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Wise Man

Specialization on increasingly narrow subjects is the dominant trend in American historical scholarship. Rarer and rarer, at least in the academy, are generalists dealing with broad stretches of the past or souls who work in more than one of the usual specialties or move readily from one to another. The new “micro-history” is less concerned with making connections and establishing general patterns than with recapturing the experiences and appreciating the achievements of those who were overlooked by previous generations of historians. Recording the doings of elite white males has taken a back seat to accounts of marginalized groups—women, African-Americans, Latinos, low-skilled workers, and poor people generally. Much of value has come from social and cultural history “from the bottom up,” but it has deprived us of a unifying vision of the nation’s past across the divides of gender, race, ethnicity, and class.

During a distinguished career of more than half a century, the historian John Higham has resisted the trend toward greater specialization, while at the same time showing deep understanding of the plight of the oppressed or marginalized groups that have sought higher status both within historical memory and in society at large. He has focused his main attention on those immigrants who have been victims of xenophobia, but he has also responded sympathetically to the situation of African-Americans. Higham’s work, as reflected in the collection of his essays edited by his former student Carl Guarnari, cuts across at least three major subfields of American history that do not normally interact very much and makes memorable contributions to each of them. They are ethnicity and race in American life and thought since the Civil War; the history of American culture (both popular and elite) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and the history of historical interpretation. Hanging Together makes it possible to assess the full achievement of a very creative historian. It will become clear as we do so that Higham, in his own singularly judicious and good-tempered fashion, is an engaged intellectual in close touch with contemporary cultural trends and controversies, particularly over changing perceptions of the American past.

Born in 1920, Higham came of age in the Great Depression.1 Although his parents came from a Midwestern Protestant background, he grew up in a multiethnic neighborhood in Queens, had Jewish and Catholic friends, and thus became sensitive from an early age to the diverse character of American society. (These interactions were strictly with what were later called “white ethnics”; few if any blacks, he later noted, could be found in Queens in those days.) When he was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins in the late 1930s and a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1940s, his political inclinations were toward the left but not the far left. Initially drawn to the democratic socialism of Norman Thomas, he became by the 1950s the kind of “independent liberal” who refused to take sides in cold war ideological conflicts. His Wisconsin dissertation on the history of American nativism, which became his seminal first book, Strangers in the Land,2 the first comprehensive account of anti-immigrant sentiments and actions between the Civil War and the 1920s, was influenced by the “progressive” school of American historiography originated by Charles A. Beard, which stressed the causal significance of economic conditions and class interests. But Higham was not an economic determinist in Beard’s sense. It is clear from his account that ideas and cultural concerns shaped the aims of the nativist movements in ways that were independent of the economic stimulus that may have set them in motion. For example, he recognized that racist ideas and stereotypes were already embedded in the culture when nativist publicists and politicians appealed to them in justification of policies such as discriminatory quotas aimed at Italians, Irish, and Jews. Over the years Higham would move further away from economic or materialist explanations and give increasing weight to cultural factors.

Strangers in the Land was well received when it came out in 1955, and it has remained to this day the standard account of America’s anti-immigrant ideologies, movements, and policies. Higham argued that nativism tended to be most virulent in periods of economic crisis but that international developments, such as World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, had a major independent impact in increasing hostility toward immigrants. He would later call the historians he considered most prominent in the 1950s—Richard Hofstadter, Daniel Boorstin, and Louis Hartz—the “consensus school,” which meant that they deemphasized social and ideological conflict in favor of the notion that Americans had always agreed on fundamental liberal capitalist values and were thus spared the class conflicts that led to the rise of socialism and fascism in Europe.3 But Higham’s own work stressed social conflict more than consensus, although not in familiar socialist or Marxist terms. In making ethnic or racial divisions count for at least as much as those associated with class, his work somewhat resembles that of C. Vann Woodward, whose great books Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 and The Strange Career of Jim Crow appeared in 1951 and 1955 respectively.4

Woodward was somewhat closer to the explanations based on economic conflict than Higham was, but he also made it clear that racism was deeply rooted in Southern culture and not just an improvised weapon in the struggles of classes or interest groups. If Woodward, Higham, and Kenneth Stampp (who in 1956 demolished the image of the happy and harmonious slave plantation of the Old South5) are taken to be the representative United States historians of the 1950s, one could easily argue that the dominant theme they shared was not so much consensus as an emphasis on the need to shift from a model of conflict based strictly on class to one rooted at least partially in racial or ethnic differences.

But Higham did share one trait with those he called the consensus historians (I’m thinking here particularly of Richard Hofstadter)—a willingness to generalize broadly about American society and politics and to put forward moral and cultural criticism of the tendencies he discerned. A strong disapproval of aggressive nationalism, whether invoked against minorities at home or “enemies” abroad, runs throughout his work. Higham also shared the consensus historians’ view that American society cohered, to the considerable extent that it did, because of a core of common values. He sought to understand the relationship between what held the nation together and what threatened to tear it apart.

Higham’s second major book was to have been a cultural history of the Gilded Age, which for him was the watershed between the old republic of the antebellum era and the modern colossus of the twentieth century. Brilliant essays on the cultural transformations of the 1850s and 1890s, both included in Hanging Together, were the fruit of this work. They reveal Higham’s rare talent for uncovering the common elements in elite and popular culture that can be said to reflect the spirit of an age. In his essay on the 1890s, for example, Higham establishes connections between such seemingly diverse phenomena as violent sports, ragtime music, naturalistic fiction, and pragmatic philosophy, all of them developments that broke with convention. But the big book never got written, to some extent at least because of the way the 1960s drew Higham’s attention back to issues involving ethnicity and race. He marched with C. Vann Woodward, John Hope Franklin, and other liberal historians at Selma in 1965. Like many academics of his generation, he was disconcerted and to some degree estranged by the radical, countercultural movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which seemed to him to glorify division, disruption, and separatism. The Black Power movement and the student protests that he encountered on the University of Michigan campus made him a critic of the New Left, although a relatively calm and judicious one who remained sympathetic to some of the movement’s goals if not its methods.

The title essay in Hanging Together, which was originally Higham’s presidential address to the Organization of American Historians in 1974, was in part a response to the divisiveness of the day. But it approached the topic of “divergent unities in American History” from a detached, nonpolemi-cal, almost Olympian perspective. He found three ways in which Americans had historically found common ground. First was the “‘primordial’ unity” arising from place, kinship, ancestry, and other “inherited relationships” (for example, membership in an Indian tribe or origin in a particular Italian village, Eastern European shtetl, or Chinese district). Second was the “ideological unity” based on the individualist and libertarian values common to dissenting Protestantism and the Enlightenment political thought that sanctioned the American Revolution. The great nineteenth-century crusade against slavery was built upon a widely shared conviction that slavery was incompatible with these values. Finally came the “technical unity” resulting from the ways that modern forms of specialized knowledge and bureaucratic organization promoted cooperation and coordination. Large corporations, government agencies, interest-group lobbies, and professional associations would be among the centers of unifying tendencies.

Higham characterized the Progressive Era between 1898 and 1918 as a time when there was a “fertile amalgamation” of “democratic ideals” and “bureaucratic techniques.” This, he found, was particularly the case whenever scientific methods were used to achieve humanitarian goals or when unbiased empirical investigations were required to establish the facts to which reformers needed to address themselves. More recently, however, he finds that technical unity seemed to triumph at the expense of both primordial bonds and ideological unity, although the latter forms of solidarity have asserted themselves spasmodically. Higham concludes that

each of these adhesive forces—the primordial, the ideological, and the technical—has something to contribute to our complex society; and each of them survives within it. If we can discover how to align the technical with the primordial so that each offsets the other, and give to ideology the task of challenging both, we may raise to a new level one of the great enduring principles of our ideological heritage: the importance of diversity, the value of countervailing power.

In essence Higham was saying that American unities are themselves plural and even contradictory but that they nevertheless must be made to work together in some ways if we are to have a decent and progressive society.

Higham’s commitment to studying American history as a totality rather than a set of fragments has not made him a scholarly isolationist. In order to gain a broader perspective on the United States, he has championed, and to some extent practiced, comparative history. The major essay on comparative immigrations that he contributed to The Comparative Approach to American History, edited by C. Vann Woodward in 1968,6 is not included in this collection except in the “distilled form” he used it in a 1991 address in Australia. Missing, therefore, is Higham’s provocative argument that America’s twentieth-century mass culture, unlike that of some other immigrant-receiving societies, was invented by immigrants for immigrants. (Among the cultural forms that ethnic entrepreneurs and artists pioneered in their efforts to divert a largely immigrant audience were the first comic strips, vaudeville, and Tin Pan Alley. As he points out they also contributed significantly to popular journalism, radio broadcasting, and the early film industry.)

  1. 1

    For biographical information on Higham, see Lewis A. Erenberg’s introduction to A Tribute to John Higham: Historian as Moral Critic, a special issue of Mid-America: An Historical Review, Vol. 82 (2000), pp. 7–20.

  2. 2

    Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 has gone through four editions, the first (1955) and the most recent (1988) by Rutgers University Press.

  3. 3

    See Writing American History: Essays on Modern Scholarship (Indiana University Press, 1970).

  4. 4

    Louisiana State University Press and Oxford University Press. Strange Career would be revised several times, most recently in 1974.

  5. 5

    The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (Knopf, 1956).

  6. 6

    Basic Books, pp. 91–105.

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