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Provincial History

About twenty years ago, Daniel Boorstin, then a young man in his early thirties, started upon a major appraisal of American civilization. Already an accomplished historical essayist, he had written two incisive studies, the first on Blackstone’s legal philosophy, the second on Jeffersonian liberalism, both of them exercises in disenchantment. They had introduced a lively critic of ideas who was obviously primed for further assaults on the pieties of progressive scholarship. Since that time Boorstin has persevered exuberantly in the destructive work, in the course of which he and other young scholars have left few of the customary signposts to the American past intact. But behind his darting forays in lectures and essays—it is only now becoming fully apparent—a deeper purpose was going steadily forward: to put American history together again in a new design. Of a projected trilogy, the first volume, entitled The Americans: The Colonial Experience, came out in 1958. While introducing the basic themes, it was something of a hodgepodge (made especially so by the fragmentation of colonial life itself), and one could scarcely guess where the story would turn next or how it would come out. Now the second volume, treating the period from the Revolution to the Civil War, is before us, and it brings the whole ambitious enterprise into clearer view.

Hardly anyone nowadays writes history on a grand scale, as great historians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries expected to do in capping their life work. The old-fashioned amplitude of Allan Nevins and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., limited to a brief span of years though it may be, is rare enough; and those who venture today beyond the confines of a single era make no pretense of matching the leisurely, magisterial sweep that Parrington and Trevelyan once enjoyed. Instead, we get something either less substantial or less coherent. Big historical subjects are characteristically managed within the patchwork of a collaborative series, or by a textbook-like survey, or at best in an essay. The informality of the essay gives freest scope to the multiple perspectives, the allusiveness, and the tentativeness that our fractured sensibility needs. Above all, the essay releases us from the linear, one-dimensional concept of change that underlay the older pattern of narrative history. But it does not very well lend itself to the panoramic scale on which the history of a nation or a civilization deserves to be written. The very possibility of writing true history of that magnitude in the age of the essay stands in doubt.

Boorstin has not reverted to the grand narrative in trying to master American history. He relishes a good story and has seeded his text with quite a few; but from beginning to end he remains an essayist, as informal as you please, picking up and dropping topics at will, dwelling on whatever interests him and passing the rest by. Indeed, The Americans has less the shape of a single extended essay than that of many little ones—a congeries of histories—loosely linked by a few recurrent motifs. To a certain extent it resembles a very long documentary film, with sharp closeups, quick fadeouts, swift changes of scene, and an insistent voice telling us always what the pictures mean.

Can so discursive a work, lacking the tautness of genuine narrative or the neatness of systematic argument, so little concerned with problems of integration, structure, and continuity, hold our attention through three large volumes? In contrast to the first volume, the second did not consistently hold mine. By indulging his personal taste so fully, the author assumes a punishing obligation to be fresh, interesting, and insightful, in new ways and different contexts, over and over again. On the granite industry of New England, on the creation of county seats in the West, on Southern codes of honor, and on many other matters, I found his running comment fascinating. On early American factories, balloon-frame houses, slang and tall talk, and the drafting of constitutions it became tedious and tendentious.

To be casual and loosely flowing is, however, a point of principle for Boorstin. Far from merely serving the necessities of the case, the manner incarnates the moral of the book. America, for this affectionate, gregarious, restlessly unsettled historian, is not only the subject but the touchstone of value; and the predominant quality he finds in pre-Civil War America is amorphousness—a lack of sharp boundaries or rigid categories—consequently an openness to innovation and experiment. This he not only illustrates in ingeniously selected contexts but all the while exemplifies, as if to conform to his own theses and thus practice history the American way.

A great resource of America,” Boorstin sums up, “was vagueness.” Wherever Americans moved beyond restrictive conventions, indefiniteness and healthy fluidity emerged. Casting off the inhibitions of either individualism or collectivism in anything like a pure form, lawyers and businessmen learned to promote economic growth by interfusing public and private interest. American hotels and American colleges, with their conglomerate mixture of purposes, gave expression to the same adaptability. The American Constitution, partly national and partly federal, took form as a splendid hybrid. Uncertainly, hanging over the topography, boundaries, and geographical destiny of the nation, quickened the American imagination in ways that no one since Bernard DeVoto has reviewed with such gusto. Vagueness permitted the brash vitality of slang to pass readily into standard speech; it allowed boosters and braggarts to overcome stultifying distinctions between past, present, and future; and where it was denied, as in the increasing punctilio and ideological rigidity of the Old South, disaster lurked.

A related but subordinate theme concerns the organizational skill of Americans in founding communities, creating purely functional governments, mobilizing resources, and conquering space. Here Boorstin gives a valuable corrective to the usual emphasis on the individual pioneer in the westward movement. Instead, he writes at length of the “transient communities”—informal companies springing up for mutual protection on the trails, “claim clubs” to keep control of the land in local hands, and vigilantes. America was built not by rugged individuals but by spontaneous, amorphous communities.

One could scarcely guess from these pages that an old, cultivated, corrupt, European-oriented society existed in eastern cities. One would never suspect that what that society was continually receiving from overseas—immigrants, investments, new ideas—had anything to do with the development of American civilization. A western emphasis and orientation stand out so prominently in this book as to remind us uncomfortably that the author was raised in Oklahoma and has lived for many years in Chicago. In the American cultural dialogue between “redskins” and “palefaces”—between primitivists and cosmopolitans—Boorstin belongs squarely with the redskins; his disinterest in high culture matches his disdain for European influences. In spite of his revolt against progressive historiography, the ghost of Frederick Jackson Turner haunts his interpretation of American history.

I say “ghost” advisedly, for much that was alive and distinctive about Turner is missing. Turner envisaged the American fundamentally as an individualistic farmer; Boorstin, a product of the urban West, sees him as a group-directed townsman. More important, Turner took the character of the American pretty much for granted, whereas that has become for Boorstin the principal object of inquiry. Turner was intensely concerned to understand how and why Americans came to behave as they did. He strove to grasp specific processes of change, notably the growth of democracy; so he converted his initial intuition about the frontier into an ever more rigorous, detailed analysis of geographical groupings and divisions. Boorstin, on the other hand, cares little about the causes of change or the issues that have divided Americans, being preoccupied rather with the enduring qualities they collectively share. Consequently he piles one intuition on top of another, not probing and dissecting as Turner did, but soaring dizzily in pursuit of ever more embracing generalization.

The common element that makes these differences between the two men worth noticing, of course, is their nativist fixation on the distinctive features of America. For Boorstin as well as Turner, the real America is indigenous, deriving ultimately from the natural environment, a product of space rather than time. We have countenanced this sort of parochialism in American historiography much too long. Thirty years ago, Carlton J. H. Hayes brilliantly castigated the isolationist implications of the history written under the sway of the frontier school. Yet the anxious need in recent years to discover the American character, to assure ourselves of our national identity and root ourselves in the protective soil of a distinctive past, has caused this sort of historical narcissism to flourish more luxuriantly than ever. The crucial American experience, from the point of view of the second half of the twentieth century, is entangled with—not separate from—the European world, and too few of our best historians have yet taken that truism seriously.

An important though limited book can lead readers beyond its limitations. By its very insistence upon the differences between America and Europe, The Americans opens our minds to unsuspected similarities and relationships between them. As the facile dichotomies proliferate, an awakened curiosity teases the reader’s mind: To what extend did New Englanders create a distinctive “American System of Law”? What was and what was not spontaneous and amorphous about American speech? How original was the subliterature that Americans produced by mixing the comic and the heroic? In order to consider such questions, Boorstin insists in his impressive bibliographical essay, “we are forced to become cosmopolites, transcending modern European culture and its stereotypes.” But in order to pursue them further, moving beyond contrasts to a comparative cultural history in which national uniqueness will take a properly subordinate place between the local and the universal, we must become more cosmopolitan still.

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