After the Historical Revolutions: Or, When the Tree Falls in the Historical Paradigm Forest, Does Anyone Listen?

Paul Harvey

A review of (and an announcement of) some challenging new works in earlier American History, and the history of the American West, got me to thinking about the changing of the historical paradigm guard -- or whether those guards get changed at all by scholarly revolutions. These are questions which affect the course of American religious history, but bear with me for a short detour before discussing that further.

These thoughts first came from reading Charles Mann’s review of Daniel K. Richhter’s new book Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Past (Harvard Press) in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal (yes, Virginia, I do read the Wall Street Journal! But I'm not sure if the link will let in non-subscribers; if it doesn't and you want to read, I'm happy to send it to you).

I know nothing about this book other than this review, but I am a big fan of Richter’s earlier work Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, a favorite of mine to use in class for its wonderful illustrations of how changing one’s angle of vision creates an entirely different historical sense of a period. Richter also engages in some deft analyses of early American documents of religious history from the European-Native encounter, including John Eliot’s bizarre but fascinating Indian Dialogues, of course the Jesuit Relations, Indian conversion narratives, and various ceremonial encounters at treaty negotiations.

In his review of Richter’s new book, Mann writes:

“Every few decades, historians develop a new way of looking at the past. I am not talking about ‘revisionism’ but unifying conceptual schemes, the sort of mental framework that Frderick Jackson Turner created in his argument for the importance of the frontier to our history or that Bernard Bailyn established in his studies of the American Revolution’s ideological orgins. Historians debated Turner for a long time and continue to debate Mr. Bailyn. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were arguing with Mr. Richter a decade from today.”

When I become King of the World I will permanently ban the word "revisionism" and its variant "historical revisionism" (as I have already banned the words "bias" and "politically correct" in my classrooms, since they have become barriers to thought and discussion), since they have been rendered meaningless for precisely the reason Mann explains there.

But the revolution in understanding is not just in the early America of Richter. My longtime friend Anne Hyde, Professor of History at my sister institution Colorado College, is about to publish her magnum opus for the West of the first half of the nineteenth century, Empires, Nations, Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860, part of University of Nebraska’s outstanding series History of the American West series. If this this means anything to you, as it will to some of you, the immediate predecessor to Anne’s book is Colin Calloway’s monumental work One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West Before Lewis and Clark.

(As a brief aside, when Anne and I were in graduate school, she always made it to the library at 8:00 a.m. sharp, while I was lucky to drag myself, half hungover and ears still ringing from some too-loud jazz concert the night before, by 10:00 or 11:00 at best, which explains a lot about the great scholarly discipline it took for Anne to finish this huge work, while I was busy watching the Mavs beat the Lakers).

Anne’s work may suggests a paradigm for understanding the history of the West in that era, in a way such as Richter and Colin Calloway have done for earlier American history. Her work also features chapters fully integrating the Mormon West into the larger picture, and too much else of interest besides to even begin to summarize here.

All of this is exciting as an historian. But all of it also makes me wonder how, whether, and when any of this affects public consciousness of earlier American history. Lately we’ve been talking about Barton et al., and of course the bookshelves at your Barnes & Noble are full of everything Founding Father related. I understand that, but considering the impact of the works above – great on historians, perhaps little on anyone else – makes me wonder about similar questions for religious history.

The older paradigm of American religious history will be familiar to many blog readers here, and most are familiar with its more recent challengers, summarized in works such as Tweed’s edited volume Retelling U.S. Religious History. I once saw Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, God rest her soul, blast away at that book at a Young Scholars in American Religion conference, with most of the authors in that book in attendance; it quickly became clear she was itching for a fight with a group that had no interest in fighting with her on the alleged evils of “postmodernist” history, since that debate was long since old and tired at that point; at the end of it, Diana Butler Bass got up and urged her to give up swinging at phantoms since none of us were in the ring with her. Sitting in the back row with Diana, I gave her a big high-five for trying to extricate us all from such an unproductive conversation.

Much of the newer paradigm seems to come from removing religious history from the specific story of the American nation-state, and using categories that engage religious experience at its own level rather than as some proxy for political parties or current day culture wars. We've blogged here extensively about some recent classics that move American religious history/studies well down this path -- by Leigh Schmidt, Robert Orsi, Kathryn Lofton, and numerous others.

Again, however, for religious history as for the studies of earlier American history mentioned above, one wonders whether and how this affects any sort of public consciousness or discussion, and whether it’s the job of religious historians to evangelize for these perspectives that challenge or disrupt how we perceive the American religious past (and present). Or maybe scholars should just do their work, let popularizers who are good at popularizing disseminate this stuff to the general public (like happens in science all the time -- neuroscientists do their thing, and then someone like Oliver Sacks explains a little bit of it to us), and trust that over a generation or two it will find its way into the more general understandings. That's a comforting and easy role to take, but it leaves not much excuse for complaining about why some pseudo-historians advise presidential candidates while the rest of us get to advise freshmen how to raise their grade from a D to a C.

As usual, I have no answers, only questions. You're welcome.

[Sutton -- sorry about your Lakers. Not].


Tom Van Dyke said…
Very nice, Paul, and I enjoyed the props to EF-G.

What is the role of the historian in the public square? To my mind, it's referee.

I've noticed how Gordon Wood, whom I perceive to be rather of the conservative stripe, largely dodges the questions of our day. He calls Everson and post-Everson jurisprudence as based on a "legal fiction," but a necessary one since our age is not as religious as the Founding age.

The dilemma of "the historian" is much like the dilemma of "the philosopher." If he wants his work to be of lasting value, not just to his own age but to succeeding ages---timeless!---he risks his timeless credibility every time he associates his scholarly work with opinion and analysis of current events and issues.

Jacques Maritain put his neo-Thomism on the line with the UN Declaration of Rights, and hell, Martin Heidegger was a Nazi!

Neither will come out clean.

I have thought much on Gordon Wood's dilemma and how he's dealt with it. He has not disguised his POV, but neither does he put his scholarship---his lasting contribution---on the line to advance it.

I do agree that post-Everson jurisprudence is based on a "legal fiction," one of "neutrality" rather than accommodation, which prevailed for 150 years. I do not know if Wood endorses this as an acknowledgement that the country isn't as religious as it used to be, or as an acknowledgement that the country has an wider irreligious or anti-religious streak that it didn't have back in the day. [Likely a combo of both.]

Or even that it's necessary forever from here on in, that the past is a foreign country we can never return to. It just might seem like foreign country; perhaps our compass has just fouled up for awhile.

But the dynamic here is that Wood doesn't want a lifetime of scholarship sullied by charges of partisanship. Yes, he lets his POV slip through, but it's his life's work, his scholarship, that is of primary importance to him, and he hopes, us and the ages.

[As always, thx to management for posting my opinions. David Barton is no hill I want to die on, or any sane man's. I just think guilty men deserve a defense, esp against illegitimate charges. By the lights of proper historians, Barton should indeed be hanged. But so should some of his critics, by the same lights.]

[And, Dr. Harvey, of lasting importance, what I regret most about a previous thread was not asking you your opinion of the competing narratives of what motivated and kept the Union soldiers going during the War of Northern Aggression. Preservation of the Union? Slavery? Fun & adventure? Conscription? Taking some rich kid's money to replace him as a conscript?

John Brown's body lies a-moulderin' in the grave?

I do hate this culture war stuff so. Just gets in the way. If the past is a foreign country, that's fine. But we should know clearly what that foreign country is, even as we turn our backs on it. Then it's an informed decision. Only "the historian," as honest broker, can tell us, and I submit that's his best, most valuable, and most honorable role.]
Rebecca said…
Well. Does it trickle down? It will, eventually. But not yet. I'm deeply immersed in prep for a teacher training session here in Texas in a few weeks, and I have to help teachers creatively (and accurately) teach our new standards. So, I'm limited to the little strip on the eastern seaboard, even though contextually those places don't matter nearly as much as I would like them to...

I'm psyched for Anne Hyde's book, and I love Colin Calloway's Winter Count. I'm less of a fan of Facing East, but maybe that's because I'm a fuss-ass...
Shirley said…
Sounds like a great book, Paul. I'll probably not read it because I am only reading and writing memoir these days, but I love your take on what is happening in American historical scholarship. Having taken 3 or 4 classes with Bill Goetzmann at UT, back in the day, I see the paradigm shift! Oh, and the stuff about the jazz clubs and the Lakers--I get that, too. :-)
Kevin M Schultz said…
They're not solely Sutton's Lakers you know. So I too will have to throw out the tripod I was building with our previous two championship trophies. But you can only three-peat so many times...

That said, it does seem like the persistent urge to write better that comes from the current more senior generation of historians is to this point exactly. Certainly dissertations are to demonstrate that a scholar can create knowledge, but, after that, shouldn't we all have a responsibility to send it out widely?

One thought I had comes from, gasp, William Buckley, who in God and Man at Yale proposed that faculty divide up into two groups: those who are good at research and those who are good at teaching. There would be an annual conference or something where the researchers would teach the teachers the latest and greatest, but the roles were different, and rewarded differently.

I wonder what would happen if we replaced "teachers" with "popularizers" (or something better) and that those in the latter group were not be looked down upon quite so quickly by the profession.

At any rate, this might keep "popular history" a bit more respectable, and allow the central ideas to circulate quicker.

We could either do that, or write screenplays, a suggestion from one panel at the OAH, which would, as the panelist said, make things change even faster. But what would a historian do with all that money?
Matt Sutton said…
I always credited Harvey with the smart parts of the Schultz-Harvey joint pieces. Now I realize I was mistaken. All the smart stuff is clearly Kevin's, while I fear Harv is still listening to too much jazz and drinking too much.
Paul Harvey said…
Sutton, no need to put your bitterness about the Lakers on display here. Remember the wise counsel of Marcellus Wallace: pride never helps; it only hurts. However, it is true that Schultz produced any good parts of our piece; the fluff parts were all mine.
Tom Van Dyke said…
Rebecca, I'd be fascinated to hear a first-hand evaluation of the new Texas standards.

Very much was written in newspapers and blogs about the proposals, many of which were outlandish.

On the other hand, I've seen next to nothing on what was actually was promulgated. I read through the changes and didn't find any real howlers, but you're where the rubber meets the road.

And good on you for your apparent commitment here to faithfully carry out the standards.
Christopher said…
Thanks for the post, Paul. Great stuff. I look forward to checking out Richter and Hyde's new books (and hooray for efforts to integrate Mormonism into larger narratives of the American West!).

Also, Go Mavs.
Rebecca said…
Tom, I don't have a link I can send you because I'm working from implementation standards that haven't been publicized yet. But, I find the new emphasis on religion in the colonial period to be a little distressing--not because belief wasn't important for that period, but because the approach is so one-sided. Before 1776, the only two documents explicitly mentioned are the Mayflower Compact and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut--both dominionist bugaboos. I'm going to be teaching teachers about Jamestown, and about the Mayflower Compact. The standards say, teach students why they are important. The Christian right in this state has one perspective on that, but my goal is to help teachers think about how to get students to think historically, rather than politically, about the past.
Tom Van Dyke said…
Thank you, Rebecca. The irony is how the quasi-theocracy of the early colonial period had faded by the time of the Founding. But there's no one document that puts a finger on it.

Which, I suppose, is why the relatively unimportant and now-dumped Anne Hutchinson was part of the previous curriculum, to try to put a monkey wrench into the religious narrative.

I do hope you'll have occasion to write about what you found in Texas once you're free & clear.