The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard

By Cushing Strout | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
The Climate of Opinion and the Thin Red Line of Heroes

BY CONVENTIONAL STANDARDS Becker's historical writings have two shortcomings: brevity and only a modest amount of original research. He had no desire to impress his readers by his scope or his labor; he had quite other purposes and achieved a different distinction. All of his writing, which was centered around the period of the i8th century, bears the marks of originality in conception, subtlety in interpretation, and graciousness in style. It was characteristic of the man to apply these talents even in a high-school text on modern history and in an account of Benjamin Franklin for an encyclopedia, both efforts being widely recognized as outstanding examples of a genre seldom rising above the commonplace. With Becker these gifts of mind were not merely ornamental virtues; they were the delicate instruments by which he gave vivid life to his vision of history. It is the lesson of his work that the historian must take account of the role of individual character, of the intellectual presuppositions of an age, and of the importance of narrative technique. The success of his revolt against both scientific history and the formalism of the institutional school of political and constitutional history is measured by these three contributions.

In Becker's eyes the dogmas of an earlier generation of historians had led them to produce a narrative of events "so externalized, so reduced to commonplace matter of fact, so purged of any sense of life, of the presence of human passions," that it "might have occurred

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