Star-Spangled History

The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789 Woodward, general editor.)

(Volume II of the Oxford History of the United States, C. Vann, by Robert Middlekauff
Oxford University Press, 696 pp., $25.00

The call (or is it a cry?) is coming from many directions: the discipline of history is in trouble and the remedy lies in some sort of return to narrative history. Henry Steele Commager, Page Smith, Eric Foner, Lawrence Stone, and most recently Bernard Bailyn in his 1981 presidential address to the American Historical Association have all in different ways suggested that historians today are or ought to be doing more of what they have traditionally done—telling stories. This revival of narrative will not be easy. Indeed, writing narrative history under conditions that make it difficult if not well-nigh impossible, says Bailyn, is “the great challenge of modern historical scholarship.”

Narrative history has traditionally meant storytelling—laying out the events of the past in a chronological linear order, a sequential plotting of one thing-after-another with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Such narrative history has usually concentrated on human agency and human responsibility, on individual personalities and on unique public happenings—the great men, great decisions, and great events that, so to speak, made headlines in the past. Since politics tends to dominate the headlines, politics has traditionally formed the backbone of this narrative history.

Moreover, narrative history usually has dealt with whole societies—an entire nation or in diplomatic history even groups of nations—over long periods of time. Such histories have been big and sweeping, like Victorian novels. Narrative histories of the United States, for example, used to require many volumes: ten from George Bancroft, nine from Henry Adams, eight from James Ford Rhodes, nine from John Bach McMaster, and six from Edward Channing. Though never as popular as our own recent fictional saga by John Jakes, these grand multi-volumed histories were written not for other historians but for the educated public.

Historians, at least professional historians, are not much writing this kind of multi-volumed narrative any more. At present among historians of the United States only James MacGregor Burns and Page Smith are attempting anything resembling the old-fashioned narratives, and both of them are very conscious of being mavericks running against the herd of professional historians. Smith, for example, remarked at the outset of his multi-volumed history of the United States that “any effort to revive ‘old-fashioned’ narrative history on a large scale was sure to draw the concentrated fire of all those professional historians whose deity (as well as bread and butter) was monographic history.”

Monographic history is the kind of history that most professional historians now writ—technical, specialized analyses of particular events or problems in the past. The writing of such historical monographs grew out of the nineteenth-century dream that history might become an objective science—a science that would resemble, if not the natural sciences of physics or chemistry, then at least the social sciences—economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology—that were emerging at the same time as professionally written history. Monographic history is scientific history, and the present call for a revival of narrative is essentially a protest against the spread …

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Letters

Writing History: An Exchange December 16, 1982