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Joseph S. Lucas and Donald A. Yerxa, Editors

Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2004

Volume V, Number 6

A Conversation with Bruce Mazlish

Dominic Sachsenmaier, "Global History- Challenges and Constraints"

Robbie Robertson, "Globalization and World History" 


--George Marsden, "Can Jonathan Edwards (and His heirs) Be Integrated into the American History Narrative" 
--Bruce Kuklick, "Comment on Marsden"
--Wilfred M. McClay, "Completion or Revision" 
--George Marsden, "Response to McClay and Kuklick"

David Grandy, "Science and the Occult: Where the Twain Meet"

Ellen Fitzpatrick, "History's Past and Present" 

Alan R.H. Baker, "On the Relations of History and Geography"

Derek Wilson, "History over the Water"

Joseph A. Amato, "Little Things Mean a Lot: The History of Things, or Histories of Everything"

Nigel Spivey, "War Minus the Shooting"

Jeremy Black, "Mentors: A Personal Note"

Joyce Lee Malcolm, "Political Scientists to the Rescue of Diplomatic and Military History"

Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2004

Volume V, Number 6

From Psychohistory to New Global History
A Conversation with Bruce Mazlish

M.I.T. INTELLECTUAL HISTORIAN Bruce Mazlish began his career with a splash. Soon after receiving his Ph.D. from Columbia University, he was co-author with Jacob Bronowski of the widely acclaimed The Western Intellectual Tradition (1960). Since then, he has been identified with several seemingly disparate intellectual pursuits: psychohistory, the history of the social sciences, and most recently global history. Along the way, Mazlish published several important books including his edited volume, Psychoanalysis and History (1971), James and John Stuart Mill: Father and Son in the Nineteenth Century (1975), A New Science: The Breakdown of Connections and the Birth of Sociology (1989), The Fourth Discontinuity: The Co-Evolution of Humans and Machines (1993), and The Uncertain Sciences (1998). He helped found the premiere journal of historical philosophy, History and Theory. Now his efforts are focused on organizing the field of “new global history.” He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 1986 he was awarded the Toynbee Prize, an international award in social science.

Historically Speaking editor Donald A. Yerxa sat down with Mazlish in his Cambridge, Massachusetts home on March 10, 2004 and asked him to comment about his career leading up to his present involvement with new global history. Mazlish reveals that throughout his professional life he has been exploring a related series of questions, which has required frequent and sustained disciplinary border crossing. 

Donald A. Yerxa: You have had a long and distinguished career as an intellectual historian. Would you provide our readers with a brief sketch of your professional career?

Bruce Mazlish: I came into history almost by accident and became fascinated with it. I started in modern European intellectual history and discovered that a lot of the problems
that interested me didn’t stay within
my discipline, or even the geographical areas and time periods in which I had specialized. So early on I faced a major question: Do I renounce the problems? Draw boundaries around them and do the expected thing? I decided to take my chances and explore the problems. 

Yerxa: What were the problems that intrigued you back then? 

Mazlish: One of my prime concerns has been the evolution of the human species. And how we go about looking at this—the question of what lenses we use to look at the past—has run through all my work. One of the lenses is psychological. Historians deal with human motivation. How can you not try to use the most insightful tools of psychology to get at this? I should say, parenthetically, that my mentor, Jacques Barzun, disagreed with me on this. At any rate, my doctoral thesis was on the history of conservatism, a foolish undertaking. It was much too large a topic, but eventually I got the thesis down to under 500 pages. In doing that study, I became acquainted with the work of Karl Mannheim, and I also incorporated some of his thinking on the sociology of knowledge into my thesis. Barzun grilled me on this and said, “Now, Bruce, you just can’t have this stuff in there. Look how badly it is written.” I replied, “It’s my translation, but it’s pretty bad in the original, too. But he has so much worthwhile to say.” To which he responded, “But he is a sociologist.” At that point I became very aware of how disciplines can get in the way, rather than helping inquiry. 

Yerxa: What about your early career? 

Mazlish: I taught intellectual history and wrote my first book, The Western Intellectual Tradition (1960), with Jacob Bronowski. Although it was not something I should have done so early in my career, the book was a tremendous success, and I benefited greatly from it. The book established my credentials as a “standard historian.” It gave me a certain amount of safety. After having taught history for a time in Maine and a year at Columbia, I ended up at M.I.T., which is a very nontraditional place for people in history and the social sciences. At M.I.T. one is almost forced to be interdisciplinary, and I was able to teach a course in the philosophy of history, as well as introduce a course on “Marx, Darwin, and Freud.” And so I became curious about Freud. One uses economic theory when writing economic history; why not use psychological theory when treating psychological matters in the past? I had been reading Freud as an intellectual pursuit, but at one point when I was experiencing marital problems, I entered into therapy. That gave me further insight beyond just the intellectual. Then I decided to explore the question of psychology and history in a scholarly fashion, so I introduced a course in the mid- 1960s on the history of psychoanalysis—to my knowledge the first course ever given by a historian on what would be known as psychohistory. At the time, I was in contact with Erik Erikson, who was teaching a similar course in social relations at Harvard. There were so few people doing this that I was reckoned to be a pioneer of the field. One thing led to another. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences elected me a fellow in 1967, and they funded a project examining the feasibility of psychohistory. I joined Erikson, Philip Rieff, Robert Lifton, and a number of others on the steering committee of this project. Meanwhile I was asked to write an anthology which would combine philosophy of history with an application of psychoanalysis to history. This reader, Psychoanalysis and History, came out in 1971 and was again something of a pioneering effort. 

Both in my teaching and my writing I explore methodology. Psychohistory represented one lens, one way of looking at the past. But I have been interested in all kinds of questions related to interpretation, historical causation, the nature of evidence, and so on. Well, historical methodology is a controversial field, though it seems to have almost died in recent years. I reached the point where I had done as much as I could with individual psychology, but when I began to explore large-scale events and movements, I found no satisfactory psychoanalytic theory with which to work. It seemed to me that perhaps historians and social scientists might be in a better position than psychologists to advance the field. To explore this possibility I ended my work in the general area of psychology and history with a course on “The American Psyche.” Using myths, legends, literary constructions, rituals, monuments, etc., I tried to construct an American psyche primarily in terms of polarities, which run across a spectrum of issues. That was about as far as I could get with psychohistory. 

Yerxa: What is your assessment of the project of psychohistory?

Mazlish: The real problem in psychohistory, as I see it, is that you almost never achieve critical mass in the usual sense that you could find in other work in history. For example, I wrote James and John Stuart Mill: Father and Son in the Nineteenth Century (1975), attempting to bridge intellectual and psychological history. I happen to think it is a fine book. But one of the problems is that the people who know something about John Stuart Mill generally don’t know anything about psychoanalysis; therefore, they are not in a very good position to comment on what serves as evidence, what inferences you might draw from this kind of evidence, etc. If you don’t know it from the inside, it all seems like so much blather or psychobabble. And, of course, that is a danger, as it is with, say, analyses of the past using economic theory. On the other hand, psychoanalysts, who are all very sympathetic to such explorations, don’t know anything about John Stuart Mill. And this is true for Gandhi, Luther, or any historical figure. So you really cannot build on the same base, and that seems to be an unavoidable problem. 

Yerxa: Obviously, your career did not end with psychohistory. What drew your interest next?

Mazlish: I’m afraid most people in the field of psychohistory didn’t understand that I had no intention of spending the rest of my professional life doing psychohistory. I was not engaged in it for its own sake, but for what light it might shed on the human story. Psychology, moreover, is only one of the social sciences. So it was very natural then for me to move to sociology. I had done quite a bit of work in the history of science and technology, starting back with The Western Intellectual Tradition. And I had become aware that many of the humanists writing at the time of the Industrial Revolution were very concerned about the breakdown of connections between man and God, man and Nature, and man and man. In their eyes, all connections had broken down except one, the cash nexus. who are the voices I am listening Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, Hegel and Kant, the Brontës and George Eliot. And running like a red line right through what they are saying is the notion of the breakdown of connections. The only connection left, as they saw it, was the cash one. And hadn’t noticed it before, nor do I think anyone else had either. Meanwhile I had been reading the classical sociologists, and noticed the exact same thing. The humanists thought you could solve the problem the breakdown of connections by sympathy: only by extending sympathy would the lower orders realize that their superiors were connected to them and felt their pain. George Eliot is the transition figure to the classical sociologists. Then I studied Ferdinand Tönnies (Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft), Georg Simmel (who I think is just wonderful), Emile Durkhein, and Max Weber, and ended up writing A New Science: The Breakdown of Connections and the Birth of Sociology (1989). My thesis was that these early sociologists tried to substitute science for sympathy in an effort to ameliorate the plight the poor. I don’t carry a union card in sociology, but fortunately the book was well received by sociologists. My historian friends weren’t particularly interested: “Why Bruce,” they asked, “didn’t you just write good humanistic, intellectual history?”. 

Yerxa: Your next major book, The Fourth Discontinuity, seemed to take you even further away from “good humanistic, intellectual history.” Or did it? 

Mazlish: Not really. About twenty-five years ago, I took a sabbatical year to read many of the economic theorists with the idea that I would write a survey of the social sciences. I wrote drafts, and I realized that I didn’t have it right. I wasn’t ready. So I put that aside. Being at M.I.T., having worked with Bronowski, I had always been interested in the history of science but also in current developments, especially the computer. I began to teach a course called “Man, Animals, and Machines.” (By the way, there is no better way to investigate a problem than to teach a course on it.) I may appear to be going in many different directions in my career, but it always comes back to a few central questions: What is it to be a human being? (I don’t think there is an essence. We are historically evolved creatures.) And what are the experiences that have affected us, shaped us, and changed us so that you and I are sitting here thinking and talking in these ways? Out of this questioning I ended up writing The Fourth Discontinuity: The Co-Evolution of Humans and Machines (1993). The title comes from a lecture Sigmund Freud gave back in 1917, where he said that there have been three fundamental shocks to the human ego: the Copernican, the Darwinian, and the psychoanalytical revolutions. Others have come to call these “the three great discontinuities.” And I thought it was useful to think of the break we see between ourselves and machines as the fourth discontinuity. Moreover, it is a break we must overcome. 

So I framed my investigation as an intellectual history. Humans seem to have longstanding hopes and fears in regard to their mechanical creations, and we generally exaggerate both the possibilities and the fears. One fear we have is that machines will take us over. Think of the Golem, the Frankenstein stories, and R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). So I investigated the literature surrounding this. I looked at Descartes and the 17th-century debate about the animal machine, and I brought the discussion up to the present by looking at films like Blade Runner and The Terminator. (By the way, I had a “Eureka moment” when I came across a print from a 17th-century surgeon that shows the hand opened and levers inside. So much like a scene from The Terminator!) It was fascinating to see the recurrence of these themes. And I then have chapters on the biogenetic and computer revolutions, along with discussions of people like Charles Babbage and Samuel Butler, drawing on more humanistic sources. In my penultimate chapter, I conclude that we cannot think of human beings without machines. That goes all the way back to the early use of tools, and it is a shaping relationship in human evolution. Moreover, humans are becoming much more mechanical; we have pacemakers, artificial joints, etc. And while this trend will continue, I do not think it will change our essential humanity. In this next to last chapter, I ask whether from an evolutionary perspective we have to remain as human beings. Is something else possible? As the final step, I take up the question in my last chapter of whether we are in fact creating a new species. And based on the work of experts in the field, I conclude that in principle there is no reason why a form of computer robot could not reproduce itself with variations and have new experiences. The possibility is there. We have no idea what the relationship of those “creatures” with us would be. Time will tell. 

Yerxa: How did you go from The Fourth Discontinuity to The Uncertain Sciences?

Mazlish: The Fourth Discontinuity got a lot of attention. It won the National University Press Book Award, and there have been a number of translations. But I returned to the social sciences to explore the question: Is scientific knowledge of ourselves possible? And this led me to ask a set of closely related questions: What kind of knowledge do the human sciences offer us? Is that knowledge “scientific”? And if it is, what do we mean by science? In The Uncertain Sciences I take the position, not particularly original, that in the natural sciences we are subjects that look at things outside us as objects. In the human sciences we are the subjects that look at ourselves. I look at positivism, and so I spend a good deal of time on Bacon (who I think of as a kind of hero). Bacon contends that we need to challenge tradition and turn to evidence in a cumulative, group effort. We should be aware that certainty will not be our reward, but we should go as far as we can. On the other side of the issue, you find Descartes, who is searching for absolute certainty. My take on positivism is that Bacon and Comte are much more flexible about what they mean by positivism than their latter- day disciples. I conclude that positivism is a noble ideal, but it has great limitations. 

It is very hard for positivist-minded scientists, people such as E.O. Wilson or Jared Diamond, to understand that the approach of the natural sciences cannot simply be transferred directly to the human sciences. The key word hermeneutics is missing from their work. After Wilson came out with his Consilience, he and I had a session at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and we just talked past one another. I believe he is misusing the notion of consilience. He thinks that you can make sociobiology the basis for unifying much of our knowledge about humans. That’s not what William Whewell, who devised the idea of consilience, had in mind. He thought of consilience in terms of an overriding idea linking a great many topics in a given field. Darwin’s theory of natural selection is a splendid example. While it is difficult to establish the criteria for hermeneutics, using its insights coupled with positivist inspiration we can see that the achievements of the human sciences have been impressive. We now know so vastly much more about our species than did our ancestors of 200 years ago. 

Yerxa: Your most recent work is in the field of global history. How did that come about? 

Mazlish: Like many historians, I had become aware of the need to get past our Eurocentric view of history. While I applauded the effort of world history, I never practiced it as such. I had some reservations. Much of what I saw under the heading of world history was taking a basic European narrative and adding a chapter on Asia or Africa. I didn’t see much concern for the explanatory and theoretical aspects of the enterprise. So I remained an interested bystander. Around 1988, my wife, who is a development economist, was running a faculty seminar on global issues at Boston University. She asked me to attend, and I learned that something called “globalization” was happening. That seemingly sudden awareness came on top of a longstanding interest of mine in modernity, a major way of characterizing our more recent history. So I became intrigued with looking at globalization from a historical perspective. Rather dauntingly, none of my colleagues seemed to be interested in this subject. 

I asked myself how one would conceptualize a global history. It seemed to me that the fact that we had stepped into space was hugely significant. Back in the 1960s I had been asked by the American Academy to be part of a project assessing the secondary and tertiary effects of the space program. I was to explore historical analogies to the space program. I ended up suggesting that we consider the analogy of the railroads rather than the more obvious one of the age of exploration. So I edited a book called The Railroad and the Space Program (1965) with some wonderful people contributing, people like Alfred Chandler and Leo Marx. I happen to think that it is the best single volume on the 19th-century American railroad. At any rate, space had been very much on my mind. And I began to see globalization differently from those studying it from economic or cultural perspectives. It seemed to me that a number of factors had emerged with an intensity and a synchronicity that, while deeply rooted in the past, were unprecedented. After World War II the communications revolution brought about by satellites made possible an acceleration in the growth of both multinational corporations and non-governmental organizations. It also made possible a number of other things: the environmental movement, where we see the Earth as a whole not as a collection of nationstates; the human rights movement; world music, etc. In fact, enough has emerged that I think we need to redefine the social sciences in the light of globalization. We must go beyond the concept of modernity, which was based on the model of the nation-state. Now we must make a major imaginative leap. 

It seemed to me that enough was happening to justify the argument that humanity was indeed entering a new global epoch. So I organized a series of conferences on global history in an effort to begin research on specific aspects of globalization. I’ll mention only one of these projects. Open an atlas, what do you see? Nation-states and empires. Well, according to the United Nations, of the one hundred largest possessors of GDP in the world, fifty-one are multinational corporations. While one has to be careful how one handles statistics, on that index some multinational corporations are wealthier than most of the world’s nation-states. They have enormous power. So I had the idea to “map” multinational corporations to give them visual representation. I secured funding for the project, and the New Global History initiative has recently produced a book called Global Inc. It is illuminating. We include, for example, a chart showing the growth of the multinationals from around 1600 (Dutch and English East India companies) to the present, and the curve rises precipitously in the post-World War II era. When we started the project in 1998 there were over 53,000 multinationals, and when we finished the project in 2000 there were over 63,000 multinational corporations. When you dig further, you find all sorts of interesting things, such as that the market share of multinationals held in the United States has diminished by 40% in the last twenty-five years. This has implications for all those questions surrounding the nature of globalization: is it really just Americanization, etc.? 

Yerxa: How do you distinguish between global history and world history?

Mazlish: There is a tremendous amount of confusion on this. Though they are often used synonymously, one has to make a distinction between world history and global history. Global history pays attention to that aspect of world history concerned with the processes of globalization. But to indicate the nature of the research project now underway, I began to use the term new global history, which focuses on the recent past of the present day processes of globalization. There are now about twenty people who work closely in the field, and we have, among other things, a new global history Web site, www.newglobalhistory.org; an Internet discussion group; and a list of planned conferences along with a number that have already taken place. But in order to establish new global history as a field—the problem of institutionalization—we need to set up an association and create a new journal, and we are working toward this. 

Yerxa: Does new global history (or NGH) primarily examine current globalizing processes in historical perspective, or does it investigate processes that can only be fully understood globally?

Mazlish: Your question touches on an important matter. NGH is a new field struggling to define itself. My colleague at Harvard, Akira Iriye, and I are editing The Global History Reader, to be published by Routledge. This comes out of a course we taught jointly at Harvard, “The New Global History,” which focused on the post-World War II period. Historians get scared that we are doing contemporary history, but Herodotus did contemporary history. We have got to deal with the issues of enormous importance to our existence, and if they happen to involve practicing contemporary history, so be it. With that said, the first part of your question would pertain. Thus, if one were speaking of migrations, one would have to go back to the diasporas of the past to understand what is involved in many migrations today. Although the focus is very pronouncedly on the last fifty or sixty years, in principle new global history looks at the globalization process over extended periods of time. Yerxa: Whereas traditional history was oriented around the nation-state, and world history has explored a variety of units of investigation—such as empires, civilizations, and processes—what are the units of investigation of NGH? Is it the processes themselves or the agents behind the processes that interest you? Mazlish: That is an excellent question. As I have indicated, historians have tended to view the nation-state as the traditional actor in history. There is no reason why that has to be abandoned as long as we see the nationstate in a larger, global perspective. The nation-state is not going to disappear, but many of its tasks are now somewhere else. For example, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are essential to most nationstates. Or if one were investigating environmental or human rights questions, one would certainly have to look both at NGOs and multinational corporations. So these have become the new actors. You mentioned empires, and I immediately think of the growing literature surrounding the notion of a new American empire. But that would not be the focus of NGH. As to civilizations, I am very dubious about the whole notion. It just so happens, by the way, that I have written a small book, Civilizations and Its Contents, which will be published by Stanford University Press. The book opens with a straightforward historical question: when did the reified term civilization first emerge? It was in 1756 with the French physiocrat, Mirabeau the Elder. More to your question, civilizations do not throw up satellites. 

Yerxa: You have been very careful to avoid anything smacking of determinism. So how does NGH account for contingency and human agency?

Mazlish: Something called globalization may or may not have been occurring in the past. And going back, we can draw a line that shows how humans have become more connected and interdependent over time. If we can understand this development, as best we can, then we have a responsibility to exercise human agency. I feel obliged to try to push globalization in a moral direction, and I am fully aware that the present administration has a very contrary notion. It talks about a globalized world, but it is mere rhetoric. The emphasis is on American national security and sovereignty. The present administration is so far behind in its understanding of history, that it makes me want to cry. That doesn’t mean we cannot have differences about globalization. There is a very dark side to it. In any event, there are enormously powerful forces pushing toward increased globalization. Indigenous people are probably losing out badly, while the women’s rights movement is benefiting from globalization.

Yerxa: What training and methodological skills are needed to do NGH, and how does one get credentialed in the field? 

Mazlish: As yet there is no graduate program in NGH. I am sure there will be shortly. A number of institutions offer programs in global studies, and Dominic Sachsenmaier, whose article is also appearing in this issue, has been appointed to the first academic position specifically described as global history, at the University of California, Santa Barbara. There will be more of those in the future. A sign of the growth in this area can be seen in the course that Iriye and I gave at Harvard. The first year it was supposed to be a “conference course,” a small discussion course of six or seven undergraduate students. We had double that number, and four of them were graduate students. We were asked to give it again as a general course, and the enrollment was in the upper thirties, fourteen of whom were graduate students. They were begging for training, but what does it mean to be trained in NGH? The problem is that academics cut up the phenomenon of globalization for our own convenience, but that’s not the real world. The economic, cultural, and political are constantly intermixing. So right now the only way to learn global history is by doing global history, by doing it on the job.

Yerxa: Is it then necessarily a collaborative field?

Mazlish: There are those who feel that it is. I agree that the research will have to be collaborative, but ultimately individual minds have to pull this all together. Yerxa: Why is large-scale history so robust these days? Mazlish: Part of the answer has to be that as we are experiencing globalization, we are prone to ask new questions of the past, questions that often look at large-scale processes or developments. But the same impulses that push us to the macro also tempt many people to go to the micro. Part of the lure of anthropology is nostalgic. “Why can’t those people stay that way?” And that same dynamic is present in some of the interest in microhistory.

Yerxa: What do you make of attempts by people like Jared Diamond or the so-called “Big Historians” to use sweeping scientific explanations to address the big questions of history?

Mazlish: There is a great temptation on the part of the human sciences to mimic the natural sciences. Lately, this has taken the form of relying on sociobiological explanations. This positivist approach is largely misguided because it doesn’t work. No doubt we need the evolutionary framework, but I don’t think that using specific evolutionary theories devised for the natural world works when applied to the human history. (Incidentally, I think that Diamond’s book is a major achievement, as I say in a review essay on it, a kind of exception to the rule. But it falters when he reaches modern times.) I do think that the “Big History” approach of Fred Spier and David Christian is interesting and provocative, but they are flying so high above the ground most of us are trying to till that there is a disconnect.

Yerxa: Are the big questions eliminated because we have ruled them out of bounds methodologically? Or do they persist, regardless of historians’ skittishness, because humans necessarily use the past to establish meaning? 

Mazlish: I think they do persist because human beings are desperate to make sense out of things. I tend to operate on a more modest and empirical level. Yerxa: What do you see as the relationship between the various levels of historical inquiry? Mazlish: I believe that you cannot do good local history anymore without paying attention to the interaction with the global. And vice versa. It’s all connected. So if you are studying a small town in upstate New York, and you find that in the past there was an increase in unemployment, you might look to where else in America the jobs went. Nowadays, you have to look at the global context of such things. You cannot separate the local from the national from the global.

Yerxa: Are historians asking the right questions?

Mazlish: The first thing that must be said is that there is some wonderfully creative work going on in history. But we still have a long way to go, and in part this is a function of the way the field has been institutionalized. While our world has changed, historians haven’t absorbed that fact. The nation-state has been the main orientation of historians; the training of historians and the resources committed to history still reflect this. So many of the things that concern us today—the environment, currencies, jobs, etc.—are global, and we don’t have the analytic categories to understand these. How do you make the jump, especially when the profession still rewards the monograph based on archival material? To be sure, the monograph is the bedrock of historical inquiry, but we need to redefine what we mean by an archive nowadays. What makes history so fascinating to me is that it is telling us who we are, what we are, what we have been, and where we are going. I may overstate my case here, but I think it is wrong to write a monograph without asking where it all fits into answering the so-called large questions. We all like a good story, but that seems like a secondary assignment for the historian. Having said this, I must assert that I do not believe in teleology, that history is heading in a particular direction. On the other hand, we do have a responsibility to identify the large currents that are swirling toward a particular outcome, globalization being one of them. 

Yerxa: On a personal level, what has the study of history meant to you? 

Mazlish: It has given me a sense of meaning, of what it is to be a human being. It situates me. I am different from, say, Voltaire in the 18th century, and yet as a human being I share many things with him as well. At another level, since I don’t have a religious view of immortality, I derive meaning from history. I know I am going to die one day, but my life has meaning because it joins with that of all my fellow humans. Yerxa: Any final thoughts? Mazlish: This probably should be off the record, but this interview has given me the opportunity to pull together so much of my work. I am aware that that work is often seen as a collection of disparate pieces: psychohistory, the history of the social sciences, new global history, etc. But I don’t see it in that way. My work has been unified around a number of related questions, and I am grateful for the opportunity to express this conviction. 


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2004

Volume V, Number 6

Global History-Challenges and Contraints
by Dominic Sachsenmaier

During the past decade, debates on how to internationalize or even globalize historiography have gained momentum in Europe and particularly in the United States. Clearly global, international, and transcultural issues have moved closer to the historical community’s center of attention, and the push to do so comes from different directions. First, there is a reform movement within previously established—yet until recently somewhat marginalized—fields such as world history, international history, and diplomatic history. Partly inspired by research approaches in other social sciences, these fields recognize the need to develop new paradigms and methodologies. Second, there are new field designations that seek to develop a more encompassing understanding of the past. One of them is global history. 

Global history has quickly risen to prominence in recent years. Some universities have begun to establish positions in global history, a Journal of Global History is in the making, and the term now appears increasingly in publication titles. There are reasons for its popularity. The word “global” expresses an interest in the flows, exchanges, and mutual reactions among different world regions. Also, in contrast to key words such as “international” or “transnational,” “global” does not presuppose the nation-state as a key unit of scholarly inquiry. Indeed, in many areas of research, such as the study of diaspora communities, religions, and the spread of ideologies (just to name a few), culturally constructed boundaries are far more important than political borders. Even in the case of anti-global and anti-international movements such as fascism, extreme nationalism, and religious fundamentalism, scholars are becoming increasingly aware of their underlying transregional or global support structures. However, a closer look at recent publications reveals that “global history” as a field designation does not represent a confined set of research interests, methodologies, and scholarly allegiances. For example, among the newly self-professed historical studies following a “global historical” approach there is a certain number that belongs to the tradition of classic civilizational analysis. Some studies resemble world-system analysis, while others offer macro-structural comparisons. It remains to be seen whether global history will be established as a more specific, targeted subfield or whether it will remain an umbrella term for a large and often incompatible number of approaches.


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2004

Volume V, Number 6

Globalization and World History
by Robbie Robertson

Globalization is often regarded as a very modern condition. It is not. Humans have experienced at least three very distinct waves of globalization during the last five centuries. These waves have each transformed the context in which humans live, and the ways that humans view themselves and their world. In particular, they have made possible the development of global consciousness. It is likely that human futures will be increasingly linked to the evolution of global perspectives and their applications. Understanding Globalization Traditionally, historians have not engaged in debates on globalization as much as academics in other disciplines. This has been unfortunate. The lack of historical depth in many studies on globalization weakens their claims to validity and limits our understanding of globalization. If we are to strengthen global awareness, we must contextualize globalization historically. To contextualize globalization historically is not an easy matter because we are still captive to ways of thinking that derived from earlier responses to globalization. These earlier responses stressed nationalism and the role of the state in national development. In addition, perspectives developed by transnational entities increasingly now monopolize our views on globalization. They stress that globalization is very recent (a result of their activities) and economically driven. Historical perspectives, however, enable more inclusive richer meanings of globalization . . . .

Robbie Robertson is a development historian at La Trobe University in Australia and is presently professor of development studies at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji. He is the author of The Three Waves of Globalization: A History of Developing Global Consciousness (Zed Books, 2003).


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2004

Volume V, Number 6

Johnathan Edwards and American History: A Forum

GEORGE MARSDEN’S Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press, 2003) is one of the most significant books in American history published in recent years. It has received virtually every award possible for an intellectual biography, among them: co-winner of the 2004 Bancroft Prize, winner of the OAH’s 2004 Merle Curti Award in Intellectual History, co-winner of the Historical Society’s 2004 Eugene Genovese Best Book in American History Prize, and a finalist for a 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award in biography. In the following forum Marsden asks whether Jonathan Edwards and his heirs can be integrated into the American history narrative. He argues that the story of America being told today fails to take exclusivist religious claims seriously. We asked Bruce Kuklick and Wilfred McClay to respond and then gave Marsden an opportunity to reply.

Can Johnathan Edwards (and his Heirs) be Integrated into the American History Narrative?
By George Marsden

Jonathan Edwards is widely acknowledged as the most impressive intellect in early America, and he is often ranked as America’s greatest theologian. In addition, his practical work in fostering evangelical awakenings places him near the fountainhead of one of the most influential popular movements in American culture. 

Despite such stature both in elite and popular culture, Edwards typically appears as a tiny blip in general accounts of American history. Although he gets a respectful paragraph in the better college survey texts, if the general public remembers him at all, it is almost solely for his terrifying sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The effect is that to the extent that Edwards is remembered, it is to dismiss him as representing an outlook that a later more tolerant America has thankfully escaped.

The problem is an instance of the larger one of how to deal with exclusivist religion in telling the story of America. People who believe that their religious views are correct and that all other views are dangerously wrong just do not seem to fit in. Even though it is easily demonstrable that such religion has had a major impact in shaping the experience of countless Americans, and hence it is important just for understanding American history, it is easier to ignore, marginalize, or caricature, since the impact runs counter to a dominant master narrative of diversity and tolerance. Valuable as these latter ideals unquestionably are, R. Laurence Moore in Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (1986) pointed out the historical problem with this approach alone. In telling of the Catholic experience in America, for instance, the most typical story line has been a Whiggish tale of the triumph of Americanist Catholics over retrograde conservatives. In broader tellings of American history even such subtleties as this may be lost. While religion’s prominent role in shaping immigrant communities may be mentioned, the potentially controversial subjects of substantive religious teachings, their cultural impacts, and tensions concerning them are likely to be ignored. Issues of class and race (as in “whiteness studies”) are more likely to be emphasized. 

The most prominent exception to this rule is the Puritan religion of 17th-century New England. The importance of such exclusivist belief is too evident to ignore and, ever since the era of Perry Miller, Puritan studies have been sophisticated enough to take the New Englander’s outlook seriously and often sympathetically. Nonetheless, in recent decades the imperative to emphasize diversity has displaced Puritanism from any priority it once held. In teaching about the early settlements, as many other voices as possible must be given equal time regardless of longterm cultural influences. While there is value in recognizing that most of colonial America was far different from New England and especially in taking seriously the roles and points of view of native cultures, recognition of the fundamental role of Protestantism in shaping (for good or for ill) subsequent American culture is ultimately diminished. 

Such diminishment becomes more pronounced in the accounts of the 18th century just about when Edwards makes his appearances in historical narratives. Here there is no escaping the influence of George Whitefield and the Great Awakening (with a mention of Edwards) as the first colonial-wide popular event, but then the narrative moves quickly to the American Revolution and politics. After that the story of religion in America gives way to the implicit motif of steady secularization. Religion’s role in anti-slavery is acknowledged, but otherwise it appears largely as a rear-guard phenomenon, as in anti-Catholicism, prohibition, fundamentalism, and the rise of the religious Right. Paradoxically, the actual development of religion in American history is nearly opposite to the standard secularization story. Exclusivist forms of Christianity and other faiths seem to become more popular as the nation modernizes. More precisely, even as many aspects of public culture become more secular and profane, exclusivist religion flourishes as a more or less private option (but often with significant public implications). American culture is both remarkably religious and remarkably secular. The failure of the American educational establishment to provide perspective for understanding exclusivist religion in our midst is surely one reason why so many Americans have difficulty fathoming the dynamics of exclusivist religion abroad.

What does this all have to do with Edwards? Because American historians (and American secular culture generally) fail to take evangelical religion seriously, many welleducated people are mystified by its persistent strength. The standard secularization story simply does not account for actual American experience. Sociologists in recent decades have pointed out the inadequacy for American history of the paradigm of inexorable secularization. Most historians, however, persist in working with the older secularization story that became canonical in the Progressive era. If we are to present an alternative story that takes evangelicalism seriously as one of the major and most remarkable components shaping the American experience, then the restoration of Edwards as a major figure—a spiritual founding father—is one important step. Other figures, George Whitefield for instance, may be equally or more important. Attention to Edwards, however, points out that one is dealing with a movement that is not just popular, but which also has had an intellectual-spiritual component with deep roots and long-lasting implications in shaping wider American culture, especially in the era before the Civil War. In the history of higher education, for instance, Edwards’s New England heirs (even if not all strict Edwardseans) shaped many of the most influential schools. Many of America’s foreign missions began under similar auspices. The larger cultural vision also had political implications. Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown were each shaped by Edwardsean religious sensibilities. John Murrin’s provocative counterfactual speculation states the case most dramatically: “Without the Great Awakening and its successors, there would have been a revolution in 1775, but in all probability, no Civil War in 1861.”1

While Edwards is hardly representative of the entire evangelical movement that followed, he does articulate some of its central themes. Perhaps most significant for our purposes is that recently presented in these pages by Avihu Zakai (see the June 2003 Historically Speaking) and in his important book, Jonathan Edwards’s Philosophy of History: The Reenchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment (Princeton 2003).2 Edwards, who was consciously countering Enlightenment trends to define history in terms of human agency alone, argued that God’s work in religious awakenings was the true center of human history. A post-millennialist and in some ways a man of his times in his historical optimism, Edwards believed that before long, probably by 2000 A. D., all of human culture would be transformed through worldwide revival. After that would come a golden age of a thousand years when the human population would be soaring geometrically and almost everyone would be converted.

Whatever our personal views of this scenario, it is historically important for understanding influential visions of history and of the purpose of life that differ markedly from Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment views. Such outlooks have inspired countless Americans and untold numbers abroad. Although this worldview comes in many varieties, anyone who professes to know something about American popular culture should be familiar at least with its main themes. For the past century its pre-millennial versions Christ comes before the golden age) have been prevalent. The immense best-selling popularity of the Left Behind book series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins is only the latest manifestation of a cultural phenomenon that few American cultural historians have the resources to explain. More important than the details of such popularizations is a view of history expressed in them that has a lot more to do with popular evangelical behavior than do their specific end-time scenarios. For dedicated evangelicals, redemption is at the center of history and of life. That means that the overriding consideration in human relationships is the salvation of otherwise lost souls. Why else have so many missionaries risked the lives of themselves and their families? How else do we account for Bible-believers’ relentless evangelism of their neighbors? We do not have to like this outlook, and as historians we can see that a lot more is involved than the expressed beliefs; but we do need to recognize how such views help shape the personal, social, and political behavior of many Americans. 

Once we recognize the continuing cultural significance of the popular forms of the movement, we still face the issue of how to take it seriously as a force in American history. Studying the market-driven popular forms is essential, but that is only part of the picture and can reinforce the stereotypical tendency of outsiders to dismiss the movement. It is like looking only at McDonalds to understand the history of American restaurants. Or, perhaps a little more precisely, it is like looking only at the vapid rhetoric of contemporary American politicians to understand American politics while ignoring the founding fathers. If one is to appreciate how evangelicalism developed such deep roots in American soil, one should not treat it as though it is essentially a recurrent reactionary movement driven by religious hucksters. Students should learn not only of “the democratization of American religion” that Nathan Hatch so compellingly describes, but also of at least the rudiments of the intellectual bases for the emergence of “America’s God,” as Mark Noll’s recent volume of that title suggests. 3 Edwards thus would gain a significant place in the narrative. 

Joseph Conforti has aptly observed that Edwards is “a kind of white whale of American religious history.”4 Telling the story of America without its most influential religion and without Edwards is arguably like Moby Dick without the whale. 

Integrating Edwards into our histories as a founding father of one of America’s most popular movements has the added advantage that Edwards was a profound thinker from whom people of many persuasions might learn. For students of evangelical heritage, Edwards can be a model for strengthening their understanding and appreciation of their own traditions. First, he is a counter to the anti-intellectualism sometimes associated with that heritage. Further, Edwards’s analysis of true and false religious affections in the Great Awakening dealt with many of the tendencies that later became dominant in many forms of evangelicalism. Edwards insisted that religious experience must be thoroughly God-centered, as most evangelicals would agree it should be. Yet, having learned from hard experience, Edwards pointed out that much religious enthusiasm can be a celebration of one’s own euphoria. Being in love with one’s own experience can easily be mistaken for loving God, and the former fails to lead to long-term sacrificial commitment.

In teaching about Edwards, one useful device is to contrast his outlook of finding meaning in a God-centered universe with Benjamin Franklin’s celebration of the autonomous self. Franklin’s down to earth practicality is more immediately attractive to most people and has had wider influence in shaping American culture. One can point out, for instance, how much Franklin’s ideals have influenced even the heirs of Edwards. American evangelicalism has often lapsed into a gospel of selffulfillment, success, and a way to wealth. Even when it is not so corrupted, it tends to adopt Franklinesque practical traits of simple formulas, scientific calculations, and easy steps to reach one’s goals. Such pragmatism is by no means all bad and it doubtless is one key to American evangelical resilience, a trait that it would have lacked had it strictly followed the often inflexible Edwards. Recognizing such complexities in the heritage is important for any sophisticated appreciation of its dynamics. 

For those concerned with broader American history the contrast between Edwards and Franklin suggests the issue of considering alternatives to the Enlightenment “can do” optimism that has prevailed in most of American culture. From foreign policy to the world of advertising, Americans are surrounded by assertions that there should be virtually no limits, given the right combination of selfinterested determination, good will, and know-how. Americans accordingly have difficulty recognizing any contradiction between their own interests and the welfare of others, whether in considering the welfare of other nations or of the poor at home. They have, in short, inherited the teachings of the Scottish Enlightenment (and of founders such as Franklin), which hold that self-interested humans have a natural capacity to obtain “true virtue”—a belief that Edwards argued was inherently problematic. 

More broadly, the contrast between Edwards and the Enlightenment provides an opportunity to introduce the issue of the impact of optimistic views of human nature on American history. Enlightenment versions of such views have been reinforced by romanticism, progressivism, pragmatism, and the consumer culture of advertising. Edwards argued that human confidence in our abilities to solve our problems on our own is an illusion based on the false belief that humans are naturally good, or at least not so bad that our faults could not be largely corrected by wise social arrangements. On the one hand, we can give due credit to such Enlightened optimism for its many social and political achievements. On the other hand, Edwards and his ilk provide an important counterpoint that should temper the optimistic illusions to which our culture, especially with today’s hype, is prone. The unmatched social progress of the 20th century was accompanied by unmatched atrocities. As has been often remarked, the traditional Christian doctrine that has been best supported by empirical evidence is the doctrine of original sin. As Reinhold Niebuhr so eloquently observed,realism regarding the indelible flaws in human nature can be a great asset for selfunderstanding, whether it be for individuals, interest groups, or nations. 

Even if we can translate Edwards’s tightly argued ideas into concepts that college sophomores can understand, the greatest obstacle to integrating Edwards into American history for diverse audiences is that he was a Christian theologian. On this point I think the approach of Perry Miller is a helpful place to start. Miller argued that Edwards should be studied simply because he was one of America’s most profound thinkers, a great artist who happened to work in the medium of ideas.5 That argument, so far as it goes, provides a good public basis for paying attention to Edwards. If Emerson, who was also essentially a theologian, is worth studying, then so is Edwards. Yet Miller’s approach also diminishes Edwards. Edwards was indeed a great artist, but he was first of all a theologian working in a very particular religious tradition. The particularity of the tradition simply needs to be acknowledged, even if it does not fit the modern and postmodern grand narratives of inclusivism. In order to understand American history one has to understand that huge numbers of Americans have been profoundly shaped by particularistic theological heritages, whether they be Catholic, evangelical, Orthodox Jewish, Mormon, Islamic, or many others. These need to be understood on their own terms. Especially important for understanding larger cultural trends is a religious tradition such as Calvinism that has had such large influences on other dimensions of American life. 

Once we get past the mistaken belief that serious talk about theology ought to be out of bounds, we can help persons of all persuasions to appreciate the alternative that Edwards’s theological vision provides in contrast to the Enlightenment and to more prevalent American outlooks. First, of course, we must explain the basics of hard-nosed, biblically- literalistic, Reformed Christianity, some aspects of which persons of contemporary sensibilities may find off-putting. Beyond that, however, we can point out Edwards’s creativity in marshaling the resources of that tradition. Particularly illuminating in my view is that, in contrast to the Enlightenment/ Deist tendency to distance God from creation and to foster a depersonalized universe, Edwards insisted that the starting point for all thought must be the recognition that the universe is essentially personal. All being originates in the interpersonal relationships of the Trinity and the very purpose of creation is to express God’s redemptive love. Hence all of created reality is a text or language about the love and beauty of God, epitomized ultimately in the sacrificial love of Christ for the undeserving. In all that is around them, whether in stunning landscapes, ordinary objects, or other people, believers can see the beauty of a loving God revealed as “Images, or Shadows, of Divine Things.” Those who are, through God’s grace, given the eyes to see that beauty in Christ are inexorably drawn to it so that they desire to love what God loves, or all that is good. 

Edwards’s outlook contrasts to most American alternatives in that he weds beauty to practicality. In our instrumental-technological culture we tend to divorce the two, seeing beauty as a relief from the dreariness and impersonality of our mundane task-oriented activities. For Edwards the overwhelming beauty of God’s love in Christ is at the very center of reality. Not everyone will be pleased by this Edwardsean vision. Many heirs to Franklin will find it repelling and will prefer the down to earth practicality of enlightened self-interest tempered by civic consciousness. Whether one likes the Edwardsean vision or not, however, if we are speaking historically we need at least to take it seriously as a profound articulation of an ideal that has transformed countless lives and leavened many dimensions of human experience.

George Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press, 2003) and a supplemental American history text, Religion and American Culture Wadsworth, 2000).

1 John M. Murrin, “No Awakening, No Revolution? More Counterfactual Speculations,” Reviews in American History 11 (1983): 169. 

2 Avihu Zakai, “Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of History,” Historically Speaking (June 2003): 28–30. 

3 Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press, 1989); Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 2002). 

4 Joseph A. Conforti, Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition, and American Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 1995), 1. 

5 Perry Miller, Jonathan Edwards (William Sloane Associates, Inc., 1949), v.


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2004

Volume V, Number 6

Comment on Marsden
by Bruce Kuklick

To much of what Professor Marsden has written, I can only say, “Amen,” which I hope he will appreciate. At the same time, I think the problems of a diminished religious history are not so bad as he believes, and would also suggest that his conceptualization of these problems is a little one-sided. Many people have called for a revival of American religious history, and there is even some discussion of it in the high-level “Interchange” among several prominent historians in the September 2003 issue of the Journal of American History. Indeed, I thought that the “New Religious History,” as exemplified in the work of Robert Orsi, was well underway. Marsden might be a bit uncomfortable with the focus on popular religion, and the anthropological slant given to its study, but this is still a healthy sign for all of us who (justifiably) recognize how religious belief—and certainly the kind of belief that Marsden calls “exclusivist”—has been an important and enduring component of American history. 

So my own call to study our religious history would not be as strong as Marsden’s. There are many claims on students, and religious history has not recently been without effective advocates or practitioners. 

I also think Marsden’s approach to the subject may do historians a disservice. For a very long time New England Puritanism was at the beginning and then the center of American history. And for a very long time historians acknowledged this in an uncritical way. The great 19th-century narrators of American life—Bancroft, McMaster, and Parkman —gave prominence to exclusivist Protestantism and read the American experience as if it were imbued with this Protestantism. In the very recent past synthetic interpreters of our international engagements have recognized the influence of religion in the secular sphere, using such terms as Righteous Empire, Manifest Destiny, Promised Land, and Crusader State when depicting the role of the United States in the world. 

Marsden finds it useful to juxtapose Benjamin Franklin with Jonathan Edwards as a way of broadening the secularist tilt of historians historians who have ignored the importance of religion. Examining the contrast between Edwards and Franklin, says Marsden, would enable such historians to see how the concerns for which Edwards stood have colored American history. But contrasting the two is an old and conventional trope in American Studies. Carl Van Doren’s Franklin and Edwards: Selections dates from 1920. Van Doren clearly sided with the “victorious” Franklin, as well as inaugurated a popular 20th-century tradition of illuminating the American character by commenting on the two men, their epigoni, and the influence of their competing ideas in American life. Walter Isaacson’s recent best-seller, Benjamin Franklin (2003) takes up the identical competition. 

The trouble is that this comparison is too limiting, and that in part is why religious history went into a decline. One does not have to be a historical interpreter of genius to recognize that the focus on Franklin and Edwards is constrained in telling us about the experience of Native Americans, women, African-Americans, or Euro-Americans who did not come from Northwest Europe. In the last thirty years, especially, these hitherto muffled voices have come into their own and, in the profession, crowded out white males like Edwards and Franklin. But Marsden writes as if it were ever thus, and it wasn’t. One could argue that as an organizing principle Protestantism had a good run for its money but lost out because it was unable to interpret new themes that began to capture the interest of historians. Marsden is correct to intimate that religious history has much to offer even these newer areas of inquiry and needs again to be brought to the forefront of our understanding. But the operative word here is again: Marsden sometimes writes as if historians had never attended to religion; they did and still do today more than he admits. 

The real issue for Marsden is that he might not like it when he gets what he wants, as he surely will: religious history, I am convinced, will make even more of a comeback than it already has. But Marsden envisages that it should use a somewhat rarified set of suppositions from intellectual history, whereby Jonathan Edwards’s ideas get played out in popular culture, as in Joseph Conforti’s Jonathan Edwards, Religious Tradition, and American Culture (1995). Brace yourself! When the New Religious History gets into gear, it may well treat the post-medieval Biblical worldview of Edwards as an anthropologist would treat an early cargo cult. Edwards’s “reenchantment” of the world and his “post-millennialism” may look far different to the future religious historians that he yearns for than these beliefs look to Marsden himself. 

There is one final aspect of Marsden’s hope for a new religious history that bears comment. When he writes about religious exclusivists, he mainly means Protestant exponents of the Covenant of Grace, and he emphasizes their affinity with the strand in Edwards that stresses humility and walking modestly with one’s God. Marsden suggests that a new religious history will accentuate the beliefs of a Christian America at odds with the materialism and aggrandizement so troubling to reflective students of our national past. This humility is undoubtedly part of the Edwardsean approach, but Marsden underestimates the other aspect of this approach that provides room for self-assertion and selfrighteousness in the Calvinist dialectic of selfabasement and self-assurance. Anyone who doubts this fact need only read Edwards’s “Farewell Sermon” to his Northampton parish; or “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which is certainly not all of Edwards, but cannot be dismissed completely, as the theologian’s most sophisticated interpreters have recently tended to do. 

Take the area of war making, which I know best. Walking humbly with one’s God did not deter Abraham Lincoln from unleashing on the United States the most destructive war in its history. The great Presbyterian, Woodrow Wilson, was more arrogant than any other president in American history, and his actions had dubious consequences for the world in the 20th century. Cold War Protestants who determined to shape the world abound: Truman, Acheson, Dulles, Rusk, Nixon, Carter, and surely George W. Bush. These are not men known for their meekness; they are rather men like the Edwards who was certain that his enemies were instruments of the devil.

It occurs to me that Marsden is trying to imply that we would have had a kinder and gentler America were the Edwardsean outlook —in contrast to the Franklinian one that has been somewhat more prevalent—to have been even more pervasive in American history than it has been. If this supposition about Professor Marsden is true, a new religious history may well surprise him.

Bruce Kuklick is Nichols Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is writing a book entitled Intellectuals and War, 1945–1975.


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2004

Volume V, Number 6

Completion or Revision
by Wilfred M. McClay 

I would like to begin by expressing my enormous gratitude to George Marsden for all he’s done to expand and challenge our sense of what American historical writing is, and what it could be. I know that in saying such things I speak for many others, and I’m hardly the first to say them. But they still need to be said, and acknowledgment needs to be made of the courage, generosity, and gentle tenacity he’s shown in pressing these issues, constantly seeking fresh ways of articulating his concerns. He could have played it safe, the way most of us do. There’s no doubt that he would be ranked one of the outstanding historians of his generation solely on the basis of his superb work in American religious history, ranging from his foundational early studies of evangelicalism and fundamentalism to his extraordinary new biography of Jonathan Edwards. Why then complicate matters by venturing out into the murky and unpredictable waters of theory, where so many promising enterprises seem to lose their way? 

Well, for whatever reason, he has not been content to hug the shore. Having established himself through his scholarship as, so to speak, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a professional historian beyond reproach, he has elected to “use his tenure” to raise provocative questions about the limitations of his profession and explore the possibility of a more intimate and holistic relationship between religious conviction and historical scholarship. I doubt that anyone else could have raised these questions with the same credibility. Lesser scholars who have sought to infuse their religious commitments into the process of writing history have found themselves quickly (and often quite deservedly) pushed to the margins. But it is much harder to dismiss a historian with George Marsden’s massive accomplishments, particularly when he has sought to treat his own explorations of the integration of faith and scholarship not merely as a personal matter, but as an undertaking with wider significance for the entire profession. 

Still, his principal contention—that selfconsciously “Christian scholarship” should not be regarded as an “outrageous idea”—is far from having carried the day, even among Christian scholars. From the beginning it has caught prodigious flak from all sides: from mainstream secular thinkers who believe that the de-Christianization of the American academy is one of the 20th century’s greatest achievements; from scholars who happen to be privately Christian but are entirely content to keep the spheres of religion and scholarship rigorously separate—they have made their careers that way, and are thoroughly uncomfortable with the idea of fooling with the status quo; and, from a very different direction, hostile fire comes from post-secular thinkers, Christian and otherwise, as well as some religious conservatives, who find Marsden’s goal of seeking a “place at the table” for religiously informed scholarship too timid, precisely because it buys into too many of the outmoded Enlightenment-project rules of the game, rules that these writers believe to be hopelessly problematized and compromised. Other more traditionally minded scholars are similarly dissatisfied with Marsden’s propositions, but for opposite reasons. Many would like to see a more fullthroated defense of Judeo-Christianity’s foundational place in the enterprise of scholarship, as the original and unacknowledged “host” of the dinner party. And nearly all are made uneasy by Marsden’s resort to the strategy of multiculturalism—if we are to have feminist scholarship, gay scholarship, disability scholarship, etc., then why not Christian scholarship? But such a move, they feel, goes much too far down the fatal road of relativism and embraces the disordered pattern of contemporary scholarship at precisely the point where it is weakest and most in need of reformation. 

So George Marsden’s theoretical explorations have supplied target practice for a lot of people. But if one’s influence can be measured by the number of interesting arguments one starts and the number of thoughtful reconsiderations one induces, his efforts have not been in vain. In any event, he continues on undaunted, and the present essay is only the latest installment in a quest that has been underway for at least a decade now, going back to the publication of his Soul of the American University (1994). In that work, he argued that by the middle of the 20th century the Protestant orthodoxy that dominated American higher education for three centuries had been decisively dethroned, only to be replaced by a new, if unacknowledged, orthodoxy of unbelief. Although Marsden showed no nostalgia for the old ways, he was unhappy with the new ones, which imposed their own intellectual coercions and impoverishments, stifling free religious expression and bracketing off whole dimensions of human thought and experience. Surely, he reflected, there was a better way to go about the business of scholarship. 

But the exact shape of that better way has proven elusive, and not least for historians. Is the better way merely a matter of supplementing and correcting the existing master narrative by reinserting the religious history that a secular-minded profession has sought to leave out? Or does it mean challenging the whole explanatory structure of mainstream historiography from top to bottom, questioning hierarchies of meaning, questioning what counts as a cause or an agent, questioning the fact/value distinction, questioning the very possibility of scholarly objectivity or disinterestedness, questioning what is meant by “progress,” questioning the relationship between secular events and transcendental realities—and thereby questioning the very premises that led to the erasure of religious perspectives in the first place? 

There are considerable differences between these possibilities, and Marsden himself is not always clear which of them he’s talking about. Such is the case in the essay at hand. Should we dramatically increase our attention to Jonathan Edwards in standard accounts of American history in order to complete the picture and fill in elements missing from the master narrative? Or should we radically revise the existing narrative, even jettison it, and devise an entirely new one? Should we seek completion, or radical revision? One is reminded of some of the debates among exponents of women’s history between those who sought to add stories of women to the existing narratives and those who sought to transform the entire discipline, and the disciplinary master narratives with it, in the image of their own subdisciplinary insights. Something of the same dilemma is present here. Most of the time, Marsden seems merely to be advocating that Edwards be allotted more space in the existing narrative. But other times, he seems to suggest that the narrative itself is the problem, as in its inability to account for the persistence and steady growth of “exclusivist” religion in modernizing America. 

What is most interesting to me, however, is the fact that Marsden seems not to question that we require some kind of master narrative and insists only that we need to include Edwards in it, in a manner proportionate to his importance. Indeed, this essay seems to me ultimately a call for a better and more accurate American master narrative, one truer to the genuine pluralism of American life and more resistant to the absolute hegemony of the secularization story. But my point is that Marsden is very much interested in influencing the larger picture. There is more going on here than mere jostling for a place at the table. That intention is signaled repeatedly by his choice of words. He seeks “the restoration of Edwards as a major figure” and “a spiritual founding father,” part of a movement profoundly affecting “wider American culture,” shaping “the most influential schools” and “the larger cultural vision”—not to mention such signal events as the American Civil War! Edwards provides “an important counterpoint” to the quasi-official optimism of American culture. 

All this is right and important. But a “counterpoint” is a completion or elaboration of an existing form, not a radical revision of it. And if one is really going to challenge the primacy of the secularization story, one has to offer something in its place. Which is not to say that the “counterpoint” image is not a good one. It is certainly valuable to point out that there have been, and still are, plenty of Americans who reject the premises of Enlightened optimism and embrace the tenets of particularistic and supernaturalist religion. And it is helpful and responsible to point out that well-educated Americans ought to know of such things, even if they reject such beliefs themselves. But it is a very different matter to assert, or even suggest, that those Americans who possess a strong religious perspective may derive a cognitive benefit thereby, and may find themselves brought within range of insights that are simply not accessible to those holding to a materialist or secularist perspective. 

Marsden stops short of asserting such a thing, but I wonder if he should have. One need not be giddy with the vapors of postmodernism to see, as Marsden does, that an older conception of the intellectual life, epitomized by Anselm’s fides quaerens intellectum, has acquired a new plausibility in the postmodern era. But the hard part is knowing what to do responsibly with this insight, without allowing it to sink the entire scholarly enterprise. Here one thinks of the more adventurous (if tentative) aspects of Marsden’s earlier work on the distinctiveness of Christian scholarship and the possible forms of scholarly community in which it might thrive. One wonders what these explorations might contribute to the present instance. What if one were to experiment with an entirely different starting point? What if, for example, this essay were to examine, not merely whether Edwards can be integrated into the American History Narrative, but also whether the American History Narrative can be integrated into the thought of Jonathan Edwards? 

That would be a very powerful move indeed, both as a way of challenging the secularization story and testing the true depth and significance—and present-day relevance —of Jonathan Edwards. But it is also, one must say, probably a bridge too far for the present generation of scholars, which has yet to be convinced that there can be any responsible or workable alternative to our current premises. Such reluctance seems to me justified. To poke holes in the premises of present-day scholarship and reveal its inadequate epistemological basis is pretty easy. To propose that historical writing needs to be dramatically reconceived is even easier. But it’s much harder to propose a proven alternative that we can actually live by, and work with, both as scholars and as human beings. If that alternative case is ever to be made, it will have to be made not by clever theorists or bold manifestoes but by concrete acts of brilliant and persuasive scholarship. 

Marsden’s biography itself, far more powerfully than his essay, makes such a compelling case for Jonathan Edwards’s berth at the American table. Once that fact is admitted, then we may have an easier time of it when we begin thinking seriously about the table itself. For that task too, we are likely to find ourselves in George Marsden’s debt. 

Wilfred M. McClay is SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities and professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His most recent book is Religion Returns to the Public Square: Faith and Policy in America (Johns Hopkins/ Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2003).


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2004

Volume V, Number 6

Response to McClay and Kuklick
by George Marsden

I am grateful for these perceptive responses, each of which points out some ambiguities in my essay and offers the opportunity to sort out and clarify the issues. 

Both respondents note some duality of purpose in my essay. On the one hand, I claim prescriptively that the study of American history would be enriched if more attention were paid to the role of exclusivist religion, of which Jonathan Edwards is a notable and particularly influential exemplar. At the same time, I also make some more normative claims. I say that if students of American history were exposed to the Edwardsean heritage, they might learn some profitable things about the nature of reality, including some useful insights that might be applied to historical study itself. Although there is nothing mutually exclusive about these two types of emphases, their presence together raises the legitimate question as to what I am really up to. 

Since we are all historians, perhaps the best way to answer that question is to reflect on the origins of the essay. It grows out of that self-serving enterprise of trying to explain to people why they should care about one’s book. In doing that I have imagined two audiences whom I am addressing simultaneously. First, there are those who are mainly interested in American history, to whom I want to say that Jonathan Edwards ought to be restored to the principal canon. The other audience is made up of those who have serious religious sensibilities. So for them, I have wanted to emphasize what might be learned from the sometimes off-putting Edwards. 

In adapting these thoughts to professional historians who might read this publication, I have presumed that I am speaking to an audience that is similarly divided in religious commitments. So I am grateful to the commentators for helping me to clarify my dual purposes. I hope that readers will recognize that my recommendations for integrating a certain type of religious history into the field are not dependent on my normative stances. Perhaps I should not have conjoined the two purposes in one essay. Nonetheless, that conjunction had the happy effect of sharpening these two responses.

Sometimes I think that Wilfred McClay has a clearer perspective on what I am doing than I myself do. He is correct, first of all, that I am not proposing a radical new narrative, but only that we improve the present narrative. I think of myself as a realist and hope to provide a leaven for the profession, not to convince people to introduce a whole new paradigm. When McClay raises the prospect of an American history narrative that can be integrated into the thought of Edwards, his suggestion helps clarify exactly the problem involved in introducing a radically new (or old) standard. Edwards read history as, roughly speaking, an extension of the Old Testament, with God bringing judgments or fulfilling promises through kings and armies, as well as through the spread of the Gospel. I see no value in such an approach to American history today. For one thing, we do not have the requisite prophetic revelation on which to base such interpretations. Moreover, I am entirely in agreement with Kuklick’s warnings about the pitfalls of appropriating such traditions for national purposes. I still do think that we can learn by selectively appropriating a few dimensions of such outlooks, like their critique of some aspects of Enlightenment self-confidence. Nonetheless, I make that recommendation only in the context of recognizing well-known dangers of more or less equating America with ancient Israel. 

I do believe (and here Bruce Kuklick is on record elsewhere as strongly disagreeing) that Christians (or other religious believers) might “derive a cognitive benefit” from their religious beliefs. Here I would correct McClay’s formulation when he describes that benefit as bringing religious believers “within range of insights that are simply not accessible to those holding to a materialist or secularist perspective.” Since Kuklick’s objection has been against this same construction, I realize that I must underscore my response. Deriving a cognitive benefit from a particular source does not entail that others might not derive a similar cognitive benefit from another source. Saying that one can gain pain relief from aspirin does not imply that one cannot also gain similar relief from ibuprofen. So, for instance, in my essay I argue that historians might gain from the Edwardsean tradition an alertness to the role of human depravity as an element in historical explanation. That in no way implies that historians might not gain comparable cognitive benefits regarding human perversity from materialist or secularist perspectives—or simply from reading the newspapers. Nonetheless, certain traditions —secular as well as religious—may dispose us to be more critical of the optimism concerning human abilities with which we are bombarded. 

Bruce Kuklick interprets my prescriptive suggestions regarding American history as essentially a call for greater recognition of the place of religion in the mainstream narrative. He correctly notes that others have been saying the same thing and we can now add Jon Butler’s helpful piece on “Jack-in-the-Box Faith: The Religion Problem in American History” in the March 2004 issue of the Journal of American History

While Kuklick, Butler, and I pretty much agree that it would be a good thing if religion did not typically fade away in historians’ accounts of modern America, my call is, as Kuklick recognizes, also for something more specific. I think it would be beneficial, first of all, to pay more attention to the persistence of exclusivist religious faiths. Second, there is reason to pay a lot of attention to the persistence of exclusivist Protestantism, which rivals Catholicism in numbers and has a claim to be the second most influential religious tradition in American culture. The first most influential tradition has been inclusivist or nonsectarian Protestantism, which also deserves attention proportional to its influence (although I did not talk about that in my essay). 

Most of American history until the mid- 20th century was written by inclusivist Protestants or their somewhat secularized heirs. They tended to speak as though the Protestant Whiggish heritage broadened and led to cultural consensus. Although early America had much hard-edged religion, in accounts of modern America the story of religious differences became largely irrelevant. The post-1960s multiculturalists were, ironically, heirs to this tradition with respect to religion. While they were overthrowing the privileging of the white male Protestant establishment, they were also following the lead of that establishment in sending a message that religions are best understood as cultural phenomena, which are all pretty much alike. Like the “Protestant/Catholic/Jew” formula of the 1950s, the message was that our society will get along best if we recognize that we all have our superficial differences, but ultimately we are pretty much alike. Studies of religious practices on an anthropological basis as essentially cultural phenomena, while often illuminating academically, reinforced the message that religious differences are not something to be taken seriously on their own terms, but are essentially diverse expressions of common human and cultural impulses. 

While I may be caricaturing these positions, the point is that we are doing a disservice to our students by teaching them not to take religious differences seriously. Arguably, some of the naivete of our foreign policy in the Middle East grows out of our longstanding refusal to take other people’s exclusivist religious beliefs as seriously as we should. I am not arguing, of course, that the persistence of exclusivist religion at home or abroad is generally a good thing, but I do think it would be helpful for historians to take it more seriously on its own terms. 

So my proposal is quite different from Kuklick’s representation of it as a desire to return to 1950s-style history-writing in which white male Protestants reigned supreme. Even though I have written about one of the whitest, most Protestant of males, I think I gained my most illuminating insights into his life by thinking of him (thanks to the style of today) in the midst of Indians and women. Far more important, I think that the inclusivist Protestant/secular consensus historiography of the 1950s generally failed to take the persistently exclusivist side of Protestantism seriously enough. Perry Miller’s model for understanding 17th-century Puritans provided an exception. But even Miller had trouble with presenting Edwards as anything more than a great intellect and artist, and for American history after that the historiography tended to lose sight of the many exclusivist varieties of Protestantism that persisted as major cultural forces. The public resurgence of fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism in the later 20th century, for instance, was largely a surprise to mainstream historians, since the literature on that was so thin. 

Now there is an abundant literature on such topics, much of which does take exclusivist religion seriously on its own terms, but it remains for that literature to be integrated into the mainstream narrative. Realist that I suppose myself to be, I am not calling for a whole new paradigm, but only to add such topics to the old paradigm. Nonetheless, I am also enough of an optimist to hope that if the insights of such literature develop in enough areas with enough excellence, they will find their way into the mainstream. Then perhaps the old secularization paradigm will—as it already has for sociologists of religion—break down and a new one will emerge in its place.


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July/August 2004

Volume V, Number 6

Science and the Occult: Where the Twain Meet
by David Grandy

When I was in graduate school, one of my professors—an eminent historian of medieval science— espoused in his lectures what one student affectionately tagged as “the Old Man River theory of scientific progress.” The professor asserted that in his research he found no evidence of social or cultural factors impinging on the development of medieval science: driven purely by intellectual thought, the science “just kept rolling along.” I suspect the professor would not have made this claim to a more sophisticated audience; although he had little patience with any attempt to explain science as nothing but a reaction to outside cultural forces, he was savvy enough to know that there is more to the story of science than just intellectual thought. 

Like my professor, I enjoy science enough to see it as something truly remarkable. Perhaps, however, I am more inclined to admit that there is no clear line of demarcation between science per se and culture. Actually, this is not much of an admission: it has become a commonplace understanding among historians of science. Gone are the days that scholars of science portray it as humankind’s sole instrument of truth in a confused and superstitious world. Despite this, many people still talk as if modern science is wholly distinct from and clearly superior to such traditions as alchemy, astrology, magic, Cabala, and 19th-century Spiritualism. These movements, so this line of thought goes, have all been repudiated by science and are therefore intellectual dead ends. 

This outlook is rendered problematic by historical scholarship (most of it in the last fifty years) that indicates complex and subtle interactions between now discarded beliefs and contemporary scientific principles. This is to say that scientific theories often emerge from circumstances that later may be seen as scientifically dubious . . . . 

David Grandy is associate professor of philosophy at Brigham Young University. He is coauthor of Magic, Mystery, and Science: The Occult in Western Civilization (Indiana University Press, 2003).


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July/August 2004

Volume V, Number 6

History's Past and Present
by Ellen Fitzpatrick 

The impassioned debates about the proper focus and content of American history, so vigorously waged during the 1980s and 1990s, appear to have largely receded from public discussion in our post-9/11 world. Is this because history itself has been stunned into silence by events for which there have been no precedence in American history and by terrors newly visited upon American soil? Perhaps. But it is worth recalling that Marc Bloch found himself drawn to reflect on the nature of history —its worth and its practice, its meaning for the present, its relevance to a world at war—amid the horrors endured by another generation who had reason to ask whether “history has betrayed us.” Work on The Historian’s Craft was, Bloch confessed, “begun as a simple antidote by which, amid sorrows and anxieties both personal and collective, I seek a little peace of mind.”1 

Bloch’s purpose in writing about history’s practice was also didactic. He wrote: 

I should like professional historians and, above all, the younger ones to reflect upon these hesitancies, these incessant soul searchings, of our craft. It will be the surest way they can prepare themselves, by a deliberate choice, to direct their efforts reasonably. I should desire above all to see ever increasing numbers of them arrive at that broadened and deepened history which some of us—more every day—have begun to conceive . . . . But I do not write exclusively, or even chiefly, for the private use of the guild. The uncertainties of our science must not, I think, be hidden from the curiosity of the world. They are our excuse for being. They bring freshness to our studies. 

The efforts of Bloch and his contemporaries to create “a wider and more human history” had been, the French historian admitted, “vanquished, for a moment by an unjust destiny.” But he voiced confidence in 1941 that such work would go on, and he saw his writing on the nature of history as a way to keep alive the values he and Lucien Febvre shared.2 

The example of Bloch, always poignant in remembrance and evocative again in this uncertain time, reminds us that in the modern era professional historians have often struggled with articulating for themselves and others the meaning of history through times of extraordinary change. In the 20th century alone, world wars, harsh depressions, periods of great optimism, and years of deep despair have profoundly shaped the focus and content of historical scholarship. And that has been so despite an equally persistent conviction on the part of the discipline’s practitioners that they were living through times that history could neither predict nor relieve. 

That sense of uniqueness, of standing on the precipice of an entirely new age, led at least three generations of American historians to redraw the boundaries of their discipline in the 20th century. Each believed that their efforts constituted the creation of a “new history.” It is, indeed, a central irony of the “new history” paradigm that its emphasis on discontinuity has tended to recess critical elements of the discipline’s past . . . .

Ellen Fitzpatrick is professor of history at the University of New Hamphire. Her most recent book is History’s Meaning: Writing America’s Past, 1880–1980 (Harvard University Press, 2002; paperback forthcoming October 2004).


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July /August 2004

Volume V, Number 6

On the Relations of History and Geography
by Alan R.H. Baker 

“History is not intelligible without geography.” Thus wrote Oxford historian Hereford B. George more than a century ago in what has endured as the only comprehensive study of the interdependence of the two disciplines.1 But what did George understand by the term “geography”? He asserted that his claim was obviously true in the sense that the reader of history must learn where are the frontiers of states, where wars were fought, whither colonies were dispatched. It is equally, if less obviously, true that geographical facts largely influence the course of history. Even the constitutional and social developments within a settled nation are scarcely independent of them, since the geographical position affects the nature of geographical intercourse with other nations, and therefore of the influence exerted by foreign ideas. All external relations, hostile and peaceful, are based largely on geography, while industrial progress depends primarily, though not exclusively, on matters described in every geography book—the natural products of a country, and the facilities which its structure affords for trade, both domestic and foreign. For George, then, “geography” meant mainly physical resources and position. 

At about the same time, similar ideas shaped the work of an influential American historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, who stressed the part played by the physical environment in determining the lines of American development: he emphasized the need for a thorough study of the physiographic basis of American history. Such ideas about “geographical influences” on history were discussed by many American historians during the 20th century but they were not considered very critically or lengthily—at least, not until recently. The conception of geography by many American historians has been relatively limited. They have seen the physical (geographical) environment as a structure, as a stage upon which the drama of history was enacted, but because different groups came with different ideas and used the stage in different ways, the precise unfolding of the drama depended on them. History has thus been given primacy over what was considered to be geography. 

Historians have failed to recognize either geography’s diverse character or the changes it has undergone in the 20th century. This has resulted in what one place-sensitive British historian, J. D. Marshall, has described as “the Great Divide” between history and geography. 2 Bridging that gap requires historians to widen their geographical horizons and geographers to deepen their historical understandings. I have tried to take some steps in that direction in my recently published book Geography and History: Bridging the Divide (Cambridge University Press, 2003). There are multiple readings of the nature of geography, as there are of history, but I consider it appropriate to work within the four main intellectual traditions of geography: the three “peripheral” discourses concerned respectively with distributions, with environments, and with landscapes, and the one central tradition concerned with places, areas, and regions . . . .

Alan R.H. Baker is a Life Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge University. He was honored by the French government as a Chevalier dans l’Ordres des Palmes Académiques for his service to French culture. His most recent book is Geography and History: Bridging the Divide (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

1 H. B. George, The Relations of Geography and History (Clarendon Press, 1901), 1. 

2 J. D. Marshall, “Why Study Regions?” Journal of Regional and Local Studies 5 (1985): 15–27.


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July/August 2004

Volume V, Number 5

History over the Water
by Derek Wilson 

"Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high aesthetic band, 

If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your medieval hand." 

In Britain medievalism is back in fashion— or so one might assume from the recent offerings of publishers, film and television companies, and the press. The modern aesthete wandering down Piccadilly, will not, like Gilbert and Sullivan’s precious poet, be walking his “flowery way,” but he may well turn aside from the rain lashed pavements into the Royal Academy to marvel at the craft of the document illuminator or hurry home to curl up with a chronicle of the Grail quest. He is even more likely to spend a melodramatic evening in the cinema with The Return of the King, the concluding installment of the epic based on Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings

But that is fantasy, not history, you protest. Well, yes, but such mythic adventures are not only fundamental to our culture on this side of the Atlantic, they also get tangled up—perhaps inextricably—with our understanding of pre-Renaissance history, so that periodically we are assailed with medievalism or pseudomedievalism from the printed page, the screen, or the exhibition display. 

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a classic Good versus Evil adventure justly acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic as a cinematic milestone. However, its appeal in Britain, where it works better than Star Wars or any other fantasy epic, is in no small measure due to its pseudo-medievalism. It keeps audiences spellbound with representations of siege warfare, limpid-eyed damsels, armor-clad knights engaged in hand-to-hand combat, and an undercurrent of magic—or, at least, sorcery. It touches a bedrock of the British imagination, which is as solid now as it was when the poets and painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Aesthetic Movement illustrated the old legends or Pugin and Scott reworked the Gothic or the clerics of the Oxford Movement went in search of pre- Reformation doctrinal purity. The attraction is more than long-range nostalgia for a supposedly uncomplicated age, not troubled by science or democracy, not marred by industry or sprawling urbanization—an age which, like Chaucer’s Knight, revered “truth and honor, freedom and courtesy.” 

Our very landscape connects us to the medieval past. There is scarcely a person in these islands who lives more than five miles from an impressive Gothic building. Few people now attend their parish churches but many feel proprietorial about them. Their self-confident towers and aspiring spires speak subliminally to us of a semi-mythical “age of faith” which adhered to convictions we no longer hold—but wish we did . . . .

Derek Wilson is a freelance author and broadcaster in the UK. He is the organizer of the annual Cambridge History Festival. 


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July/August 2004

Volume V, Number 6

Little Things Mean A Lot : The History of Things, or Histories of Everything
by Joseph A. Amato

It would be hard to miss the spate of books in recent years on such everyday topics as chairs, pencils, paper clips, longitude, cod, salt, potatoes, rhubarb, dust, dirt, and germs. Books like these resist easy classification and yet arguably constitute a distinct genre of history. Surprisingly, this publishing phenomenon has received little notice among historians, and almost equally remarkable it has no agreed upon name. 

Historically Speaking editor Donald Yerxa, who encouraged me to write this essay, quickly waved off my initial suggestion to dub the new genre microhistory. He pointed out that it would be confused with the contemporary Italian school of history that also goes by that name and with the work of other Western historians who depict a whole epoch, a society, or a culture on the basis of an individual life, a particular village, or a single incident. In turn, I was equally quick to reject his suggestion to call it concept history. This term seemed to ignore the materiality—“the thingness” —which I associated with the new genre and I took to be its tie to inventions, technology, design, machines, plants, commodities, chemicals, germs, diseases, and other common and everyday, small, and invisible things. 

Calling the genre “the history of great and mighty little things” would not be far off the mark: readers are introduced to such things as the elevator that allowed the building of skyscrapers and the transformation of the city; weapons and materials that won wars; technologies that penetrate, supplement, and repair our bodies, and enhance our imaginations; foods that defined peoples demographically and culturally; and epidemics, plagues, and blights that changed the course of civilizations. Writing history as the biography of “mighty minute things” seems altogether appropriate to this epoch of atom, cell, and gene, in which the detective story is the preferred literature. And I confess that by putting an accent on materiality as a first con-dition for inclusion in the new genre I fly my own banner. In my recent Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible and forthcoming On Foot: A History of Walking, I stress the determining influence of concrete things. I emphasize in the latter such things as the creation of smooth surfaces, the control of water and light, the manipulation of new materials, the spread of the horse, the growth of public transportation, and the continued substitution of wheels for feet. 

So I have chosen as a working name for this genre, “the history of things” or “histories of everything.” It is hard to think of a thing—be it an animal, plant, or machine— which a curious historian couldn’t artfully turn into a readable, if not exciting, piece of work fraught with connections and implications as important as they are unsuspected. Of course, just because a thing is curious and overlooked doesn’t mean it should included in the new genre. 

In search of answers, I sought out scholars who I thought would have some insights into the history of things. In fact, the first such conversation occurred about fifteen years ago in Paris. I sat across from one of France’s most innovative historians of regional and everyday life, Guy Thuillier. Speaking in near machine gun-like fashion, he concluded a list of “what there should be a history of” with the exclamation that there should be a history of dust. With that single sentence, he condemned me to several years of research. Indeed, he transformed what had heretofore been a propensity of mine to advocate and write “off-beat” histories into a ruling dictum. 

In recent months, I spoke to Eugen Weber, who, by the way, had initially directed me to Thuillier and had actually started me in this direction in a post-doctoral seminar at UCLA back in 1975–76. Reading Weber’s pathbreaking Peasants into Frenchmen in manuscript pointed me to the themes of everyday life and popular culture, which were already on display in several chapters of his Modern History of Europe (1971). They were elaborated in following decades by his prolific writing on rural and urban modern French history. When I asked Weber this past January about the motives behind histories of everything, he put boredom at the top of the list. The array of topics offered by the history of things, according to Weber, offers a holiday from the welltreated, welltreated, hence worn topics of standard political, social, and cultural histories. The history of everything, he suggested, fits those curious historians who like to open fresh doors and look around. For example, Weber mentioned that one’s first look into a mirror––the subject of a new book by Sabine Melchior- Bonnet––makes a person, if not a new creature, a being with a new self.1

Peter Stearns, editor of The Journal of Social History and author of books on such a wide array of topics as anger, anxious parents, and fatness, echoed Weber in a recent interview. He sees the history of things as an outgrowth of social history, which broadened our interest in everyday conditions, life, and expression. 

Explaining the importance of subject selection for success in the new genre, anthropologist Sydney Mintz opined in another telephone conversation in February, 2004, that all topics don’t work equally well. In his classic Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1985) Mintz set the standard for the history of plants and crops. He studied the transformation of sugar from spice to a worldwide commodity and its migration across civilizations, societies, classes, and cultures. Putting it in a global perspective (which arguably the best histories of things require), Mintz turned his history of sugar into a compelling narrative of world connections. What appears as his fortuitous choice of sugar––rather than, say, milk, saffron, ketchup, rhubarb, or popcorn ––actually grew out of his decades-long study of Caribbean society and sugar’s paramount place in it. In fact, it arose out of his first study of the life of a single Puerto Rican worker (described in his Worker in the Cane, 1974). Exploring such profound poles of human experience as human taste, work, leisure, and celebration, Mintz’s Sweetness and Power establishes a powerful link between the dichotomous joy of tasting sugar and the slavery accompanying its production. With his more recent Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom (1996), Mintz extended his interest to the history of food, a staple—pardon the pun—of the history of things.

Historian Larry Zuckerman told me that he wrote The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World (1999) in response to a single question. Eating the traditional potato pancakes at a Hanukkah meal, he asked himself how did Old World people become so dependent on this single New World plant? Zuckerman’s narrative explains how Europeans came to adopt and build their lives on this indigenous South American plant, which at first was only welcomed into Europe’s ornamental and herb gardens. The potato, whose fruit was hidden below earth, initially appeared to Europe’s population as an ugly, bizarre, and distasteful plant. But the potato allowed the reclamation of wasteland, and it would grow in most soils. It required less labor than other crops; in the old order a calorie saved is a calorie earned. Furthermore, it “fit a culture in which people stretched every resource, buying only what they couldn’t make or raise.” 

From my interviews with Mintz and Zuckerman (in addition to what I learned from writing a history of the Jerusalem artichoke), I am convinced that every major plant, crop, food, domestic animal, insect, and microorganism ––be it horse, cow, camel, honeybee, or the AIDS virus––offers a potential subject for the imaginative practitioner of this new genre. With influential “biographies” of plagues, diseases, and germs and our battles against them, historians have made it apparent that the plight of societies and civilizations often turned on small but devastating culprits. Bookshelves now fill with books detailing the story of battles against unseen enemies. 

Indeed, the history of things focuses on the powers of small, often invisible, and usually unnoticed things to determine everyday life and the very course of societies and civilizations. Consider, for example, the work of historian and engineer Henry Petroski, whose books include The Pencil, The Book on the Bookshelf, The Evolution of Useful Things, and his most recent, Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design (2003). When I interviewed him, he stressed that histories of small things—be they paper cups, paper bags, water pitchers, or chairs—reveal the extraordinary that exists in the ordinary. Perhaps contemporary historians have a special responsibility to write histories of things, especially small and invisible things. Indeed, if we are to write of human power, we must write not just of great and grandiose matters but of vital and deadly microscopic things. Increasingly, as I argued in Dust, human fate turns on the atom, molecule, cell, gene, and microscopic engineering.

As a genre, the history of things (or the histories of everything) can be seen as a gathering of sundry historiographical tribes. On one level, it appears to be an overflow from social history, particularly with its concern for domestic and everyday life. It also can be conceptualized as a superabundance of cultural history, with its focus on the material things that determine human belief, behavior, and socialization. But I would argue this genre has another of its sources in the recent expansion of environmental and ecological history. Concentrating on the relationship between the natural and the historical, it directs our attention to the determining roles of plants, animals, crops, land use, agricultural practices and technologies, along with the causative and elemental power of climate, soils, water, rivers, and fire on human landscape. Reconfirming the materiality of history, environmental historians often propose an underlying and governing energy equation between all human and natural things and the importance of technology in transforming environments. 

Collectively, historians writing in this genre are revitalizing history by forging new, if not stunning, marriages of facts, anecdotes, ideas, concepts, and ideas. Their works proceed on fresh perspectives and unexpected connections. They have at least the potential to remove obtuse explanations and impenetrable historiographical debates from their narratives, allowing vivid details, telling anecdotes, precise connections, and keen wits to trump theory and ideology. 

Although not always pure in practice and admittedly more appropriate for certain subjects than others, the history of things moves us into everyday life. Not forgetful of Cinderella among the ashes or the truism that not every shoe fits every foot, historians writing the history of things must utilize a flexible causality. Tracing connections between crafts and classes and across landscapes and environments, this genre welcomes everything under the sun into its consideration. 

The history of things, to guess at its future, will not consolidate itself into a formal school or an established curriculum. Its sources and motives are too diverse; its subjects and methodologies are too numerous, if not eccentric. Its embrace of novelty, no doubt, invites those who cherish cleverness and book sales over scholarship. Nevertheless, at the same time, it will provide fresh topics and approaches. It will give a deserved place to the history of science, technology, engineering, design, and the landscape, which is fitting in this era of moral and social subjects. It will also leaven economic, business, family, local, and regional history. Negating abstract ideologies and uniform and governing explanations, it will stimulate our imaginations, enhance the flexibility of our causalities, and meet Jacques Barzun’s prescription for good history by joining “Narrative, Chronology, Concreteness, and Memorability.” 2 Finally, with its accent on details, precise connections, and contextual accuracy, the history of things will leave us, as any good narrative should, trembling before the power of the common and ordinary, the small and invisible, to write human destinies.

Joseph A. Amato has recently retired from Southwest State University where he was director of the Center for Rural and Regional Studies and professor of history. His Dust: A History of the Small and Invisible (University of California Press, 2000) was selected as a first choice non-fiction book by the Los Angeles Times. He is completing On Foot: A Cultural History of Walking (New York University Press, forthcoming in 2004).

1 Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, The Mirror: A History, trans. Katharine H. Jewett (Routledge, 2001). 

2 Barzun’s prescription is cited in Hugh Ragsdale, “Comparative Historiography of the Social History of Revolutions: English, French, and Russian,” The Journal of the Historical Society 3 (2003): 357.


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Volume V, Number 6

War Minus the Shooting
By Nigel Spivey

Late in 1945 the English writer George Orwell turned his journalistic attention to the phenomenon of international soccer. The Second World War had ended with formal peace agreements in the summer of that year. As part of a return to normality, the Soviet Union had sent one of its leading football clubs, the Moscow Dynamos, on a round of “friendly” fixtures with teams in Britain.

The encounters were, however, far from friendly. Players came to blows during the match with London’s Arsenal, and huge crowds booed the referee. At Glasgow the game pitched into a free for all. The Russians made protests about unfairness of team selection and abandoned the tour prematurely. As Orwell observed: if this visit had any effect on Anglo-Soviet relations, it “will have been to create fresh animosity on both sides.” 

Typifying all international sporting contests as “orgies of hatred,” Orwell went on even to deny the cherished British virtue of gentlemanly conduct in sport. “Serious sport,” he ruled, “has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.” 

This is overstatement, befitting the newspaper opinion column for which it was written, and not much of a revelation. Orwell spent formative years at Eton, the British all-boys’ college with a centuries- old tradition of insisting pupils take lessons in elegant attire—then letting them loose for pure rough and tumble in the mud. Of course, the Duke of Wellington, another old Etonian, might well have said that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”: meaning, presumably, that the diehard ferocity and team spirit of his officers had been instilled by the primal rucks and tussles of England’s most aristocratic public school. 

“War minus the shooting” remains a neat epigram to the sentiment that sport is ultimately, or basically, a sublimated form of human aggression, a channeling of the biological instinct to fight. Popularized in the last century by the likes of Konrad Lorenz and Desmond Morris, this view may not claim the support of all behavioral psychologists today. But it remains tempting to explain the rituals of individual and team sports in the metaphoric terms of mock combat. And Orwell’s phrase seems especially apt for application to ancient Olympia, where war’s encroachment upon athletic activity was overt and frequent. Quite apart from the fact that control of the sanctuary and its lucrative festival was several times the cause of war and the sacred precincts on at least one occasion a battleground, the whole site, including the stadium, was decked with spoils of armed conflict. Altars were attended by specialists in sacrosanct military intelligence; events were contested to the point of serious injury and fatality; and the entire program of athletic “games” could be rationalized as a set of drills for cavalry and infantry fighting. 

It is not clear from Orwell’s comments whether he sought to praise or to denounce sport’s more or less latent aggression. If denunciation were intended, the obvious riposte is that war minus the shooting is surely preferable to war with the shooting. That, in fact, is rather how the Greeks came to justify and rationalize their Olympic and other Panhellenic contests. Neither the Greeks nor the Romans nursed any ideal concept of sport and recreation as a defining aspect of the human species: Homo Ludens, “Man the Player,” may be a Latin title, but it has nothing to do with classical antiquity. Instead, there was an acceptance, at both popular and philosophical levels, of a prime imaginative and imitative purpose in play; an understanding, essentially, that all games were war games. 

To put it another way: if George Orwell could have communed with 5th-century Athens and shared his observations about sport with Socrates, the local reaction is predictable. “War minus the shooting”? Of course! What else would it be? 

But this is a crude summary of ancient thinking, which deserves further exploration . . . .

Nigel Spivey teaches classical art and archaeology at the University of Cambridge, where he is a fellow of Emmanuel College. He presented the television series “Kings and Queens” and “Heroes of World War II.” As an undergraduate, he was a three-times victor at the Oxford-Cambridge athletics match—first staged in 1864—and he remains an active member of the Achilles Club, which has supplied numerous medal winners at the modern Olympics. His most recent book is The Ancient Olympics: A History (Oxford University Press, 2004).


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2004

Volume V, Number 6

Mentors: A Personal Note
By Jeremy Black

Having recently attended a memorial service for a good man and a distinguished historian whom I admired (that for John Roberts held on October 11, 2003), I am particularly interested at this moment in the question of how ideas, influences, and practices are transmitted, and what makes a good mentor. During my career so far I have been surprised by the variety that I have encountered. It is a particular pleasure to take up my pen and follow the words of the memorial service in praising great men, not least because, alongside respect, I feel great affection for the two I wish to write about. 

Going up to university was the challenge of the unexpected, as neither my parents nor their friends had been. I was also a fairly unhappy individual, with the gaucheries of adolescence exacerbated by acute anxiety. I was therefore very fortunate to find myself under the care of Jonathan Riley-Smith, then Director of Studies at Queens’ College, Cambridge, now Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge. To me, there was much that was unusual about Jonathan, from his fascinated engagement with medieval history, about which I knew nothing, to his pipe smoking . . . .

Jeremy Black has recently published Visions of the World: A History of Maps (Mitchell Beazley, 2003) and War: An Illustrated World History (Sutton, 2003). 


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Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society

July/August 2004

Political Scientists to the Rescue of Diplomatic and Military History
By Joyce Lee Malcolm 

History is that rare academic discipline that has “buffs.” But neither enviable numbers of buffs nor rosters of enthusiastic college students seem able to save diplomatic and military history. Both fields have fallen victim to an “internal academic disease” and are examples of market failure. Despite the stream of fine books in these specialties that consistently top the best-seller charts— between 1980 and 2000 some 40% of history book club titles were in military history—and despite courses that are among the most popular their departments offer, practitioners have been increasingly concerned that military and diplomatic history are being squeezed out of the academy. They have a point. When the situation becomes so dire that members of another discipline feel obliged to launch a rescue initiative you know you are in trouble. Sadly, there is precedent for such benevolent interference. Posts in Tudor-Stuart History have been saved in the past by English departments insistent that students of Shakespeare have an opportunity to study the history of his time. But Tudor-Stuart History was never as significant a field in America as military or diplomatic history. Now two distinguished political science programs that specialize in international relations and national security have launched an initiative to investigate, and if possible reverse, the decline they see in diplomatic and military history. This is not an altruistic effort. As the announcement of the initiative by the M.I.T. Security Studies Program and the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce explained, “political scientists rely on the work of well-trained historians” and worry that “the lack of rigorous historical analysis sometimes leads to bad policy decisions by uninformed leaders.” 

At a daylong conference on April 29, 2004, invited scholars of military and diplomatic history and their political science hosts launched what they hoped would be a successful rescue mission . . . . 

Joyce Lee Malcolm is professor of history at Bentley College and a senior adviser at M.I.T.’s Security Studies Program. Her most recent book is Guns and Violence: The English Experience (Harvard University Press, 2002).


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