It’s not too late to check out the Cliopatria symposium discussing Sam Tanenhaus’ tribute to Arthur Schlesinger. [Edit: And Tanenhaus has just posted a thoughtful reply.] With Schlesinger’s death, Tanenhaus laments, “America lost its last great public historian.” “Why,” he asks, “do current historians seem unable to engage the world as confidently as Mr. Schlesinger did?”
[Historians today] don’t command the broad cultural authority that Mr. Schlesinger and his contemporaries did. … The problem is not one of seriousness, intelligence or skill. It is rather one of reach. [Gordon] Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution is a major contribution to our understanding of its subject, and [James] McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom enthralled readers. But neither work can be said to have affected how many of us think about current issues … These are books that, for all their merits, seem not only about the past but also, to some extent, mired in it. They are archival. And that may be the problem. Mr. Schlesinger’s accounts of midcentury American politics have the pageantry, texture and depth we normally find in books about long-vanished eras in that they were written by a historian convinced he was living in a period no less than rich than those earlier ones.
There were a number of smart responses by bloggers and historians I respect (follow all the links at Cliopatria). We don’t have to overlook Schlesinger’s failings to acknowledge his towering importance or to admit that the nature of the historian as public intellectual has changed. I was happy to see shoutouts in the symposium to Alan Brinkley, Michael Kazin, Sean Wilentz, and Gary Wills; if the age of giants is passing (and isn’t it always?) that doesn’t mean we’re stuck with nothing but pygmies from here on out. And the generation following Brinkley et al. may not turn out to be worthless either. American historians like Peniel Joseph, Mae Ngai, and Eric Rauchway [and Jill Lepore!, Bruce reminds me in comments]–to cherrypick a few names from the pile of books on my desk–all have valuable things to say to the present about the past, even if they’re not hobnobbing with the Kennedys.
I’m surprised nobody made the Web 2.0 argument about Tanenhaus’ jeremiad: are towering figures with broad cultural authority–what David Weinberger calls “the National Dad telling us How it Was“–necessarily what we want? Yes, yes, echo chamber, navel gazing, the need for synthesis: it’s as easy to disparage the bloviosphere as it is hard to keep track of it. But what are all these people doing if not “writing history in the present tense”? History on the web is brand new, barely born. Imagine a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand Manan Ahmeds and Scott McLemees and Nonpartisans and Caleb McDaniels engaging history and the modern world with confidence and insight. No one individual may have the reach of Arthur Schlesinger, but the conversation as a whole can be infinitely more inclusive, encompassing and diverse. I’d give up a few giants for that.
But then, my only contribution to the sphere of public discourse in the past week was a catalog of B-movie actors and pulp clichés. So maybe I should stay out of it.
Edited to add: Kenneth Hite’s contrarian take on the Kennedy’s court historian:
One could construct a surprisingly accurate and compelling American history book by simply writing the inverse of whatever Arthur M. Schlesinger, fils et pere, have to say about any given topic. But especially fils, as he is a contemptible, scuttling toady of a Grima Wormtongue who should have been horsewhipped out of the AHA when first he vomited forth his panegyric to Camelot. Though that said, it would be pretty awesome to discover in his attic somewhere a copy of Schlesinger’s Anekdota, in which he reveals that JFK was the son of a demon and killed one billion Libyans in a secret war.
The AHA has been of late distressingly lax in its horsewhippings.