“History Writing in the US Since World War II”

Anthony Grafton’s “History’s Postmodern Fates,” (Daedalus, Spring 2006) was interesting and informative, but I share neither his pessimism about many aspects of History nor his limited view of important twentieth century developments. In summarizing additional trends among historians in the U.S., I, like Grafton, will concentrate on the post-World War II period. Important works not covered by Grafton deserve discussion if readers are to avoid a restricted view of History in this period.

Grafton covers major works by microhistorians, especially Carlo Ginzburg, Natalie Davis, and Robert Darnton, and discusses some contributions by Lawrence Stone and (exotically for an article on U.S. trends) Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie. He mentions other giants of history like William McNeill and C. Van Woodward, but not their main contributions. I can suggest some accomplishments and controversies Grafton does not cover.

Post-war politics affected the personnel and content of history studies, from HUAC investigations and loyalty oaths through mass movements for civil rights, against war, for women’s and gay rights and others. A leftward turn among students, with many chosing academe over more lucrative professions, changed history departments from their former largely conservative white male character.

The geographical expansion of history not only brought most of the world into history courses, but also created new views of World and Comparative History. McNeill’s work expanded from its early Western emphasis and encompassed novel studies of the role of disease, military organization and technology, and other subjects. Another world historian, Leften Stavrianos, gave an alternative generally Marxist view. [McNeill, who first studied Greece, Stavrianos, a scholar of the Balkans, and another pioneer world historian, Marshall Hodgson, a Middle East specialist, all early studied parts of the world with elements of "East" and "West," and hence knew how porous the borders were between the two. All three taught in urban Chicago, while most of Grafton's microhistorians had ties to Princeton.]?

World history is now taught in many universities, and is often a Ph.D. field. Views of the world by pre-twentieth century historians usually divided even the literate world into the advanced West and the rest, often homogenized under concepts like “Oriental despotism” or Marx’s “Asiatic mode of production”–concepts that were later effectively challenged but did not die. Other elements of Marxism were important in post-World War II schools founded by social scientists but adopted by many historians–Dependency Theory, originating in Latin America, and Worlds Systems Theory begun by Immanuel Wallerstein, which divided the modern world into a changing core, a semi-periphery, and a periphery, with the former exploiting the latter. World-oriented historians have often focused on trade, conquest, and migration as transnational forces, and many study trade regions–the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic, and the Asian so-called Silk Route. Migration and conquest sometimes create diasporas, another topic of research. Modern imperial and postcolonial history also has a world history dimension and has attracted historians.

The impact of prehistorical developments on history, already suggested in the work of archeologists like G. Gordon Childe, was expanded in Jared Diamond’s seminal and popular Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond shows that Middle Eastern regions had the ideal ecology to develop agriculture and domesticate key animals, and that western Europe had the conditions for rapid later development. He shows that domesticated crops and animals spread quickly in Eurasia, but slowly in the Americas, with their north-south axis. While specialists disagree on the details, Diamond’s approach provides vital background for historians. Proponents of “Big History” like David Christian go further back, showing how the history of the cosmos and earthly evolution affect human history.

The rapid development of non-Western history brought a new range and sophistication in non-western fields that could have had more impact if more historians had paid attention. In my graduate education at Stanford and Berkeley, which then offered no Middle Eastern History, I learned more from historians of China and Japan than I did from those of my other field, Modern Europe. Joseph R. Levenson brought a subtlety and sophistication to Chinese intellectual history matched only by the different work of Benjamin Schwartz. Mary and Arthur Wright, who like the others were students of John King Fairbank, were other major pioneers of the China field, which continued to be a center of knowledge and controversy. Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Diversion argues that except for lack of coal and temporary political factors China was on an economic par with Europe just before the industrial revolution. Other major historians, including Philip Huang, have contested this.

A historical giant, whose work would be more influential if historians of the West read it, was Thomas C. Smith. His early works analyzed the development of industry and agriculture in modern Japan, and found many parallels to Western Europe. Smith later applied demographic methods pioneered by the Cambridge Group in England and again found several significant parallels to western trends. Several Japanese historians have contributed to such work although comparisons of Japan to the early modern West have given way to more monographic or post-modern studies, and rapidly-developing China is currently favored over Japan as a point of close comparison with the West despite the closer similarities to be noted in pre-Meiji Japan.

Indian and South Asian history have flourished, with an emphasis on theory–often postmodern and/or postcolonial, which has been welcomed by some and contested by others like Richard Eaton. Partha Chatterjee’s view of the nation and nationalism is popular among historians of the global south. Different views of colonialism have centered especially on South Asia–did imperialism enrich the metropole, hinder local industrialism, impoverish and divide the colonies, or are other interpretations more credible? Studies of major historical empires have also become significant.

Historians of the Middle East have revised many earlier views, especially of the Ottoman Empire, whose entire history has been restudied. Widespread use of archival, legal, and other sources has shown that Ottoman law very rarely punished sexual crimes, often had mild punishments even for serious offenses, and protected many rights of women. There has been a reaction against the view of Ottoman decline from the late sixteenth century on, with many writing only of a relative decline as compared to the European northwest. Women in the imperial harem, often blamed for the alleged decline, have been rehabilitated in Leslie Peirce’s The Imperial Harem, which also revises views of how the empire was governed.

History has expanded to cover countries without writing or with writing systems that did not cover as much as did those much of Eurasia. Methods for using oral history were pioneered by Jan Vansina; historical linguistics to measure migration and material culture by Christopher Ehret and others; and supplementing incomplete writings by utilizing living languages by James Lockhart. Such methods are mainly used for Africa and the Americas. Novel approaches to material culture also contributed to the history of these areas and also to that of literate regions.

U.S. History since the 1950s has expanded in many directions, notably revision of views of slavery, reconstruction, and black history. Beginning with the works of W.E.B. DuBois and John Hope Franklin, and then Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution, which overthrew the dominant view of benevolent slavery, and proceeding through the works of Eugene Genovese, which saw slavery as part of an interlocking social and cultural system, revisionist works on slavery, black history, and reconstruction multiplied. Recent examples include Ira Berlin’s Generations of Captivity, Eric Foner’s works on reconstruction, and Clayborne Carson and Taylor Branch on Martin Luther King. David Brion Davis has pioneered in many, including cultural and comparative, aspects of the history of slavery.

The field of the U.S. West has been completely revised since the once-dominant frontier thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner. Other popular questions in U.S. history include the colonial period, the founding fathers, the U.S. as part of the Atlantic (on which Bernard Bailyn runs a yearly program), and U.S. international policies.

Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman brought a novel mathematical economic history approach to slavery in Time on the Cross. It was widely criticized for understating the mistreatment of slaves and for piling assumption on assumption. Such a combination of “what if” history with mathematics into “counterfactual history” was followed by some economic historians, while others pursued the mathematics without the “what if.” Economic historians who came from History departments rather than Economics departments tended rather to stress social, geographic, and cultural factors. A favorite macro question was why the West got ahead of the rest. Among respected historians addressing it were Joel Mokyr and David Landes, whose cultural view favoring the West elicited criticism.

Economic history intersects with ecological and demographic history, which flourished in recent decades. Woodrow Borah’s work on Latin America’s drastic population decline owing to the conquerors’ diseases was followed by many works on disease. Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism is a leading general work on ecological history. Demography has relied largely on family, birth, and death records, and has been most developed for areas with the best records. Such factors as late marriage and small families in England and Japan have been correlated with economic development.

Among subjects crossing geographical boundaries Women’s History stands out for its contributions and for encouraging the development of other fields–gender, family, male, and gay history. Women’s History boasts numerous authors of almost equal importance. Gerda Lerner, Natalie Davis, and Joan Scott are among the several pioneers. In gay history George Chauncey’s Gay New York goes beyond its title in discussing varieties of homosexual culture and practice. General histories can no longer ignore gender, though their mode of incorporating it is not always sophisticated or adequate. The study of women and gender has extended to all parts of the world, and three winners of the relevant AHA Joan Kelly prize since 1997 were books about China, Syria, and Iran.

Other groups–ethnic, religious, diaspora, migrant, class, and occupational–have also had historical treatment. Popular have been histories of human relations to the non-human–often to commodities. There has been a rise in writing about consumption and a relative decline in writings about production, although both the history of technology and of modes of production have received some attention. Those who see modes of production as crucial to the understanding of the way people are organized in society have been losing out in numbers to those who stress cultural or “superstructural” factors. There are some prominent historians with varying Marxist approaches, notably Robert Brenner and Perry Anderson.

In various fields number crunching, aided by computers, has brought information about people for whom we have scant records into larger views of social and economic history. Other novel methodologies, such as the Freudian psychohistory of Peter Loewenberg also have adherents. Many historians use new media, chiefly audio and visual records of individuals, events, and the material world.

European history has had important U.S. innovators. Among them, Robert Paxton opened the door to a true history of Vichy France; Carl Schorske’s book on Vienna is a brilliant model of social-cultural urban history; Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen showed how and when ordinary people became nationals, and John Brewer’s books on eighteenth century England dramatically revised established views. Important work was also done in other parts of Europe and in ancient and medieval history.

The History of Science and Medicine has become a major field in many History departments.. Thomas Kuhn’s seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was written when he was in the U.C. Berkeley History Department. In addition to the usual intra-field controversies, there are disagreements between scientists, who often see their history as a progressive discovery of scientific laws and theories, and historians, who stress the social and cultural aspects of science. Recently there have been histories of almost everything touching humanity, from sports to festivals, to clothes, food, and other commodities, to film, television, and popular culture.

On the theoretical side, a few books with different approaches have been influential, notably for a time E.J. Carr’s What is History? which combined a quasi-Marxist approach with relativism toward what is important in different periods. For more relativist postmodernists, Hayden White’s Metahistory is important, while Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacobs’ Telling the Truth about History combines a partially postmodern with other approaches.

Given the desire of identity groups to stress their contributions and the gap between a more liberal intellectual class and more conservative, sometimes organized, non-academic contingents, it is not surprising that history writing, especially for the schools, has often been controversial. Dealing with such controversies is History on Trial by Gary Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross Dunn.

The students I have known have been interested in controversy and in diverse approaches to understanding the past, and the writers I have known have been enthusiastic, not bored. Surveying the varieties of twentieth century history seems more a cause for optimism than the opposite.

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