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 “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.)

Around this time, Higham also expressed the intention to carry out a comparative history of group relations on three multiracial islands—Hawaii, Fiji, and Mauritius. Although many historians were skeptical about the value of such a project (some of the most cynical even wondered if it was designed to provide the opportunity to do research in paradisiacal locations), I regret that he was not able to carry it out. Hawaii might well serve as a model for group relations in a future America in which there is a nonwhite majority. Understanding how it has achieved relative harmoniousness in contrast to the intense ethnic conflict elsewhere in the US might be very instructive.

The revival during the late Sixties and early Seventies of Higham’s interest in issues involving race and ethnicity came to fruition in a collection of insightful essays—Send These To Me: Jews and Other Immigrants in Urban America, published first in 1975 and then in substantially revised form in 1984.7 Higham found that anti-Semitism in the United States owed relatively little to the cultural and intellectual animus against Jews that had arisen in Europe. The American variant, he wrote persuasively, was primarily a social phenomenon reflecting the insecurities of middle- and upper-class gentiles at a time of great social mobility. In his broad discussion of ideas about group relations in America, Higham advanced the concept of “pluralistic integration,” distinguishing between the periphery of an ethnic group, which is open to assimilation or cultural amalgamation, and the core that seeks to preserve as much tradition and autonomy as possible. (For example, religious Jews and Jewish organizations preserve the core, but many individual Jews collaborate with gentiles in secular organizations, become successful in the larger society, and intermarry with non-Jews to such an extent that the core group becomes greatly concerned.) Here as elsewhere, Higham was attempting to mediate between the advocates of a coercive, one-way assimilationism and the champions of ethnic particularism and self-segregation.

Between the mid-Seventies and the mid-Eighties the question of what was the best model for group relations in the United States lost some of its salience. But in the “culture wars” of the late Eighties and early Nineties the issue of “the one versus the many” or how much “pluribus” is compatible with “unum” came back with a vengeance. Black nationalism revived in the form of Afrocentrism, and members of other nonwhite groups affirmed their distinctive identities under the banner of “multiculturalism.” The last two essays in Hanging Together, both written in the early Nineties, contain Higham’s response to the new pluralism.

His essay “Multiculturalism and Universalism,” originally published in The American Quarterly in 1993, was one of the most cogent and balanced of the many critical evaluations of the recently intensified celebration of diversity. Higham exposed what he took to be the misconceptions or simplifications associated with the multicultural movement but managed to avoid the polemicism and disdainfulness of other liberal critics. Harking back to his New Deal, democratic socialist roots, he took multiculturalists to task for paying only lip service to class as a source of identity and a basis for mobilizing a political movement while making race, ethnicity, and gender the only differences that really matter. The lower class, he observed, was often composed of minority ethnic groups, and he argued that class affiliation could unify Americans across ethno-racial divisions. He also contended that social justice, with due recognition of cultural differences, could acquire legitimacy and effectiveness from the universalistic commitment to democracy and human rights that was held to be the national creed. Rather than imposing an intolerant uniformity, American universalism could be the basis for establishing a balance between unity and diversity.

In “The Future of American History,” first published in 1994 and the most recent of the essays in Hanging Together, Higham responded to the current efforts of some younger historians to denationalize history:

Celebrating diversity and deconstruction, the insistent pluralism of our post-Marxist era rejects any claim to centeredness in the forms of experience. In short, postmodernism calls for destabilizing and decentering an integrated national history.

Higham had no objection to internationalizing history by pursuing subjects that necessarily cross national borders, such as the history of migrations, intellectual and social movements, and scientific or technological innovations. But he wanted to make it clear that the choice of some historians to investigate subjects that could not be confined within a single nation- state, for example, the United States, does not delegitimize the work of other historians who continue to write history based on the national experience. Some advocates of “internationalizing American history” have repudiated the kind of comparative history that takes nation-states as its “units of analysis.” Higham finds this view shortsighted. Despite globalization, nations still matter and have certainly mattered greatly in the past as sources of identity and as the centers of power over people’s lives. Nations successfully claim the allegiance of most citizens and can make them go to war, pay taxes, and obey laws. Arguably, nationalism is the most influential ideology of the modern world and “deconstructing” it, as Higham suggests, will not make it go away as a historical force, any more than deconstructing race eliminates racism’s horrendous impact on its victims.

Higham’s effort to save American history from the postmodernists risks the charge that he is an advocate of a chauvinistic “American exceptionalism.” He calls for the investigation of “Americanness,” not simply as nationalist “myth, symbol, and ideology” but also as an unarticulated sentiment of “belonging, of being at home”; but this intention scarcely makes him an American exceptionalist. Although the term has been recently applied to anyone who believes that the American past has unique or distinctive features, its proper meaning is the once prevalent notion that the United States departs from a general pattern that applies to all of the advanced, industrial societies of Western Europe. To maintain, as Higham does, that all nations are exceptional in the sense that they have cultural and institutional features that do not exist elsewhere or do not exist elsewhere in precisely the same combination is to use common sense rather than succumb to national chauvinism.

Playing down the significance of national peculiarities, Higham convincingly argues, risks homogenizing historical experience to an intolerable extent. Does it really make sense to deny that there is, or at least has been, a characteristic or typical American, English, French, or German mode of life, thought, and perception? There may be an increase in postnational institutional power—through multinational corporations and international organizations, for example. But people in many parts of the world remain little affected by them. The fact that Western nations are becoming more diverse internally is a more serious problem for those who believe in unifying national traits or characters; but historians have a responsibility to identify and analyze the historically constructed core cultures against which the new pluralist movements are reacting.

The two major essays of the 1990s, written when John Higham was well into his eighth decade, reflect the persistence of his desire to reestablish connections or sources of unity both within a historiography that he sees as overspecialized and within an American society that he views as too racially and ethnically segmented. His search is for a middle ground. He advocates both historical writing that absorbs the new cultural and social history into some kind of higher synthesis and a society that accepts diversity and assimilation as complementary and compatible processes rather than as antitheses. These efforts are entirely commendable, in my opinion. There have been far too many false dichotomies and oversimplifications in the discussion of group relations in the United States. The notion that people either assimilate and lose an original identity or remain outside the American mainstream is false to the historical experiences of many ethnic groups—as any close observer of, say, Italian-American or Polish-American history is aware. Equally misleading and pernicious is the claim of parochial nationalists and separatists that those who interact with the larger culture are betraying their “roots.” Establishing a common ground through general adherence to liberal-democratic ideals and practices does not preclude ethnic diversity any more than it conflicts with the variegation of religious belief and affiliation. Indeed, as is obviously true of religious toleration, it mandates a respect for differences.

But ethnic pluralism may still constrict individual freedom if race and ethnicity are seen as primordial and inescapable—fixed forever by the sheer fact of ancestry or skin color. The “essentialist” view of ethnicity, as set forth for example in the philosopher Horace Kallen’s contention that you can change everything except the identity of your grandfather, ignores the fact that the importance people attribute to personal ancestry may vary greatly and should, at least from the standpoint of liberal-democratic theory, be a matter of personal choice. What makes the problem of black and white in America so intractable is the extent to which identities erroneously considered fixed and permanent carry with them built-in assets or liabilities.

Also generally persuasive is Higham’s assertion that nations and national identities remain legitimate, indeed essential, objects of historical inquiry. Those who claim otherwise are in danger of ignoring the extent to which the values and ideas that derive from cultural nationality influence almost everything that we do and say. As Americans, we have a certain cultural “given” that we cannot avoid confronting, unless we choose to be expatriates or hermits. We do not, for example, question the value of democracy and personal liberty (although what we mean by such terms may vary greatly). But Higham’s search for comparative insights affirms the need for the kind of cosmopolitanism that will give us some distance from Americanness. And that distance is needed if Americans’ ideological traditions are to be adjusted to the changing circumstances of the twenty-first century.

My only criticism of Higham’s recent essays is that they may be a bit alarmist in their assessment of the dangers arising from recent assertions of “multiculturalism” by representatives of various racial or ethnic minorities. He is far less apocalyptic than his fellow liberal and near contemporary Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. was in The Disuniting of America,8 and his strictures on identity movements for not paying enough attention to the salience of class seem to me entirely persuasive. But he falls a bit short of what seems to me a fully fair and balanced assessment of the latest assertions of cultural pluralism. For example, his criticism of ethnic studies programs in universities concentrates on the ones that have been overly political and ignores those that have achieved intellectual depth. Of course a calmer perspective is now possible than was the case in the late Eighties and early Nineties because of the recent subsiding of the “culture wars.” We no longer hear so much about the “disintegration” or “balkanization” of America.

But differing reactions may also come from differing regions. In the Northeast multiculturalism has often been associated with African-American cultural nationalism and especially with Afrocentrism. Louis Farrakhan, Leonard Jeffries, and Molefi Asante are sometimes taken as its exemplars. If this is what is meant by multiculturalism, it is indeed a disintegrative movement. In California, however, where African-Americans are greatly outnumbered by Latinos, and Asians are relatively more numerous than elsewhere, multiculturalism has come to signify something rather different. The emphasis here, at least in intellectual and academic circles, is increasingly on group interaction and cooperation rather than separation. A high rate of intermarriage and the emergence of many young people who proudly affirm a mixed or multicultural identity suggest how porous group boundaries are becoming. When Stanford introduced an undergraduate major in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity a few years ago, many teachers anticipated that most of the students would choose the ethnically specific tracks—African-American, Chicano, Asian-American, and Native American. (The major originated in part as a response to the demands of Chicanos and Asian-Americans to have ethnic studies programs of their own equivalent to the one already existing for African-Americans.) In fact, a substantial majority elected a comparative studies track that required working on more than one group and on general patterns of race and ethnicity, not only in the United States but in other countries as well. A large proportion of the students identified themselves as being of mixed race rather than as members of a single minority group.

My own experience is that the sizable minority of students who can claim only a white identity interact with those who consider themselves “people of color” with much less tension than might have been the case a decade ago. All of this mixing and blurring of identities is taking place under the auspices of multiculturalism or “diversity.” Something like John Higham’s ideal of “pluralistic integration” is perhaps being fulfilled on California campuses. The common ground is acceptance of what amounts to a human right to affirm a traditional identity or construct a new one out of the collision of groups and cultures in our increasingly diverse society. The historical basis for such possibilities can be found in Higham’s work over the years.

This Issue

February 28, 2002