C. Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter: Forty-seven years ago, two of the greatest names in American historiography laid out a plan for a grand, multivolume summation of American history. Why is it still only half finished?
THE LITERARY EDITOR of the Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Schwarz, recently leveled a sweeping indictment against American historians. Some 47 years ago, he pointed out in the magazine's October issue, C. Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter, two of the greatest names in postwar American historiography, laid out a plan for a multivolume history of the United States. The series, to be published by Oxford University Press, would be a grand summation of their generation's understanding of American history, combining high politics with social and cultural history and bridging the widening chasm between professional historians and intelligent lay readers.
Yet nearly a half-century later, only five of a projected 11 volumes in the Oxford History of the United States have been completed. (The best-known, by far, is "Battle Cry of Freedom," by James McPherson, about the Civil War era, which was a major bestseller.) And, Schwarz wrote, "not only are the Americans unconscionably tardy; their entries conspicuously lack the intellectual refinement, analytic sharpness, and stylistic verve" of similar books done for Oxford, about England, by British historians.
The charge about quality is idiosyncratic -- the five books collectively have won two Pulitzers, a Bancroft Prize (a prestigious award among historians), and many good reviews. But the tardiness is irrefutable. Hofstadter died in 1970, Woodward in 1999, and the series is still only half done. Have American historians simply lost the ability--or the taste for--telling the American story on this scale?
The Oxford project has just hit another snag. With great fanfare, the publisher, in its spring 2007 catalog, announced a new volume: "Leviathan: America Comes of Age, 1865-1900," by the prolific University of Texas historian H.W. Brands. ("Here is a sweeping history of the U.S. in its epoch of greatest change," reads the catalog copy.) But this month, Oxford's executive editor, Susan Ferber, told me that "Leviathan" won't be published in the series after all. Citing private negotiations, neither she nor David M. Kennedy, a professor at Stanford and general editor of the series, would say why the book has been quietly yanked from the series, or whether Oxford will publish it at all. Brands did not respond to requests for comment.
People involved with the series give a number of reasons for its glacial progress. At nearly the moment it was getting started, for instance, women's history and "bottom up" social history were just catching on. "The palette of subjects thought to be appropriate subjects for academic inquiry just exploded," Kennedy says, and the difficulty of writing overarching narratives "went up exponentially." Some scholars who were assigned books simply couldn't find the time to master the new literature.
Unavoidable personal issues and tragedies also intervened: The author originally slated to write the volume on the Civil War, Willie Lee Rose, suffered a stroke in 1978....
Susan Ferber, the Oxford editor, says the project has picked up some fresh momentum recently. She has three manuscripts on her desk -- chapters from Wood, a draft of"What Hath God Wrought: America 1815-1848," by Daniel Howe, an emeritus professor at UCLA; and a thematic volume on foreign policy from 1776-2004, by George Herring, an emeritus professor at the University of Kentucky.
New blood has been brought in as well. Bruce Schulman, of Boston University, has been at work on the 1896-1929 volume for a few years, while Fred Anderson, of the University of Colorado, and Andrew Cayton, of Miami University of Ohio, have just been asked to take the story from 1672 to 1763. (That leaves just one book to be assigned, on the 1600s and earlier.)
Anderson's and Cayton's plans include a retelling of the history of the post-Plymouth Rock, pre-Revolutionary era -- usually treated as a dull stretch -- as a high-drama competition among the English, Spanish, and French empires for control of North America. ...
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