Class Act

Fruits of Merchant Capital: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism

by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese
Oxford University Press, 469 pp., $10.95 (paper)

From all sides we hear that historical scholarship is in a state of crisis. The basic premise of historical investigation—that significant knowledge can be gained from studying the past in a sequential way—has come under heavy attack. Fashionable schools of thought in fields like psychology, anthropology, linguistics, and literary criticism deny the relevance of history to any deep understanding of human consciousness and behavior. Clio, the muse that once inspired virtually all humanistic and social-scientific study, is in danger of being exiled to the fringes of intellectual and cultural life.

Historians themselves are partly to blame for this situation. For the most part they have refused to interest themselves in the theoretical grounds of their discipline and have avoided the kind of transnational or comparative approaches that might shed light on the origins and destiny of the modern world. Instead, they have cultivated narrow specialties, severely limited by geography, period, or one or another of the new “methodologies” derived from the equally fragmented world of the behavioral sciences. As a result, historians have become part of a loose federation of subdisciplines investigating a variety of discrete problems, rather than a community of scholars who agree on what is worth doing and on how the results are to be evaluated.

One suggested cure for fragmentation and incoherence within historical studies is the return to “narrative history.” I take this to mean that historians should resist sacrificing readability and dramatic effect for the apparent precision of quantification and social-scientific analysis. It might also mean that they should focus on the more dynamic aspects of human experience and de-emphasize the search for “structural” continuities over extended periods which has occupied a very influential school of modern social historians.

But if narrative history is to be more than mere storytelling, it must be based on a conviction that the human action being recorded has purpose. Traditional narrative history in the United States and Western Europe gained much of its authority from the liberal or “Whiggish” conviction that studying the past reveals a general progress toward freedom, justice, and morality. People and their actions were presented on the basis of what part they had played in the struggle for liberty and democracy. But events in the twentieth century have, to put it mildly, weakened our faith that history foreshadows the coming of a liberal millennium.

Vivid narrative history can also be inspired by nationalism or ethnic pride—celebration of the heroes and achievements of one’s own country, people, or tribe. I assume that none of the participants in the current debate on the future of history would favor putting scholarship at the service of one of the rival chauvinistic ideologies that currently divide humanity.

Those of us who have not ceased to hope that studying history can yield insights into the human condition and that the past can help us to understand the present and perhaps anticipate the future—assumptions that seem to me essential to the health and survival of the discipline—must confront very seriously…

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