December 25, 2006


The rejection bin of history: Forty-seven years ago, two of the greatest names in American historiography laid out a plan for a grand, multivolume summation of American history. Why is it still only half finished? (Christopher Shea, December 24, 2006, Boston Globe)

THE LITERARY EDITOR of the Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Schwarz, recently leveled a sweeping indictment against American historians. Some 47 years ago, he pointed out in the magazine's October issue, C. Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter, two of the greatest names in postwar American historiography, laid out a plan for a multivolume history of the United States. The series, to be published by Oxford University Press, would be a grand summation of their generation's understanding of American history, combining high politics with social and cultural history and bridging the widening chasm between professional historians and intelligent lay readers.

Yet nearly a half-century later, only five of a projected 11 volumes in the Oxford History of the United States have been completed. (The best-known, by far, is "Battle Cry of Freedom," by James McPherson, about the Civil War era, which was a major bestseller.) [...]

Apart from the McPherson Civil War book, the series so far includes "The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789," by Berkeley's Robert Middlekauff, "Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War," by Kennedy; and two books by James Patterson, who teaches at Brown: "Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974" and "Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush vs. Gore." (Patterson chalks up his fast pen in part to time he spent as a cub reporter at the Hartford Courant, in the late 1950s.)

Writing long, comprehensive, narrative histories carries little prestige within the academy these days, and this too seems to have had something to do with the delays. "The idea that you can sum up the scholarship of a previous generation in one volume just doesn't hold anymore," says Gordon Wood, a Brown historian who doesn't quite share that view. Wood has been working for a decade, off and on, on a book for the series, on the period 1789 to 1815. He says the end is in sight.

Mr. Kennedy's is the best in the series because it doesn't just sum up what that generation of historians believes, painting the New Deal as a failure instead and WWII as FDR's salvation.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 25, 2006 12:00 PM
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