Bad History

Article excerpt

Shortly after the publication of David McCullough's prizewinning biography Truman, an ad hoc committee of concerned historians was formed to ponder how any historian, no matter how amiably "in the grain," could write at such length about so crucial a President and reveal absolutely nothing of his actual politics, whose effects still resonate in the permanent garrison state and economy he bequeathed us. Since this question has many answers, we continue to meet -- in secrecy: Tenure is at stake in some cases, while prizes, grants, fellowships, hang in a balance that can go swiftly crashing if any of us dares question openly the image of America the beauteous on its hill, so envied by all that it is subject to attacks by terrorists who cannot bear so much sheer goodness to triumph in a world that belongs to their master, the son of morning himself, Satan.

As we discuss in increasing detail the various American history departments, a large portrait of Comer Vann Woodward beams down on us; he is the acknowledged premier conductor of that joyous, glory-bound gravy train. In due course, we plan to give a Vann Woodward Prize to the historian who has shown what biologists term "absolute maze-brightness," that is, the ability to get ahead of the pack to the scrumptious cheese at a complex labyrinth's end. Comer's own Pulitzer Prize (bestowed for his having edited the perhaps questionable diary of Mary Chesnut) was the result of a lifetime of successful maze-threading, which ended with a friend, John Blum, awarding him the prime cheddar for what is hardly history writing in our commitee's strict sense. To be fair, Comer did deserve an honorable mention back in 1955 for The Strange Career of Jim Crow. Our committee tends to agree that prize-giving is largely a racket in which self-serving schoolteachers look after one another. We shall, in due course, address this interesting if ancillary subject.

Meanwhile, we debate whether or not to create a vulgar splash and give an annual prize to the worst American historian of the year. But the first nominations are coming in so thick and fast that none of us really can, in a single life, read all the evidence -- and graduate students are forbidden to do our work for us. So we have tentatively abandoned that notion. Instead, we have been surveying current publications, applying our strict standards to the works of an electric group that has only one thing in common (badness aside): the public approbation of like-minded toilers in the field.

Our criteria: First, the book must be badly written. Since this is as true, alas, of some of our best historians, we do not dwell too much on aesthetics. Gibbon and Macaulay and Carlyle knew that history was an important aspect of literature and so made literature; but this secret seems to have got lost by the end of the last century. Even our own wise hero, Edmund Wilson, didn't really write all that good himself. Second, the book in question must be composed in perfect bad faith. This is much easier for us to judge than literary value and very satisfying, particularly when one can figure where the writer is, as they say, coming from. Naturally, our own tastes condition our responses. Most of us are not enthusiasts of the National Security State of 1950 et seq. And we suspect that the empire, now spinning out of control, was a bad idea. After all, the federal government must borrow heavily every single day to keep it humming along. But anyone who can make a good case for Truman's invention of the National Security State does not necessarily, on the ground of our own political incorrectness, earn a place in the crowded galere. Only if he or she denies that there is such a thing as an American empire (an act of bad faith, since that is the line those who endow universities want taken) will inclusion occur.

In the matter of race, the opportunities for bad faith are beyond mere counting. Even so, our committee has just voted unanimously that the worst of the books currently in print is America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible, Race in America, by Stephan Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom. …