Wise Man

John Higham
John Higham; drawing by David Levine

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…

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