Peter Charles Hoffer’s Past Imperfect and the Value of Historiography
Historiography means “The history of history,” or the study of historical writing. Why bother studying historiography? After all, if one makes the reasonable assumption that historians’ ability to depict the past have gotten better over time, isn’t it fair to ask why anyone needs to know anything about what historians used to write regarding a particular historical issue?
I have been teaching historiography to undergraduates off and on for five years now and I constantly have to struggle with these questions. It is extraordinarily hard to find books and topics that will engage students and simultaneously teach them about the pitfalls that historians go through in the course of their research. That is why I was so excited to find out that Peter Charles Hoffer’s new book, Past Imperfect, connects the historiographic trends of earlier days in the profession with the history scandals of today.
Despite my support for the idea that historians should be held more accountable for ethical lapses, I was extraordinarily disappointed by the way Hoffer depicts American historiography. Multiple HNN reviewers have already pointed to the most obvious problem in this regard. Hoffer applies the term “consensus history” to historians writing as far back as the Nineteenth Century. As Ralph Luker explains, “Most contemporary historians will be surprised that he calls all American history written prior to 1965 'consensus history.' Most of us regard 'consensus history' as a reading of our past that flourished rather briefly between 1945 and 1965.” What these reviews haven’t done is explain why Hoffer uses this strange definition.
Hoffer depicts American history as a placid and unchanging consensus before the 1960s so that he can blame the many social historians who started writing during that decade for undermining public trust in the historical profession. According to Hoffer, the new history “fostered critical, and self-critical, thought. But in so doing, it undermined the intellectual authority that consensus historians had claimed and, until the rise of new history, had routinely exercised.” In other words, the leftists brought attacks on the historical profession upon themselves. By suggesting that there is no one historical truth, they encouraged critics of academia to challenge the qualifications of the entire profession. To Hoffer, Stephen Ambrose, Michael Bellesiles and the other “Historians on the Hotseat” were the inevitable result.
Yet one doesn’t have to look very far to find plenty of people before 1965 (both inside and outside the academy) attacking consensuses developed by the American historical profession. Just look at the historiographic preface to Eric Foner’s unabridged version of Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution 1863-1877 to see a particularly striking example of historical revisionism that didn’t need the new social history or European literary theories in order to begin.
Indeed, the diversity of historical opinion at every era of modern scholarship is so great that it seems almost ridiculous to think of historical schools at all. Introducing one of his old essays in 1976, Edmund Morgan questioned the usefulness of the term “consensus historian.” “The so-called [consensus] school,” Morgan wrote, “was mainly the result of different scholars, independently of one another, examining different episodes and failing to find in them the social conflicts that they had been taught to expect.” This assessment calls into question the notion that all pre-1965 historians believed in the consensus that Hoffer projects upon them and even whether the scholars whom most people consider “consensus historians” thought what everybody claims they thought about American history in general.
This takes us back to our original question: if it is difficult to make useful generalizations about historiography at any particular point in the history of the profession, why study historiography at all? To my mind, it is not knowing what which historians wrote when that gives historiography its value, but simply understanding the notion that there are usually multiple worthwhile interpretations of any historical issue.
In his conclusion, Hoffer mocks a statement by historian David Blight that the historical interpretation of the famous slave rebel Nat Turner is continually being revised: "For those who need a slave rebel, he serves that purpose. For those who need to see him as a deranged revolutionary who likes slaughtering people, they can see that too. He's forever our own invention, in some ways."
According to Hoffer, “[I]n the eye of the new history, the real Nat Turner can no longer be found. He ceases to exist. Only his image lives, an image continually reinvented.” Yet Blight’s point is nothing more than an acknowledgement that historians and the public interpret history through the lens of their own time and culture, an assumption that Hoffer himself accepts when condemning the pre-academic historians of the nineteenth century for exhibiting the endemic racism of their era.
Most professional historians recognize that their work will never be the last word on a particular subject. Rather than try to freeze historical interpretations in a block of ice, they revel in the give and take of professional consensuses gradually forming. Sometimes they might even see value in two interpretations that are mutually contradictory.
To suggest that your interpretation or even the consensus interpretation of your era will not answer every question surrounding an historical event ought to be viewed as a sign of strength rather than a sign of weakness. It shows you have an open mind, and a willingness to try to look at events in new ways when other scholars suggest novel approaches or find new material. The fact that historiography can help students recognize these limitations of historical scholarship and the difficulty in finding immutable truth is the real value of this arcane sub-field.
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