ENGAGEMENT WITH THE PAST: The Lives and Works of the World War II Generation of Historians

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ENGAGEMENT WITH THE PAST: The Lives and Works of the World War II Generation of Historians, William Palmer, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2001, 372 pages, $32.00.

There are three kinds of historians: lumpers, who use highly technical terminology; splitters, who catalog broad similarities among various events and people; and those who record the differences. William Palmer is a lumper. Engagement with the Past: The Lives and Works of the World War II Generation of Historians is Palmer's history of 23 prominent 20th-century U.S. and British historians, including Eric Hobsbawm, Richard Hofstadter, and C. Vann Woodward, who rank among the giants of their profession.

Palmer, however, fails to unite his diverse subjects in any meaningful way. As young adults, these historians lived through the Depression and World War II, but despite the subtitle, Palmer does not attempt to depict the scholars as the "greatest generation" of historians. (An equally accomplished score of Anglo-American historians, Frederick Jackson Turner, Charles Beard, and Perry Miller, were born in the first quarter of the last century.) He could have labeled the scholars the "Cold War generation" because they published their most important works in the decades after 1945. Palmer set himself an almost impossible task in trying to sort through an entire generation of historians. …