That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession
Peter Novick, 1988

Peter Novick provided an insider’s view, through correspondence and personal papers as well as published material, of the development of history as an American academic profession. This was extremely helpful to me as I was working out a historiography for my oral exam fields. He also addressed the issues of professionalism, audience, the historian’s role in society, and (of course) objectivity, in ways that were very interesting and seemed quite fresh, even two decades after the book’s publication.

Novick began his introduction (aptly titled “Nailing jelly to the wall”) by saying “Historical objectivity” was a “sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies.” Following philosopher W. B. Gallie, Novick called objectivity an “essentially contested concept,” and the same might be said for the other concepts he explored. The interesting thing about these controversial concepts, though, is that the fact they are contested isn’t an unfortunate effect of change, or a flaw in our understanding. These concepts exist to be contested. They aren’t answers, they’re questions.

Novick described a myth of objectivity which he said included assumptions about the “reality of the past...a sharp separation between the knower and known, between fact and value, and, above all, between history and fiction.” Truth, according to this “objectivist” point of view, was “not perspectival. Whatever patterns exist in history are ‘found,’ not ‘made.’” This mythical objectivity was important, he said, not only because “it has served in sustaining the professional historical venture”, but also because of the “numerous...assertions by historians that without such faith they would see no point in scholarship, and would abandon it.” The main issue here, for me at least, was that when you really follow this trail all the way to its source, you end up in a religious universe where there are
patterns in history because there is a divine plan. I’m not saying it’s impossible to call yourself an atheist and believe in materialist determinism. I’m saying that Marxist teleology is religion too.

e pluribus unum in the myth of historical objectivity,” Novick said, “promised to resolve the contradiction [between many points of view and “reality”], through a unitary convergent history which would correspond to a unitary past.” I don’t see why we couldn’t agree that there’s a single reality and also accept the proposition that it’s unknowable -- both because of its ridiculous complexity and because our own consciousnesses are limited by our experience, environment, and (yes) language. And I don’t think you would have to be brought up with quantum mechanics or postmodernism to “get” this idea -- it seems like David Hume would be all you’d need.

Novick quoted Isaiah Berlin, who he said followed Hegel in describing the history of thought and culture as “a changing pattern of great liberating ideas which inevitably turn into suffocating straitjackets” (quoting
Concepts and Categories). But while this may be true in the overall history of ideas, in historiography (and to some extent in Novick’s story) it frequently seems that differences of emphasis are mistaken for disagreement. Or that people motivated by the requirements of the profession magnify small differences in order to make space for themselves in an ongoing historiographical discourse.

“There appears to be a residual Great Man theory of historiography,” Novick said. He later added that there was also a residual Whig Interpretation in historiography. While this may be true, it also seems clear that relatively few people in the history of the profession have attempted grand syntheses or new overarching interpretations that have been noticed and read by many people. Perhaps these historians deserve a featured place on the “family tree.” In fact, part of my job, I think, is understanding the slight difference between the list of historians who were read by lots of people, and the ones now believed significant by historiographers. Luckily, Novick pointed out many of the popular “amateurs” in each period.

In his introduction, Novick mentioned the choices he had made when writing, to balance accurate representation of historians’ positions with a more generalized discussion of their place in a larger tapestry. He suggested that “what one loses in the ability to unpack the nuances and complexities of individuals‘ thought, in ‘doing them justice,’ one may gain in the validity of generalizations, and appreciation of the variety of contradictory currents within the profession, and their interaction.” It might also be said that, since many historiographical arguments seem to involve the selective misinterpretation of other historians’ positions and the setting up of straw men, a less detailed approach to their ideas might be entirely appropriate. But then, at what point does historiography devolve into bickering and posturing?

Novick seemed aware of this issue at some level. He claimed that “the philosophical stakes are very high” for historians (especially on the objectivity issue). And yet he acknowledged that as historians we are aware that “protagonists are in fact often disingenuous in their arguments, are following hidden agendas, and are expressing views shaped by ‘extra rational’ factors.” The question he raised, of course was, do we apply this same close criticism to ourselves? I’d suggest that in several areas such as overstating changes, imposing periodization, and reintroducing substantially similar interpretations using arcane new vocabulary, historians bow to the demands of professionalism in ways their (amateur) predecessors never needed to do.

So is historiography, then, an artifact of professionalism? Would the tree be simpler if we tried to strip away the artificial arguments and focused on really substantial changes in interpretation? Would this be a worthwhile task?

Novick began his story in 1884, with the founding of the American Historical Association (AHA) and the “amateur historians whom the professionals sought to replace.” It’s interesting that George Bancroft, who is typically grouped with the amateurs, was in Berlin in 1867. And Novick’s claim that Americans completely misunderstood Leopold von Ranke is a hoot. Far from being an objectivist, Novick said, Ranke “was a thoroughgoing philosophical idealist, at one with Hegel in believing the world divinely ordered.” Even Ranke’s famous dictum, that history should be written
wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, was complicated by the fact that at the time Ranke wrote that, eigentlich “also meant ‘essentially,’ and it was in this sense that Ranke characteristically used it.” And in any case, by the time the Americans arrived in Germany, Ranke had retired, “and no American had sustained firsthand contact with him.” So much for the solid origins of the objectivity myth.

Novick made a strong case that it is not often a complete idea that drives debate, but what he called “dominant vulgarizations” of important ideas. As an example, he points out that although Charles Darwin believed (at least privately) that “all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!” (in a 1861 letter to Henry Fawcett), Darwin dissembled in “the very first paragraph of
On the Origin of Species.” And “As Darwin triumphed, so did crude reductionism--the doctrine that Darwin, privately, mocked.” These ideas entered history through men like Albert Bushnell Hart, who “like most other readers of Darwin, accepted at face value Darwin’s claim to have ‘worked on true Baconian principles’ and, in his AHA presidential address, urged historians to follow his example.”

To some extent, Novick showed that the transition from amateur to professional historians was facilitated by a change in literary tastes narrative styles. “Sir Walter Scott,” Novick said, “was, by a wide margin, the most popular an imitated author in early nineteenth-century America.” By the 1850s and 1860s, Flaubert and Zola had “introduced the objective, the omniscient, the impersonal, and the self-effacing narrator…Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman each...employed the organization of the stage play” in one of their works. The older historians’ “combination of the ‘intrusive’ authorial presence, the explicit moralizing, and overt partisanship, made their work unacceptable to the historical scientists.” The question is, were these really significant differences in content? Substantial changes in interpretation, or just a change in the fashion of forms?

The “criteria of a profession,” Novick said, are “institutional apparatus (an association, a learned journal), standardized training in esoteric skills, leading to certification and controlled access to practice.” In other words, a monopoly. But in spite of the historical profession’s attempts to institute such barriers to entry, “much of the most distinguished historical work continued to be produced by those without Ph.D.’s or professorships.” Examples included J.B. McMaster’s
History of the People of the United States, Ellis Oberholtzer’s History of the United States Since the Civil War, James Schouler’s History of the United States Under the Constitution, and James Ford Rhodes’s History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850. The “Pre-professional historians,” Novick said, “had offered their wares in a classically free market.” Professionalism’s “visible hand” not only directed historians toward more inward-focused and specialist writing, it also made “provision for those of mediocre talents.” The professionalization of history not only shifted the balance of power from the reading public to the “bureaucratic organization”, it also promoted the idea of historians “bringing their stones to one great building and piling them on and cementing them together” (quoting Karl Pearson) “Almost anyone, properly trained, could mold a brick,” Novick said. “If the maxim of the free market is caveat emptor, the slogan of the profession is credat emptor.” I think I remember Arthur Marwick using almost those exact words about bricks and walls in a passage designed to inspire young historians; so I guess these issues are still alive.

Novick also called attention to how much historiography owed to current events. “Prewar [World War I] confidence in progress generally,” he said, “and progress in scientific knowledge in particular, was a powerful limitation on the critique of historical objectivity.” The disillusionment the Great War caused “was particularly acute for historians, since it was ‘their’ man in the White House, one of Herbert Baxter Adams’s first Ph.D.’s, who had betrayed their hopes.

As the story continued, writers outside of professional history continued to be important. “A survey of professional historians conducted shortly after World War II solicited opinions on the best interwar historical work. Of those most often named, a number were by non-historians (e.g., Perry Miller, Vernon Parrington, Van Wyck Brooks).” In contrast, Arthur Schlesinger and Dixon Ryan Fox’s twelve-volume
History of American Life was considered “a stillbirth...history with the politics left out.” But a “substantial popular market for historical writing” emerged during the interwar period, served by “amateurs” like Frederick Lewis Allen, Claude G. Bowers, Matthew Josephson (who were journalists), Albert J. Beveridge (a politician), Carl Sandburg (a poet), James Truslow Adams, and Van Wyck Brooks...H.G. Wells’s Outline of History sold more than a million and a half copies in the United States,” against American Historical Review editor J. Franklin Jameson’s American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (less than a thousand) and John D. Hicks’s Populist Revolt, which “took seventeen years to sell fifteen hundred copies.”

Regarding approaching the past without preconceptions, Novick said, “Hoping to find something without looking for it, expecting to find final answers to life’s riddle by resolutely refusing to ask questions--it was surely the most romantic species of realism yet invented, the oddest attempt ever made to get something for nothing” (quoting Becker). This reminds me of the famous scene in
The Zero Effect about looking for things. Novick called attention to the “conservatism inherent in unadorned factualism. “‘The mere fact,’ Becker had written, ‘if you allow the wretched creature to open its mouth, will say only one thing: I am, therefore I am right.’”

During the Cold War, the story just seemed to get so nasty and spiteful that it was difficult to find any real historiographical issues at stake. The public apparently didn’t sympathize, and “best-sellerdom in history was preserved for amateurs like Walter Lord, Cornelius Ryan, William L. Shirer, John Toland, and Barbara Tuchman,” all of whom the professionals despised. In the end, I was not convinced that the Objectivity Question was the most pressing one for historians, or even the central issue of
That Noble Dream. The relevance question, which Novick also substantially dealt with, seemed to be a stronger through-line for this history of History in America.

There was a lot of great material in the book -- much of it came in the form of behind the scenes looks at the personalities, animosities, and occasionally friendships of historians, as shown in their letters and private writings. From time to time these revealing moments could be seen in articles or AHA presidential addresses, but most of them were private. Once or twice I wondered whether reading about a particularly racist or otherwise obnoxious personal aside was necessary to my understanding of the issues, but on the whole it was a very useful insider’s view of the profession. Novick’s close attention to these personal details went a long way to impressing on me the relative smallness of the historical community (at least in terms of its key “players”), and of the short duration of American historiography. The profession only really got going at the beginning of the twentieth century. So I’m a fourth generation American
and a fourth-generation historian.

The other thing Novick did to my idea of American professional history was to convince me of its incredibly personal nature. For example, Oscar Handlin, who clearly had a longer than average career, kept popping up throughout the book. Handlin appeared in so many different guises: early on, as a young Jewish historian thankfully allowed to enter the profession. Then in the 1940s, as a consensus critic of the progressive “Bulletin 54”. And finally as the Pulitzer-winning author of
The Uprooted, announcing in its pages that he had “learned to live with relativism.” Novick mentioned that critics of The Uprooted (1951) called it “engaged...personal, value-laden.” Somehow, he failed to mention that it completely abandons even a semblance of objectivity.

Handlin himself described
The Uprooted as an epic and acknowledged that he “did not find it in the nature of this work to give its pages the usual historical documentation.” This was an interesting statement, coming from one of the stalwarts of what Novick called objectivism. Handlin’s use of novelistic techniques like fictional interior monologues (of Italian immigrant women, no less!) in the book suggests a position closer to the one characterized for ultra-relativists like Hayden White than for “hyperobjectivists” like Handlin, who are supposed to find “correspondence of a representation with its the small pieces which together form the record” (quoting Truth in History).

I wonder if Handlin’s narrative choices were based on condescending ideas about the (largely popular) audience he addressed in
The Uprooted? Variations in historians’ philosophies and techniques may relate to their ideas of their imagined audiences, in ways Novick didn’t address. Carl Becker, for example, seemed to focus a good deal of thought on “the history that common men carry around in their heads” But more to the point of That Noble Dream, I think the inconsistent and shifting positions of Handlin and others in Novick’s account suggest a contingency based not only on changing American politics and culture, which Novick addressed, but also the shifting needs of careers and personal reputations. On that score, Novick was less forthcoming, but provided some very suggestive pointers.