Eric Rauchway: The struggle to make history relevant





[Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America. ]

When Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, eulogized the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. this month, he claimed there are now no longer any historians who write about the past as if it mattered to us today. Schlesinger and his contemporaries "rummaged in [the past] for clues to understanding, if not solving, the most pressing political questions of the present," Tanenhaus said, but today's "current historians" don't. While Tanenhaus is right about what happened, he's wrong about when: A generation of historians did try to expunge this kind of history, but now it's coming back in.

In his 1970 book Historians' Fallacies, David Hackett Fischer identified Schlesinger-style history as a historical error called "presentism." You couldn't look for the origins of the present in the past without doing damage to the past, and you'd do it based on your politics. "Presentism," Fischer wrote, "appears in the new-liberal narratives of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., where American history is the steady progress of pragmatic liberalism from Jefferson to Jackson to Franklin Roosevelt. Finally, the Kennedys become Top Family." The apparent political bias of presentism irked Fischer. At the time, a variety of New Left historians had adopted the idea of a "usable past" as a way of pointing to a more progressive future with more civil rights and less cold war. And, by 2002, Fischer's anti-presentism had become mainstream: Lynn Hunt, the president of the American Historical Association (AHA), could write "Against Presentism," and open by asking rhetorically, "Who isn't, you say?"

But opposing presentism doesn't get politics out of history. Writing about the past as if it existed wholly on its own terms and did not lead to the present suggests that history is utterly useless today--a cozy pursuit that cannot disturb our assumptions about what is happening now. It makes history marvelously conservative--which is, of course, a political point of view, too....

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