There are times when it is hard to avoid the feeling that historians may unintentionally obstruct the view of history. Our students are sometimes better equipped to reel off the views of the leading authorities in a particular held than to develop a genuine understanding of what happened in the past. Ever-increasing specialization, particularly in such popular and densely populated fields as American history, has encouraged historians to concentrate on conversation--and controversy--with their professional colleagues at the expense of their obligation to present a clear view of the past to a broader audience.
Controversy frequently sets the pace of historical inquiry. Adversarial history has been a powerful stimulus to new discovery and fresh interpretation, but its constructive achievements have not been without cost. Aspirants to membership in the guild of professional historians commonly seek to make a name for themselves by challenging the views of one of the established authorities. Professional historians, absorbed in their long-running controversies, have sometimes left their students and the wider history-reading public bewildered and confused in the face of yet more disagreement among the experts.
There is no better example of this general point than the historiography of slavery in the South. During the last three decades, there has been an unprecedentedly rich outpouring of new work on the subject. It has included some of the great books of modern American historiography. The dimensions of the subject have expanded dramatically as new or neglected aspects of it have been opened up--above all those relating to the lives of the slaves themselves. We