Commentary Magazine

History & Historians

To the Editor:

One can certainly not accuse J. H. Hexter of backing away from a good fight. “Doing History” [June]—like all Mr. Hexter’s writings—is witty and persuasive. In spite of my general agreement with his argument, I nevertheless take issue with his essay on a few points.

Mr. Hexter suggests at the outset that E. H. Carr’s thesis—i.e., the historian’s work mirrors the society in which he works—is unsound. On the contrary, Mr. Hexter maintains “. . . that preeminently the society which professional historians are members of, belong to, work in, is the society of professional historians.” This, I think, is a point that needs to be remembered—but not necessarily to the exclusion of Carr’s. After all, historians usually live in rather close proximity to non-historians, read newspapers (one hopes!) published and written by non-historians, buy groceries from non-historians, pay rent and/or taxes to non-historians, and are usually married to non-historians. In short, a large part of their professional lives (not to mention nearly all of their lives prior to their entrance into a novitiate) is spent talking to, learning from, and living with people outside the historical profession. If these experiences in no way impinge on their professional lives, they are downright sociopathic. And most of my historian friends are not especially sociopathic. The point of all this is that most of the canons of taste and criticism to which historians subscribe neither simply mirror those of the society in which they work, nor are they wholly unique.

On another score, Mr. Hexter spends a considerable amount of time and space describing the means by which historians evaluate each other’s written work. The means, Mr. Hexter writes, is judgment by peers. With wit and common sense he describes the mechanism of judgment by peers and its numerous consequences. That accomplished, he wholeheartedly endorses it. The description seems altogether accurate, and the value judgment is one with which I am in accord. The problem, however, is that in practice the mechanism fails with greater regularity than it does in theory. If it worked as it ought to work, and as Mr. Hexter implies that it does work, many historians in positions of status and power would be lower in the academic pecking order than they in fact are. Again, if the mechanism were as reliable as Mr. Hexter implies, men like himself would have risen to the top at a faster clip than in fact they did.

Which is only to say that the world J. H. Hexter portrays with such approval is possessed of more meanness than he allows. The situation is probably not so bleak as some suggest, but it scarcely justifies Hexter’s Panglossian rhetoric.

Edward Kerson
New Haven, Connecticut



To the Editor:

J. H. Hexter provides some useful insights into the society of historians to which he belongs. But some unfinished business remains.

Mr. Hexter’s ambivalent treatment of historian Jesse Lemisch raises—and then drops—a most tantalizing question. Historians in, around, and in spite of, the profession have indeed held a variety of positions on the relative value of historical questions and methods. Whether “conservative” and “radical” are instructive labels for these historiographical differences remains unsettled. But it borders on the dogmatic pluralism of the end-of-ideology school to reduce the relevant evidentiary questions to matters of slightness or abundance, dubiousness or trustworthiness.

Historians are no more or less neutral than economists or journalists. By expressing a preference for one question which is thought to be “better” than another, members of all three groups lose any claim to “neutrality.” This is not to deny that each of these groups can tell us something about the world and about ourselves. Nonetheless, the choice of one set of questions over another may very well flow from one’s political Weltanschauung. Hence, there may be organizations with vested interests in not probing too deeply the sociopolitical ramifications of business-as-usual.

Vincent K. Pollard
Chicago, Illinois



To the Editor:

In his witty commentary . . . J. H. Hexter offers some examples of the use of the “splendid and versatile” footnote as an instrument of either praise or blame. One of its versatilities is that a footnote can both praise and blame the same article, praise it for the clarity and incisiveness with which it has presented its position while blaming it for its form of argumentation and interpretation.

As an example of the latter, I have included the following footnote in a manuscript presently being drafted:

E. H. Carr, in What Is History (London 1962), stated, “first, that you cannot understand the work of the true historian unless you have first grasped the standpoint from which he himself approached it; secondly, that that standpoint is itself rooted in a social and historical background” (p. 34). This position has frequently been attacked for leading history astray into the sociology of knowledge. Most recently, Professor J. H. Hexter of Yale, in an article “Doing History” (COMMENTARY, June 1971), termed it “amateur seat-of-the-pants psychologizing,” deeming it “less a vice than an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of raising the problem in the first place,” with the added ad hominem that, “I know because I have had a try at the game myself” (p. 54) .

After setting forth the prerequisites of professional historiography for comprehensiveness, coherence, and accuracy (all, incidentally, specified by Carr but unacknowledged by Hexter in his criticism), Hexter offers a more substantial criticism by citing one empirical case which he claims falsifies Carr’s universal dictum. A historian examining the British history section of the library passes by Francis Aidan Cardinal Gasquet’s sympathetic study Henry VIII and the English Monasteries (1888) and Geoffrey Baskerville’s sneering English Monks and the Suppression of the Monasteries (1937) to select the four massive and authoritative volumes of the late Professor D. D. Knowles, The Monastic Order in England and The Religious Orders in England, indifferent to the fact that Knowles was a Catholic priest and a Benedictine monk.

The choice, however, is not between the Scylla of inevitably imposing the bias of the historical present on the past and the Charybdis of viewing the past from a divine perspective. If we inherently imposed our subjective perspective on the past, the point of obtaining authoritative answers and, hence, to asking questions, would be lost. If, on the other hand, there is an accepted authoritative interpretation, then there is also no point in raising a question about the interpretation since questions are only relevant if there is a basis for puzzlement. However, where two authoritative historians disagree in their assessment of the significance of the same events, then it is incumbent on the historian to relate those interpretations to the historical presumptions of the historians, for, in such cases, the examination of the presumptions a historian brings to his scholarship is part of the professional prerequisites of a historian.

Mr. Hexter, in his personal and patronizing asides to the radical historian Professor Lemisch, in his factual omissions with respect to Carr, and in his misuse of arguments, plays an analogous role in the philosophy of history to the amateurish, skeptical, and sneering Geoffrey Baskerville in the historical profession. In refusing honestly to acknowledge and deal with the crucial issues of the effect of a historian’s framework on history, even as a historian (see, for example, Alice Gérard’s recently published La Révolution Francaise: Mythes et Intérprétations 1789-1970, which traces the changes in the authoritative historiographies of this key historical event), Mr. Hexter’s liberal concern to establish principles that are eternally valid does little justice to his great skill as a historian and it also reveals the amateur quality of his excursion into the philosophy of history.

H. Adelman
York University
Downsview, Ontario



J. H. Hexter writes:

  1. Between Mr. Kerson’s evaluation and mine of the effectiveness of the society of historians in enforcing a just apportionment of academic rewards there is probably less difference in substance than in level of expectation. I think that often it works pretty well, and Mr. Kerson agrees. He thinks that sometimes it works pretty badly, and I agree. In my own generation of historians, I have known of four who, past their forty-fifth years, were still patently being shafted. Although I was one of them, that does not seem to me to be many. I have long since scaled down my requirements and expectations of human institutions, and as merely human institutions go, the society of historians seems to do its work reasonably well. One may ascribe my moderately favorable view of an institution that for a good while did not do very well by me to the general wisdom of experience or to the mush-headedness of dotage. It is an open question.
  2. Mr. Adelman got so much enjoyment out of castigating “the amateur quality” of my “excursion into the philosophy of history” that I would like to call to his attention The History Primer (Basic Books), in which I engage in a more extensive foray in the same direction. It will split his sides.
  3. Either I do not understand Mr. Pollard, or, as seems to me more likely, he does not quite understand himself. I do not know what “relevant evidentiary questions” are, but in the relevant place both Mr. Lemisch and I were talking about questions concerning the quality of evidence adduced in support of declarative statements of facts about the past. For querying the adequacy of such evidence, the criteria of “slightness or abundance, dubiousness or trustworthiness” seem to me and to courts of law less trivial than they do to Mr. Pollard. On the other hand in this context, “conservative or radical” seems a criterion odd enough to require an exposition less opaque than the one Mr. Pollard provides.

What upsets me a little about the above letters is their failure to pay much heed to what I thought was the main thrust of my article. The point was not that historians make no use of their own experience in writing history. Since their own experience is the only one they have, what else can they use? I said this quite emphatically myself twenty years ago in “The Historian and His Day,” and more recently and more emphatically in The History Primer. In “Doing History” the point of my argument was that whatever my experience and vision of life may be, I can never offer it in evidence before my peers as grounds for my allegations about what happened in a past in which I was not a participant. I can draw on my experience to help me under my response to Professor Trevor-Roper:

The error is somewhat embarrassing. On the other hand it is agreeable to entertain general views so sound that they are confirmed by one’s particular mistakes.



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