Heritage and Challenge: The History and Theory of History

By Paul K. Conkin; Roland N. Stromberg | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7

RECENT TRENDS

ONE of the perennial, perhaps consoling claims of professional historians is that they have moved up to a new level of methodological rigor or theoretical sophistication. Or they claim that they are the first to have explored a brand-new field or have taken a novel approach to fields already explored. Thus claims of a “new” history abound in each generation. The claim usually mixes pretension with real achievement. Few of the new histories are quite so new or so novel as their advocates claim, but each usually gives evidence of the changing interest of historians or of a notable enhancement of their skills.

The claim of newness goes back a long way. Many past historians expressed discontent with traditional modes and called for and sometimes achieved a fresh approach. Usually the fresh approach took the form of a broadening of subject matter. Voltaire, then Carlyle and Michelet, then later such Victorian historians as John R. Green ardently championed what they saw as a novelty—less political “court” history of kings and wars and more about the lives of the people; fewer descriptive details and more generalizations about the causes of social change; and more on literature, the arts, and popular culture. James Harvey Robinson launched a so-called new American history in the early twentieth century, and tried to imprint his conception of it on the prestigious multivolumed New American Nation series (most observers thought the results not a huge success). Meanwhile, the immensely influential French school associated with the journal Annales, edited by Bloch and Febvre, built on earlier foundations when it began another new history in 1929.


Social History and Its Offspring

If anything was common to all earlier “new” departures, or even tied them to more recent trends dating from the 1960s, it was an emphasis

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