The Present State of the American Past
Walters, Colin, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
In contrast to Edwin M. Yoder, Jr., the historically-minded journalist about whom I was writing last week, Michael Kammen is a professional historian and teacher, a man who has lived most of his life - as the title of his new book has it - "In the Past Lane." But the two writers are keenly interested in some of the same things, including how history gets written and taught and the role of historiography and the American past in the broader social culture today.
If the journalist and the historian share a focus in their books, it is American collective memory, of what timber we tend to fashion our national icons and what, conversely, we prefer to bend, distort or plain forget. The two do not always come out in the same place, but why should they? It is the common urgency of their concerns which command readers' attention.
Mr. Kammen is a professor of history and culture at Cornell; he won the Pulitzer Prize for his "People of Paradox" and the Francis Parkman Prize for "A Machine That Would Go of Itself." He enjoys the respect of a politically wide-ranging readership and is not afraid to draw on the intellectual capital that affords, as in "wholeheartedly accept[ing] the feminist insistence that `the personal is political,' and I agree that that perspective has helped to redefine the `private' as a realm of experience that should, in certain instances, at least be subject to public inquiry."
This comes in Mr. Kammen's opening, and one previously unpublished essay of the nine collected here, in which he explores in some depth "personal identity and the historian's vocation." It has been a hot topic in the history business these past years, in the wake of structuralism, etc.'s general assault across the academic-cultural board, and Mr. Kammen puts it in historical context. The result is another instance of something people think of as new turning out to be not so new at all, and a vote for reasonableness.
Who, after all, is going to object to John Demos' encouraging his students not to be afraid to use themselves in their projects. Then there is the case of Vernon L. Parrington, the American historian earlier this century who for a time tried hard to separate his personal and professional life, then experienced something of a conversion and concluded that "we end by painting our own portraits"?
The account of Fawn M. Brodie's struggle with the Mormon Church over her biography of Joseph Smith - back when merely being a woman historian was struggle enough - is salutary. Raised a Mormon, Brodie became became fascinated with the story of the Church's founder, but her research led to skepticism about the orthodox interpretation of his conduct and achievement. As to the specific role of the personal in her career, a sentence from a letter she wrote says it all:
"One simply doesn't spend years delving into the intimate life of someone else unless it is to try to resolve some kind of inner conflict of one's own, or unless the subject of the biography reminds one in a compelling sense of someone who has deeply influenced one's own life."
Mr. Kammen relates other interesting cases of intertwining personal and professional strands in distinguished historians' lives. He reflects that perhaps people turned to writing history when they grew tired of hashing over religious disputes and compares the timidity, historically, of American universities about teaching religion to their less anxious British opposites. He briefly mentions some current areas where the personal and professional overlap in historians' careers, including gender, sexual orientation, race and physical disability.
The essay winds down with some sprightly pages on the profit and loss of criticism as it affects historians, both academic and popularizing. Mr. Kammen retells the story of the 1967 public debate, held at the California Institute of Technology, between Arnold Toynbee and Allan Nevins, which proved professionally fatal for the latter; the episode provides a moment of high drama in the book. …