon Schama; Knopf, 948 pages, $29.95. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 8 Number 6, on page 76
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