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Image An Idea of Cultural History

History is culturally ordered, differently so in different societies … The converse is also true: cultural schemes are historically ordered.

—Marshall Sahlins, 1985

THIS BOOK is the first in a series, which will hopefully comprise a cultural history of the United States. It is cultural in an anthropological rather than an aesthetic sense—a history of American folkways as they have changed through time.

Each volume (five are now in draft) centers on a major problem in American historiography. The first volume, Albion’s Seed, is about the problem of cultural origins. The second volume, American Plantations, studies the problem of culture and environment in the colonial era. The third volume examines the coming of independence as a cultural movement. Volume four takes up the problem of cultural change in the early republic, and volume five is about the Civil War as a cultural conflict. Other volumes will follow if the author is allowed to complete them.

This project has grown from an intellectual event that happened in the 1960s—a revolution in the writing of history, very much like the thought-revolutions described in Thomas Kuhn’s essays on the history of science, and Michael Foucault’s studies of social thought. Three generations ago, there was an established “paradigm” or “episteme” of historical knowledge. A writer had only to call his book a history in order to announce what sort of work it was, for history books were very much the same. History was about the past. It was a narrative discipline—a story-telling art. The stories that it told were about the organization of power and authority. Not all historians wrote political history, but most were interested in the politics of the subjects they studied. Labor historians wrote about labor leaders; historians of eduction studied school systems and the men who ran them; historians of women wrote about suffrage leaders and reform elites. Large masses of less eminent people also passed through the history books, or loitered in the wings like armies of anonymous extras on a Hippodrome stage. But the leading actors were small and highly individuated power-elites.

Historians studied these people through documentary sources. The results were organized as narratives and presented in the form of testimony—sometimes with specific citations, but for the most part historians testified to their readers, “I have steeped myself in the sources, and here is what I believe to have happened,” and they were believed, for this was a time when scholars were gentlemen, and a gentleman was as good as his word.

All of this activity created a coherent and plausible idea of history, which was at once a body of knowledge about the past and also a way of knowing it. Its masters were the great “narrative” historians such as Macaulay, Michelet, Ranke and Parkman. The last of this breed in America were Allan Nevins and Samuel Eliot Morison, who are both in their graves.

Early in the twentieth century, this paradigm of history began to come apart. Its ethical framework disintegrated. Suddenly, there were many new interests and problems that no longer seemed to fit. Anomalies were found; young scholars were promoted primarily for finding them. For two generations, historians became hunters after the anomalous fact. Each of their successes was a blow against the old synthesis, which was soon reduced to something like a ruin.

Some scholars struggled to repair it. Others attempted to replace it with a new synthesis. In the United States, the work of Turner, Beard, Parrington, Hofstadter, Boorstin and Hartz might be understood as a series of highly tentative paradigm sketches. But nobody could put the pieces together again. This was the period (1935-60) when historical relativism came into fashion, and every convention of the American Historical Association became an organized expression of professional Angst.

Then, in the decade of the 1960s, something new began to happen. Young scholars in Europe and America were inspired by the French school of the Annales to invent a new kind of history which differed from the old paradigm in all of the characteristics mentioned above. This new history was not really about the past at all, but about change—with past and present in a mutual perspective. It was not a story-telling but a problem-solving discipline. Its problematiques were about change and continuity in the acts and thoughts of ordinary people—people in the midst of others; people in society. The goal of this new social history was nothing less than an histoire totale of the human experience. To that end, the new historians drew upon many types of evidence: documents, statistics, physical artifacts, iconographic materials and much more. They also presented their findings in a new way—not as testimony but as argument. An historian was required not only to make true statements but also to demonstrate their truthfulness by rigorous methods of logic and empiricism. This epistemic revolution was the most radical innovation of the new history. It was also the most difficult for older scholars to understand.

In its early years, the new social history claimed to be not merely a new subdiscipline of history but the discipline itself in a new form. It promised to become a major synthesizing discipline in the human sciences—even the synthesizing discipline. Unhappily, these high goals were not reached. The new social history succeeded in building an institutional base, and also in exploring many new fields of knowledge. But in Fernand Braudel’s words, it was overwhelmed by its own success. Instead of becoming a synthesizing discipline, it disintegrated into many special fields—women’s history, labor history, environmental history, the history of aging, the history of child abuse, and even gay history—in which the work became increasingly shrill and polemical. Moreover, too many important subjects were excluded from the new history—politics, events, individuals, even ideas—and too many problems were diminished by materialist explanations and “modernization models.” By the 1980s the new social history had lost much of its intellectual momentum, and most of its conceptual range. It had also lost touch with the larger purposes that had called it into being.

From this mixed record of success and failure, a question inevitably arises. What comes after the new history? How can we continue to move forward? How might we strengthen the weakened hand of synthesis in an analytic discipline? What larger intellectual and cultural purposes might an historian seek to serve?

To those questions, this series offers an answer in its organizing idea of cultural history. Briefly, it seeks to find a way forward by combining several elements which the old and new histories have tended to keep apart. In terms of substance, it is about both elites and ordinary people, about individual choices and collective experiences, about exceptional events and normative patterns, about vernacular culture and high culture, about the problem of society and the problem of the state. To those ends, it tries to keep alive the idea of histoire totale by employing a concept of culture as a coherent and comprehensive whole.

In causal terms, this inquiry searches for a way beyond reductive materialist models (of both the left and the right) which are presently in fashion among historians in the United States and Britain, where materialism became a cultural mania during the Reagan and Thatcher years. Without denying the importance of material factors in history, one might assert that they are only a part of a larger whole, and that claims for their priority are rarely grounded in empirical fact. This inquiry seeks to place them in their proper context.

In terms of epistemology, this work tries to find a way forward in yet another way. The old history was idealist in its epistemic assumptions. Its major findings were offered as “interpretations” which tended to be discovered by intuition and supported by testimony. The new social history aspired to empiricism, but the epistemic revolution was incomplete—and something of the old interpretative sweep was lost in the process. This work tries to combine the interpretative thrust of the old history with the empiricism of the new—interpretative sails and empirical anchors, so to speak.

In its temporal aspect, this inquiry seeks a new answer to an old problem about the relationship between the past and the present. Many working historians think of the past as fundamentally separate from the present—the antiquarian solution. Others study the past as prologue to the present—the presentist solution. This work is organized around a third idea—that every period of the past, when understood in its own terms, is immediate to the present. This “immediatist” solution cannot be discussed at length here; it must be defined ostensively by the work itself, and especially by the conclusion. Suffice to say that the temporal problem in this volume is to explore the immediacy of the earliest period of American history without presentism, and at the same time to understand the cultures of early America in their own terms without antiquarianism.

An immediatist idea of a relationship between the past and present might also support a more spacious relationship between history and other fields of knowledge. The old history was conceived as an autonomous discipline. The new history was more interdisciplinary—but its efforts consisted mainly of borrowings from other fields. This work is meant to suggest that major problems in many disciplines are insoluble without the application of historical knowledge. A case in point is the problem of wealth distribution; this work will argue, for example, that the distribution of wealth is determined not merely by timeless economic laws but by the interplay of cultural values and individual purposes which are rooted in the past.

Such an approach to the relationship between past and present might also help to enlarge historical inquiry in its ethical dimension. This work, for example, tries to apply new empirical methods and findings to old problems about the history of freedom in the world. It suggests that the problem of liberty cannot be discussed intelligently without a discrimination of libertarianisms which must be made in historical terms. Empirical knowledge of the past is not merely useful but necessary to an understanding of our moral choices in the present.

Finally, in terms of rhetoric, a problem has arisen from the empirical requirements of the new history, which have destroyed the possibility of simple story-telling in original scholarship without changing the narrative nature of the writing that historians do. This series seeks to combine story-telling and problem-solving in a “braided narrative” of more complex construction.

In all of those many ways, this idea of cultural history rests upon an assumption that the old and the new history are not two disciplines but one. The progress of historical knowledge is best served by their creative integration.

Old Headington, Oxford

Wayland, Massachusetts




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