Is It History Yet?

Historians discuss the challenge of writing about the recent past. Scott McLemee tries to put things in context.

September 5, 2012

This year is the centenary of James Harvey Robinson’s book The New History: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook, which made a case for teaching and writing about the past as something other than the record of illustrious men gaining power and then doing things with it.

“Our bias for political history,” he wrote, “led us to include a great many trifling details of dynasties and military history which merely confound the reader and take up precious space that should be devoted to certain great issues hitherto neglected.” The new breed of historians, such as the ones Robinson was training at Columbia University, would explore the social and cultural dimensions of earlier eras -- “the ways in which people have thought and acted in the past, their tastes and their achievements in many fields” – as well as what he called “the intricate question of the role of the State in the past.”

One hundred years and several paradigm shifts later, this “new history” is normal history; it’s not obvious why Robinson’s effort was so provocative at the time. You can see how it might have upset turf-protecting experts concerned with, say, whether or not Charles the Bald was actually bald. But it also promised to make connections between contemporary issues and knowledge of the past -- or threatened to make those connections, to put it another way.

Hold that thought for now, though. Jumping from 1912 to the present, let me point out a new collection of papers from the University of Georgia Press called Doing Recent History, edited by Claire Bond Potter and Renee C. Romano. (Potter is professor of history at the New School, Romano an associate professor of history at Oberlin College.)

There’s something puzzlingly James Harvey Robinson-ish about it, even though none of the contributors give the old man a nod. It must be a total coincidence that the editors are publishing the collection just now, amidst all the centennial non-festivities. And some of Robinson’s complaints about his colleagues would sound bizarre in today’s circumstances – especially his frustration at their blinkered sense of what should count as topics and source materials for historical research. “They exhibit but little appreciation of the vast resources upon which they might draw,” he wrote, “and unconsciously follow for the most part, an established routine in their selection of facts.”

As if in reply, the editors of Doing Recent History write: “We have the opportunity to blaze trails that have not been marked in historical literature. We have access to sources that simply do not exist for earlier periods: in addition to living witnesses, we have unruly evidence such as video games and television programming (which has expanded exponentially since the emergence of cable), as well as blogs, wikis, websites, and other virtual spaces.”

No doubt cranky talk-show hosts and unemployed Charles the Bald scholars will take umbrage at Jerry Saucier’s paper “Playing the Past: The Video Game Simulation as Recent American History” – and for what it’s worth, I’m not entirely persuaded that Saucier’s topic pertains to historiography, rather than ethnography. But that could change at some point. In “Do Historians Watch Enough TV? Broadcast News as a Primary Source,” David Greenberg makes the forceful argument that political historians tend to focus on written material to document their work: a real anachronism given TV’s decisive role in public life for most of the period since World War II. He gives the example of a sweeping history of the Civil Rights movement that seemed to draw on every imaginable source of documentation -- but not the network TV news programs that brought the struggle into the nation's living room. (The historian did mention a couple of prime-time specials, but with no details or reason to suppose he'd watched them.) Likewise, it’s entirely possible that historians of early 21st-century warfare will need to know something about video games, which have had their part in recruiting and training troops.

Besides the carefully organized, searchable databases available in libraries, historians have to come to terms with the oceans of digital text created over the past quarter-century or so -- tucked away on countless servers for now, but posing difficult questions about archiving and citation. The contributors take these issues up, along with related problems about intellectual property and the ethical responsibility of the historian when using documents published in semi-private venues online, or deposited in research collections too understaffed to catch possible violations of confidentiality.

In “Opening Archives on the Recent Past: Reconciling the Ethics of Access and the Ethics of Privacy, “ Laura Clark Brown and Nancy Kaiser discuss a number of cases of sensitive information about private citizens appearing in material acquired by the Southern Historical Collection of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For example, there's the author whose papers include torrid correspondence with a (married) novelist who wouldn't want his name showing up in the finding aid. Brown and Kaiser also raise another matter for concern: “With the full-text search capabilities of Google Books and electronic journals, scholarly works no longer have practical obscurity, and individuals could easily find their names and private information cited in a monograph with even a very small press run.”

The standard criticism of James Harvey Robinson’s work among subsequent generations of professional historians is that his “new history” indulges in “presentism” – the sin of interpreting the past according to concerns or values of the historian’s own day. In Robinson’s case, he seems to have been a strong believer in the virtues of scientific progress, in its continuing fight against archaic forms of thought and social organization. With that in mind, it’s easier to understand his insistence that social, cultural, and intellectual history were at least as important as the political and diplomatic sort (and really, more so). Students and the general public were better off learning about “the lucid intervals during which the greater part of human progress has taken place,” rather than memorizing the dates of wars and coronations.

None of the contributors to Doing Recent History are nearly that programmatic. Their main concern is with the challenge of studying events and social changes from the past few decades using the ever more numerous and voluminous sources becoming available. Robinson’s “new history” tried to make the past interesting and relevant to the present. The “recent history” people want to generate the insights and critical skills that become possible when you learn to look at the recent past as something much less familiar, and more puzzling, than it might otherwise appear. I'm struck less by the contrast than the continuity.

Robinson would have loved it. In fact, he even anticipated their whole project. “In its normal state,” he wrote one hundred years ago, “the mind selects automatically, from the almost infinite mass of memories, just those things in our past which make us feel at home in the present. It works so easily and efficiently that we are unconscious of what it is doing for us and of how dependent we are upon it.”

Our memory — personal and cultural alike – “supplies so promptly and so precisely what we need from the past in order to make the present intelligible that we are beguiled into the mistaken notion that the present is self-explanatory and quite able to take care of itself, and that the past is largely dead and irrelevant, except when we have to make a conscious effort to recall some elusive fact.” That passage would have make a good epigraph for Doing Recent History, but it’s too late now.


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