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…

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