Although enrollments in college history courses have plunged in recent years, interest in the subject remains high, to judge from both the best-seller lists and history’s place in the gladiatorial combat known as American politics. We are, in many ways, saturated in history. But what purpose does it serve? Academic specialists and the general public alike seem more confused by this question than at any time in recent memory.
History has always had multiple purposes, of course. Among the oldest is moral education: providing examples of admirable character and conduct to emulate, and infamous character and conduct to shun. Equally venerable is the establishment of legitimate title, including, especially, to states: rulers have claimed the right to rule because of their descent from a line of predecessors stretching back into the mists of time. The great monotheistic religions, meanwhile, have looked to history to teach awe of God’s power and to reveal the unfolding of His plans for humanity.
But during the Enlightenment, a vision of history emerged that at least partially eclipsed these older ones: History with a capital H, history as a science. In this new vision, linked to the nascent social sciences, the study of history could reveal the regular, predictable laws that govern the development of all human societies, and therefore could help us understand not only the past but the present and future as well. During the French Revolution, the mathematician and philosopher Condorcet composed one of the great early works along these lines, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. (Ironically, he wrote it while in hiding from the revolutionary Terror.) He began with hunter-gatherer societies, worked his way up through the eighteenth century, and pointed to a glorious future in which humanity’s “indefinite advancement” would lead to the eradication of poverty and an extension of the human life span. Hegel and Marx, in their turn, saw History following determined paths toward a discernible and desirable future condition.
But in his new book, Singular Pasts, the historian Enzo Traverso writes, “The past no longer announces the future; it no longer contains any promise of redemption.” Even Marxist scholars, for all their continued belief in the importance of class, no longer have any confidence that the history of class struggle points toward the ultimate victory of the proletariat and the establishment of a more just society. Liberals who, after communism’s collapse, read Francis Fukuyama and hoped that History had reached an end point of sorts, at least to the extent that societies around the world were embracing a Western model of capitalism as well as moderate social democracy, have seen their dreams turn to nightmares. Very few historians still try to deduce universal laws from their often fragmentary and difficult source material or to predict the future. If any group of contemporary academics is forecasting what is to come in a convincing manner it is climate scientists, and if a specter is haunting the world today, it is the all too real specter of ecological doom.
Where has the fall of scientific history left us? In the United States in recent years, the most forceful answer has come from the left. History, many of its most prominent practitioners insist, has the power to expose the deep structural roots of the inequality and discrimination that still plague our society. The 1619 Project of The New York Times exemplifies this tendency. Despite its loose talk of slavery as the country’s “original sin” (a concept best left to theologians), most of the essays in the original publication, from 2019, looked persuasively at the historical origins of current issues such as mass incarceration, housing inequality, income inequality, and the failings of the American health care system. Much feminist history writing, meanwhile, has aimed to show how supposedly gender-neutral concepts such as “citizenship” were not just originally associated with men alone but have continued, even in our own century, to present obstacles to women trying to claim the “rights of man.”
This sort of history can serve an obvious and important purpose, but it also has limits. Despite the pleasures of seeing hypocrisy exposed and unexpected connections drawn, what readers above all glean from works written along these lines is a dark message about how awful the past was and how difficult it will be to overcome. The political theorist Wendy Brown speaks of how, in this sort of history, the idea of struggling for the future has given way to a “moralizing discourse” that holds the past itself morally culpable. Some scholars associated with these ideas, including another thoughtful political theorist, Massimiliano Tomba, have tried to illuminate untaken paths of development in the past that might constitute arsenals of possibility for the present.1 But the specific cases investigated, such as plans for communal land ownership in revolutionary France or Mexico’s Zapatista insurgency, generally lie so far removed from the modern industrialized West as to offer only very general and abstract forms of inspiration to even the most sympathetic reader. Put simply, this sort of history writing is not going to fill the intellectual gap left by the fall of scientific history, and it will have trouble engaging a public that does not already share its ideological commitments.
A new collection of essays edited by the intellectual historian Darrin M. McMahon, History and Human Flourishing, offers a broader and more hopeful set of answers. The contributors are not afraid to speak in terms that most social and cultural theorists have long abandoned. “History,” McMahon writes, “affords momentary apparitions of what might redeem us—beauty, truth, love.” Maya Jasanoff insists on the importance of “well-told” narratives, arguing that history can “widen a reader’s sense of reality, heighten the ability to process change over time, and…wander down the avenues of ‘How did it happen?’ and ‘Why?’” Dan Edelstein evokes “the exhilaration we feel when reimagining past worlds,” while speaking of history’s “consolations” and even “the historical sublime.” These essays and many others in the book provide reassurance that the practice of history can still offer more than just the grim necessity of exposing how thoroughly the past traps us within invisible (or all too visible) prison walls.
In Singular Pasts, Traverso is not interested in proposing how history should be written but in exploring what the fall of scientific history has meant for how historians practice their craft today. In particular, he highlights the increasing tendency of historians to insert themselves explicitly into their work: writing in the first person, talking about their personal connections to their subjects, and sometimes making their own lives the subject—a practice that the French historian and publisher Pierre Nora nicely dubbed “ego-history.” Traverso’s short and breezy survey—more of an extended essay than an in-depth investigation—concentrates on European authors but also takes in American works such as Daniel Mendelsohn’s moving The Lost (2006), about his search for family members killed in the Holocaust. In an “African American Epilogue,” Traverso discusses Saidiya Hartman’s books and essays about Black lives, in which she reflects on her dilemmas and uncertainties when faced with a recalcitrant archive and develops a strategy she calls “critical fabulation” to deal with them.
The boundary between history and memoir has always been permeable, at least since the days of Xenophon and Caesar. In modern times, the French in particular have excelled at mixing the genres, with notable examples including the Cardinal de Retz (who recounted the political upheavals of the seventeenth century and his involvement in them), Chateaubriand (who did the same for the French Revolution and Napoleon), and Charles de Gaulle.
An important strain of European Romanticism insisted that true knowledge of the world could only arise through an examination of the self. “The way of mystery leads inward,” wrote Novalis. “Within us, or nowhere, lies eternity with its worlds, the past and the future.” The Romantic historian Jules Michelet, although one of the fathers of professional, archive-based history, often wrote in the first person and seemed to cast himself as a real-life equivalent of Dante’s Virgil, guiding his readers into the realms of the dead. But as Traverso notes, the triumph of scientific history in the late nineteenth century recast such earlier works as literature and threw a stern shadow of disapproval over contemporaries who continued to write in this manner.
Traverso, who teaches intellectual history at Cornell, is an eclectic author who has published well over a dozen books on such subjects as Jewish modernity, twentieth-century left-wing thought, fascist violence, and the idea of revolution. In almost all of them, however, he has shown a particular interest in the way history is written and in the porous divide between history and memory. He also has a deep feeling for the connections between history and literature, especially works of high modernism and those that have directly addressed the catastrophes of the twentieth century.
Although Singular Pasts jumps back and forth between different periods and genres, it nonetheless tells a clear story. It begins in the early twentieth century—the high-water mark of scientific history and of a professional impetus toward utter impersonality in history writing. Traverso quotes the famous instructions Lord Acton gave the contributors to The Cambridge Modern History: to write so that “nobody can tell, without examining the list of the authors, where the Bishop of Oxford laid down his pen, and whether Fairbairn or Gasquet, Liebermann or Harrison took it up.” But an even more important figure was the French sociologist François Simiand, who argued that history worthy of the name needed to use quantitative methods to determine verifiable patterns of cause and effect from large-scale data sets. Simiand had a powerful influence on the Annales school, the century’s most important group of historians, who initially shunned narrative history altogether and dismissed the details of political conflict and individual lives as mere foam tossed up over the deep ocean currents of economic and geological change.
But over the course of the twentieth century, three developments challenged the overweening confidence that Simiand had expressed and left scientific history in ruins. The first was the Holocaust, an event so confounding and shattering that some of the most prominent cultural figures who addressed it—notably Claude Lanzmann in the film Shoah—insisted that it could not be explained or interpreted, only narrated. While scientific history generally embraced an overall narrative of progress and modernization led by the West, the Holocaust tore that narrative apart. Second came the intellectual movements collectively known as “postmodernism,” which challenged all so-called metanarratives as mere projections onto subject matter that defied any such neat ordering. Traverso writes, “It is postmodernism that, by questioning the ‘metanarratives’ of modernity, broke the framework of historical epistemology by creating a fragmented gaze.” Finally, he points to neoliberalism and the radical individualism that it encourages, which he claims makes it harder to generalize about communities as a whole while tempting historians to “retreat into the individual sphere.”
This historical analysis sometimes feels a little facile. Traverso never defines “neoliberalism” and invokes “individualism” too easily. Historians have located the triumph of individualism in virtually every century of Western history at least since Jacob Burckhardt, in 1860, marked Renaissance Italy as its birthplace. Nor does Traverso try to work out the cultural mechanisms by which neoliberalism managed to influence so deeply a profession overwhelmingly hostile to the programs of its supposed avatars, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. He might also have done more to connect his probing but brief reflections on representations of the Holocaust with the voluminous debates that historians have conducted over how to narrate and interpret it. And probably because of his own hazy Marxist sympathies, Traverso barely mentions another development with clear relevance to the fall of scientific history: the collapse of the Communist regimes that built their official ideologies on this foundation.
Even so, the overall story rings true. As far back as 1987, just one year before the journal Annales published an agonized editorial questioning history’s place among the social sciences, Nora produced his collection Essais d’ego-histoire, in which he invited France’s leading historians to write histories of themselves. A handful of great historians had previously written autobiographies (Edward Gibbon, Henry Adams, Benedetto Croce), but in the late twentieth century doing so seemed to become almost a professional rite of passage, especially for scholars with direct or family connections to twentieth-century horrors. In 1978 the Holocaust historian Saul Friedländer published the searing When Memory Comes, about his childhood hiding from the Nazis in a monastery under the pseudonym Paul-Henri Ferland (his parents, deported from France, died at Auschwitz) and his youth in Israel. By 2005, enough others had followed in these footsteps for Jeremy D. Popkin to publish an erudite book about historians’ autobiographies and memoirs.2
Many more autobiographical works have since followed. Perhaps the most wrenching memoir—not mentioned by Traverso but discussed by Dan Edelstein in his essay for the McMahon volume—came from the NYU historian Stéphane Gerson, about the death of his young son on a family rafting trip and its agonized aftermath.3
As Traverso also keenly notes, this “subjectivist turn” among historians has freed at least some of them to innovate stylistically. Fifty years ago the critic Hayden White scolded historians for continuing to ape the expository style of the early twentieth century, even as writers of fiction rode one wave of wild experimentation after another. The principal reason was the primacy of scientific history and the pride historians took in sublimating their personalities to their method, as Lord Acton had prescribed. But in turning inward, some historians finally started down the path long taken by the high modernist masters of introspection, Joyce and Proust. Contemporary history writing has not yet found its Joyce or Proust, or anything close, and the enormous inertial force of disciplinary norms still makes experimental historical prose largely a game for those with the freedom to take risks—i.e., the fortunately tenured.
Traverso, it must be said, quite overestimates the extent to which “subjectivism” has actually taken over the profession as a whole. But much of the best new historical writing does feature historians speaking in their own names and invoking their own experiences. Hartman’s deliberate pushing at the line between history and fiction is one example. Another is Jasanoff’s account of sailing as a passenger on a twenty-first-century container ship as part of her quest to illuminate Joseph Conrad’s experience as a world traveler more than a century ago and the way his wandering informed his fiction.4
There are, to be sure, problems with this subjectivist turn, and Traverso points to one of them at the very start of his book. “Generally,” he writes,
the life of a scholar consists of teaching courses and seminars, attending conferences, and holing oneself up in archives and libraries, which isn’t exactly as thrilling as the adventures of a James Bond.
History writing that foregrounds these often banal experiences risks becoming the scholarly equivalent of fiction that endlessly retails the angst and distress experienced in university MFA programs. A generation of historians had life stories shaped by the horrific first half of the twentieth century, so it is not surprising that their successors often write about the stories of their families in the same era and their pursuit of these stories, as in Mendelsohn’s The Lost or excellent recent works by Columbia’s Mark Mazower and Brown’s Omer Bartov centered on their Jewish families in Russia and Galicia.5
More consequentially, this turn also raises the vexed issue of “presentism.” The term, once a relatively technical one, has exploded into common usage of late, thanks to the removing of statues and names of racists and enslavers from public view, which has provoked cries that figures in the past are being judged by the standards of the present. Last year James Sweet, the president of the American Historical Association, stirred a small but fierce controversy after criticizing “presentism” and using as his principal example popular and academic depictions of African slavery. In History and Human Flourishing, the Harvard historian David Armitage offers a learned defense of presentism. History, he stresses, is written by the living, for the living. It not only will, inevitably, reflect what the living consider vital and important, but it should not shy away from doing so, and from illuminating the origins of present-day social, economic, and political structures, the better to help address their flaws. Here Armitage joins hands with the leftist historians writing what are often called “histories of the present” to expose the roots of systemic inequality and discrimination.
Yet it is one thing to acknowledge one’s present-day perspective and to address present-day concerns. It is another entirely to foreground one’s own present-day experiences and to subordinate the actual historical source material to them. The books that Traverso discusses remain for the most part firmly within the genre of autobiography and memoir. The authors are the source material, so the problem does not arise. But the more accustomed historians grow to making their own experiences an explicit part of their work, the harder it will become to let the sources speak clearly, especially when these sources are fragmentary and difficult, and historians must strain to imagine how men and women in the distant past thought and felt. The shift also raises the danger of a more banal form of presentism that Sweet mentioned and that Armitage criticizes as well, namely the tendency to write only about lives and events in the relatively recent past, where history and memory blur.
One of the great appeals of history has always been to transport readers into strange and different worlds. Historians do not need to suppress their own beliefs and experiences in order to accomplish this, but they also need to know when to step back and let their sources speak for themselves. And they need to let readers make up their own minds about puzzling and difficult historical episodes. Voltaire once quipped that the best books are those that readers write half of themselves. He rarely followed this precept in his own voluminous history writing, which was relentlessly didactic and presentist, but it remains a good precept nonetheless.
One of the great joys of history, meanwhile, is that it is so accessible to general readers, who do not typically need extensive technical training, only background information, to appreciate even highly specialized works. These readers should be allowed to draw their own conclusions, to appreciate the wonder as well as the guilt of the past, and to learn from it in their own ways. If history no longer has the purpose of revealing, in a clear scientific manner, the arc of humanity’s story, it can still do this.
See, for instance, Massimiliano Tomba, Insurgent Universality: An Alternative Legacy of Modernity (Oxford University Press, 2019). ↩
History, Historians, and Autobiography (University of Chicago Press, 2005). ↩
Disaster Falls: A Family Story (Crown, 2017). ↩
The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (Penguin, 2017). ↩
Mark Mazower, What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home (Other Press, 2018); Omer Bartov, Tales from the Borderlands: Making and Unmaking the Galician Past (Yale University Press, 2022). ↩