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Survey Course

The Oxford History of the American People

by Samuel Eliot Morison
Oxford, 1150 pp., $12.50

A noticeable current that has run through nearly every effort made so far to deal publicly with this book is one of embarrassment. Does The Oxford History of the American People represent the ripe wisdom of an elder statesman, or the peppery collected crotchets of an academic Harry Truman? Is it really “The” history of the American people, or an interminable string of dicta and anecdote—1122 pages—which takes its shape mainly from the personal preferences of Samuel Eliot Morison? What is its organizing principle, or does it have one? It appears to cover in some way everything from the pre-Columbian Indians to the death of President Kennedy. Does it—and if so, how? Everyone concedes that it has much literary grace. Yet even the “grace” can be irritating, with its bluff heartiness, salty harrumphs, and the inane snatches of song at the end of each chapter. Can you talk about grace without reference to context? What if you don’t like the songs, what if you’d rather not refer to Nathaniel Bacon as “Nat” before you are properly introduced, what if the use of “whilst” starts to get on your nerves? The book is full of common good sense. Yet one commentator in all genial indulgence couldn’t resist calling it Polonius-like good sense. In short, what is the tone to take toward the old gentleman? The book, it appears, has become a best seller. Can it be that the distinguished historian—the old salt, the Brahmin, the man of rich culture—is trading on something that never quite got into the book? This is, I fear, by and large the case.

What is really at stake, it seems to me, is neither style, nor content, nor even attitudes and preferences, but the viability of a particular medium in which to write history—a matter which involves structure, emphasis, and form. The form Morison uses, or thinks he is using, is that of the general survey—“a legacy to my countrymen,” he calls it, “after studying, teaching, and writing the history of the United States for over half a century.” The book is much too long for some purposes and much too short for others, but that scarcely begins to name the difficulty, which only indirectly concerns length. A very long book can still be superficial; a very short one can be both comprehensive and profound; length confers no immunities either way. Morison’s egotism consists in the assumption that he can write the one book that in fact nobody can write.

Is a “general survey” possible at all? I think so, but only under specially controlled conditions, and it is not as though Morison is unacquainted with them. The form which he approaches most closely here is that of the textbook, a perfectly workable form, yet he says he does not want to write a textbook. Why not? Perhaps because he has written one already, a text which has been judged a masterpiece of its genre,1 a judgement which on almost any standard, including that of sales, is just. Indeed, one critic has accused him of lifting large portions of that very text for re-use in this book. But that in itself is not the problem. What he has really done is to keep the narrative proportions of a text and to throw away the structure, the boundaries, and the appurtenances that give a textbook its real usefulness. A textbook is programmatic, a guide to further exploration, and the “story line” is only one of the features that make it so. Morison says he is dispensing with those appurtenances (bibliographies, references, etc.) because his readers “may take a certain amount of erudition for granted.” Of course they can, but that is not the point. Might they not want to know where he has been, so they can go there too? Might they not want a map that shows the alternative directions? A good text will always give it to them.

What is left? Ostensibly a narrative stream, and a good steady flow it is, with everything receiving more or less due attention—“due” meaning equal. But history doesn’t flow in a steady stream. Or rather, perception of it isn’t steady and equal. The stream here is full of nice bits—dashes of anecdote, touches of expertise, notes of idiosyncrasy—but not really enough of anything. The reader is lulled and drugged by the Lethean stream; there is even some question about putting in his bookmark when leaving off for the night. Will he recognize the spot next day?

Leaving form for the moment, how does one criticize the specific content? I don’t think one can, though some have tried. Morison has been taxed with leaving some things out—such as land-grant colleges, movie stars, and modern art—and giving undue prominence to other things, such as sea power, horse racing, and coats of arms. His account of the sexual upheaval that supposedly followed the appearance of Freud has in it a touch of the outrageous. (Filth formerly repressed into the unconscious should have been left there.) In his treatment of Reconstruction—the general balance of which roughly reflects the perceptions of the year 1935—I, for one, see no trace of the questions that have been asked about that subject in the thirty years since. (The Lincoln and Johnson plans were “identical.”) The effort to deal with the role of the Hiroshima bomb in ending the war, and the problem of alternatives—an issue of profound moral proportions for our time—is inescapably superficial. (It was the only sure way to end things.)

Yet even these objections are somehow irrelevant. Each of the viewpoints just mentioned can, after all, be defended intelligently, given the time and space, but in a work of this sort the fallacy of “coverage” will not allow it. You cannot criticize content at this level at all; there is not enough of it to criticize at any given point. So the difference between what is left out and what isn’t, isn’t that much worth bothering about. Even if every word of those passages transferred from the textbook had been re-written, the proportion would still be about the same, and that is the problem.

The book has no overall thesis, no broad theoretical direction. But what if it did have? I doubt it would have helped much. It is, to be sure, full of personal preferences, though that in itself is not a bad thing. The closest paralel, in a “thesis” book, would be Charles Beard’s Rise of American Civilization, which at one time was highly influential. But nothing could have been more “personal” than that; Beard personally imposed on his readers a single set of categories for organizing the whole of American history. His work was totalitarian and coercive; the reader could not be selective. If he took any of it—and thousands did—by and large he had to take it all. In justice to Morison, he at least avoids this.

A cardinal rule of the American Historical Review cautions the reviewer not to belabor a man for the book he should have written but didn’t. I break this excellent rule (though not lightly), because I think there was a way in which Morison—with all his special talents and idiosyncrasies and in the same amount of space, or even in half of it—could have written just the sort of survey he wanted to write but didn’t.

Morison is a great historian; he is not too narrow a man, or too idiosyncratic, or too “personal,” to write about the whole span of American history. His books on Harrison Gray. Otis and the Hartford Convention, on Harvard College, on the Puritan Founders, on Christopher Columbus, on John Paul Jones, are magisterial and magnificent. And nowhere he is in better form than in the essays of By Land and By Sea. In all of this work he is splendidly “personal,” in the ways that matter most.

In the present book he does great violence to the psychology of perception, historical or any other kind, and particularly the perception of survey. Even the scanning eye—as he himself must know—does not really proceed in a smooth and even sweep; it alights, it goes in erratic jerks; it lingers and idles. A tour of the country, even when you make it from coast to coast, is not worth much when you see it only through the window of a moving bus, no matter how smooth and expert your driver. True, you can’t stop everywhere; you don’t even want to. You stop at a number of selected places; you poke about, and have a good leisurely look. For the historical “tour,” or survey—a perfectly legitimate enterprise, I repeat—the only proper vehicle (aside from the textbook), as “personal” as you please, is the essay.

On these terms, I’ll take the Morison tour any day, with pleasure. He need only stop at the places that interest him, about which he knows something, and about which he has strong opinions. Those places, I can be certain, are varied and many; his own lore and experience of them are rich and fascinating. The thing would be well planned. On those terms, as I say, I’m more than willing to trust him on “coverage.”

For example, he knows what he thinks about Washington, Pitt, George III, and Alexander Hamilton. Let us have a “personal” essay on each. Nobody has a better feeling for the War of 1812 than Morison, and what better view of Kentucky life in the mid-nineteenth century than at the racecourse, about which Morison’s knowledge is concrete and circumstantial. He heartily approves of Theodore Roosevelt, which was predictable. Let him tell us why, in as much detail and in as much time as he thinks he needs. One of the great public enigmas of our time has been Douglas MacArthur. And of all the historians of our time, none is better qualified than Morison, in temper, values, and experience, to do him full and proper justice. But the hit and run, the back of the hand, the jaunty whistle, are not “coverage” and not justice—not to any subject, nor, least of all, to the weighty talents of Samuel Eliot Morison.

  1. 1

    S.E. Morison and H.S. Commager, The Growth of the American Republic, Oxford.

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