Wild in the Stacks

Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History

edited by Barton J. Bernstein
Pantheon, 364 pp., $6.95

Unlike poets and mathematicians, historians rarely break into print before their thirties. The generation of American historians now publishing their first books includes representatives from all sectors of the political spectrum. Some of the more promising exhibit no opinions that distinguish them markedly from their elders, but the few who have so far developed any sense of identity as a new generation profess some degree of leftward orientation and answer to the vague description “New Left.” Even among these, however, the median range of opinion is really not very far left. They have no common ideology. If they have any ideas in common it is a conviction that the previous generation of American historians was wrong.

The erring generation they are talking about, which began to publish during or just after the Second World War, includes Daniel J. Boorstin, Oscar Handlin, Louis Hartz, Richard Hofstadter, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. For those who date back a bit before that, especially for Charles Beard and his followers, the “new” historians generally show more tolerance. In fact, they tend to conform to a pattern familiar in intellectual history, that of rejecting the previous generation to make friends with an earlier one. When they speak of the “establishment” or “consensus” school, labels of strictly pejorative usage, they are referring to their immediate predecessors. And while they are keen on discovering ideological distinctions, the significant gap appears to be generational. Even that can be exaggerated, for there is continuity as well as a gap between generations. Many older historians would bridle at being branded “establishment” or “consensus,” and there is probably as great a range of viewpoint among them as among the new generation.

For all that, real and felt differences exist between the experience of the older and the formative years of the younger historians, disparities of a sort that help to account for the differences in their respective points of view. The foreign war that historians of the older generation fought was felt to be morally justified and more or less unavoidable. The peace was regarded as honorable, the punishments inflicted as just. Whatever complacency over foreign policy they felt was matched on the domestic side by identification with the New Deal, which many perceived as a vindication of traditional institutions or proof of their flexibility in the handling of grave economic and social crises. Such in general is Schlesinger’s description in The Age of Roosevelt. For many the Truman and Kennedy administrations were proof of the continued vitality of the same tradition. The Cold War strained or snapped old sympathies with the Left, and made anti-communism intellectually respectable, while the rise of a Radical Right with substantial support of the common man exposed retrograde and anti-intellectual traits of another traditional ally, and inspired a reassessment of historic mass movements of lowerclass and populist origins.

The perception of immediate experience, in fact, inspired a generation’s perception of the American past itself. Thus the unquestioned agreements that had united Americans all along appeared…

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