regular

Becker on history

Carl Lotus Becker
Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker
1958


Carl Becker is, along with Charles Beard, the most influential “relativist” in American historiography, according to Peter Novick’s
That Noble Dream. So I thought I’d read some of Becker’s essays. They seem pretty even-handed and insightful. Becker isn’t arguing for anything more radical than Hume (who he calls on in one of the pieces), and he's pretty much writing in plain English. I wonder, if we understood this material deeply enough, if postmodernism would even be necessary?


Things that I thought worth keeping on hand:

“the historical fact is a thing wonderfully elusive after all, very difficult to fix, almost impossible to distinguish from ‘theory,’ to which it is supposed to be completely antithetical.” (10)

“while we speak of historical facts as it they were pebbles to be gathered in a cup, there is in truth no unit fact in history. The historical reality is continuous, and infinitely complex; and the cold hard facts into which it is said to be analyzed are not concrete portions of the reality, but only aspects of it. The reality of history has forever disappeared, and the ‘facts’ of history, whatever they once were, are only mental images or pictures which the historian makes in order to comprehend it.” (11)

I think it’s interesting how this anticipates postmodernism -- but then so does Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The question, I suppose, really is: what do we do about/with this understanding?

“The classic expression of this truth is of course Hume’s famous argument against miracles. That argument does not really prove that miracles never occurred in history; it proves only that there is no use having a past through which the intellect cannot freely range with a certain sense of security.” (13)

“It seems, then, that the great point in historical synthesis is selection: which of the numberless particular facts will the historian select?” (18)

“The historian...does indeed have a concept of the end, and he selects the facts that will explain how that end came about. But it is the concept that determines the facts, not the facts the concept.” (24)

“The final synthesis is doubtless composed of facts unique, causally connected, revealing unique change [reflecting the “Dr. Fling” description of what historians do]; but the unique fact, selected because of its importance, was in every case selected because of its importance for some idea already in the field. The original concepts, which give character to the entire synthesis, sere contributed, not by the facts of the sixteenth century, but by the facts of the twentieth century.” (25)


Regarding “facts,” “the historian...cannot deal directly with this event itself, since the event itself has disappeared. What he can deal with directly is a
statement about the event. He deals in short not with the event, but with...an affirmation...There is thus a distinction of capital importance to be made: the distinction between the ephemeral event which disappears, and the affirmation about the event which persists...If so the historical fact is not the past event, but a symbol which enables us to recreate it imaginatively...The safest thing to say about a symbol is that it is more or less appropriate.” (47)

Again, the proof is in the pudding. What type of history did Becker write? Was it wildly speculative? Did he make things up, or project presentist concerns onto people in the past?

“But the notion continues to bob up regularly...And so I repeat...it is impossible to present all the facts; and...even if you could present all the facts the miserable things wouldn’t say anything, would just say nothing at all.” (54)

“One historian will therefore necessarily
choose certain affirmations about the event, and relate them in a certain way, rejecting other affirmations and other ways of relating them...What is it that leads one historian to make, out of all the possible true affirmations about the given event , certain affirmations and not others? Why, the purpose he has in mind will determine that. And so the purpose he has in mind will determine the precise meaning which he derives from the event.” (55)

Yes, but also, he’ll try to judge the affirmation for consistency with others. He’ll try to understand the author’s point of view and motivation for affirming. He’ll try to integrate this into an overall understanding based on context and agreement of sources, rather than just cherry-picking the ones he thinks are most interesting or agree with his thesis.

On the difference between history and science:
“The historian has to judge the significance of the series of events from the ons single performance, never to be repeated, and never, since the records are incomplete and imperfect, capable of being fully known or fully affirmed.” (57)

“every normal person does know some history, a good deal in fact...enough for his immediate purposes; otherwise he would be a lost soul indeed...How much and how accurate, will depend on the man and his purposes. Now, the point is that history in the formal sense...is only an extension of memory. Knowledge or history, insofar as it is living history and not dead knowledge locked up in notebooks, is only an enrichment of our minds with the multiplied images of events, people, places, ideas, emotions outside our personal experience...enabling him to judge the acts and thoughts of men, his own included, on the basis of experience less immediate and restricted.” (61)

“the kind of history that has the most influence on the life of the community and the course of events is the history that common men carry around in their heads. It won’t do to say that history has no influence on the course of events because people refuse to read history books. Whether the general run of people read history books or not, they inevitably picture the past in some fashion or other, and this picture, however little it corresponds to the real past, helps to determine their ideas about politics and society. This is especially true in times of excitement, in critical times, in time of war above all.” (61)

“scientific research has had a profound influence in changing the conditions of modern life, whereas historical research has had at best only a negligible influence...It is, indeed, not wholly the historian’s fault that the mass of men will not read good history willingly and with understanding; but I think we should not be too complacent about it.” (62, 64)

On historiography, “I find evidence leading me to suppose that the new history is at least as old as Voltaire.” (70)

On Tocqueville: “In the United States it has often been taken for granted that Tocqueville was a great admirer of American democracy. The truth is somewhat different: what he admired was not American democracy, but the ingenuity of Americans in inventing political devices for mitigating the evils of democracy...he was n intelligent and humane lover of the masses, and yet a highly differentiated individual who prized his liberties, including the liberty of not belonging to the masses whom he loved.” (176)

“Any significant political philosophy is shaped by three different but closely related influences. The first is what Alfred North Whitehead has taught us to call the ‘climate of opinion’ -- those unconsciously accepted presuppositions which, in any age, so largely determine what men think about the nature of the universe and what can and cannot happen in it, and about the nature of man and what is essential to the good life. The second is more specific: it derives from the political conflicts of the time, which dispose groups and classes to accept a particular interpretation of current ideas as a theoretical support for concrete political measures. The third is still more specific: it derives from the mind and temperament of the individual who gives to the philosophy its ordered literary form. Whatever is original in the philosophy is usually contributed by the individual who gives it this form. Whatever value is has for its own time depends largely on the extent to which it can be used to illuminate or resolve the particular political issues of that time and place. But its value for other times and places will depend upon the the extent to which the fundamental presuppositions on which it rests have a universal validity--the extent to which they express some essential and enduring truth about nature and the life of man.” (216)

Does this square with his view of history above? This is from a 1943 address about Jefferson -- change over time?

Lowbrow Historian

Stewart H. Holbrook
Lost Men of American History
1947


In a short introduction, Allan Nevins says:

“There is always danger that the story of the nation, at least in its briefer versions, will become conventionalized...And [Holbrook] also touches on a deeper question. The United States is a great mass democracy, where equality of opportunity is emphasized;...have we not made a little too much of the very great men, the primary figures; and too little of the serried ranks of talent and achievement just behind them, the host of men whose labors were the main element in progress?” (viii)

In his own note to the reader, Holbrook says “I believe that men, even one man or one woman, often have had immense effect in slowing or hastening the forces that are said to make history...Many just such men and women have been slighted or wholly ignored in our history books. They are in large part the people I want to tell about.”


So it begins. The book is filled with interesting material. For example, “The log cabin’s first appearance in North America was in 1638, when members of the Swedish West India Company [who knew there was such a thing!] set up a trading post and village on the shore of Delaware Bay.” (4) This is not the Scandinavians’ only appearance. Holbrook later tells the story of novelist Fredrika Bremer, who went back home to tell the Swedes about Minnesota, and Reinert Reiersen, whose 1844 book
The Pathfinder for Norwegian Emigrants in the United North American States and Texas “was a classic of its genre.” (201-3) Holbrook covers a wide range of people and topics, including to my great surprise Abner Kneeland and Dr. Charles Knowlton (whose name gets by his copy editor as “Thomas” later in the book, 126-7, 312). Really interesting stuff, a lot of which could stand to be taken up by a guy like me -- some of which I’m already working on. But enough about that, for now!

Holbrook was an interesting guy -- may be a subject in his own right. His “lowbrow history” certainly anticipates my ideas of about the history of regular people,
for regular people. I’m happy I had the idea on my own, before I heard of Holbrook. I’m also happy he had it, because I’m looking forward to reading more and seeing where he took it.