Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present

By Neil Jumonville | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8
The Character and Myth of
Historians at Midcentury,
1937–1997

Because of the way he wrote history, Henry Steele Commager serves as a convenient representative of one side in the cultural wars that were rooted in the 1960s and waged most heavily in the 1980s and 1990s. He has been a lightning rod for the antagonisms that have thundered across the American cultural skies, storms that have swept both the popular and the academic landscapes.

In the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which to its credit searched for greater equality and visibility for the voiceless in society, many younger baby boomer historians rejected those figures of Commager's generation as conservative and elitist, too preoccupied with concepts of national character and too out of step with the late-century multicultural ethic. 1 So those intellectual historians in the aftermath of World War II who constructed studies of the American myths and mind—and became known, fairly or not, as American studies figures—have been the subject of unsympathetic articles at least since the early 1970s. 2

But it is impossible to understand Commager's role in this cultural change unless we also discuss the colleagues who were linked with him at midcentury. It seems particularly important now at the end of the century, when culture and curricula are prominent battlegrounds, to arrive at an intelligent relationship with our immediate cultural past. 3 And Commager's example cannot help us unless we situate him within his relevant surround-

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