Originally published by n.b. a web project of the New York Review of Books

The Hope for History

The Degradation of American History

by David Harlan

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Reviewed by Fred Murphy

The unfortunate title notwithstanding, David Harlan has not produced yet another conservative jeremiad against multicultural and/or postmodern approaches in the writing and teaching of American history. Far from a stark portrayal of "degradation," Harlan's book is a refreshing and hopeful celebration of the ways certain American scholars have (inadvertently or not) begun to restore a nearly lost tradition of history as "moral reflection" or "ethical judgment," enhanced this time around both by an awareness of the conflictive multiplicity of voices from the past and by a recognition of the unavoidable ambiguity of categories like "objectivity" and "truth." The Degradation of American History could serve as a therapeutic self-help manual for any historian, teacher or critic who suffers from anxiety brought on by the "linguistic turn" on the one hand or by the hysterical reactions to it on the other.

Not that Harlan eschews polemics--quite the contrary. Indeed, he takes aim at targets all across the spectrum of the American historical profession and is likely to provoke angry responses from diverse quarters. On the right, he chides figures such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Gertrude Himmelfarb and Carl Degler for their blinkered refusal to acknowledge the multiple contending voices of the American past and their defense of a narrowly defined, univocal canon of great works. On the left, he castigates labor and feminist historians whose overly contextualized minihistories fail to speak to the ethical demands of the present. And among mainstream liberals (such as American Historical Association President Joyce Appleby and Margaret Jacob and Lynn Hunt), he exposes the haunted banality in persisting efforts to rescue "objectivity" and "Western science" from the corrosion of postmodernism.

Having thus cleared the terrain, Harlan moves on to concise and enthusiastic reviews of historical work by a diverse group of contemporary scholars. Philosophers Richard Rorty and Hayden White, feminist literary historian Elaine Showalter and African-American critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., get extended, chapter-length treatment. Richard Rodriguez, John Patrick Diggins, Noam Chomsky, Michael Walzer and Clifford Geertz also receive high praise at various points. What unites these very different writers in Harlan's view is their exemplary willingness to examine closely the textual artifacts of the past and to reconstruct personally meaningful canons of work with which to converse and argue. Rorty, for example, brings German phenomenology (Nietzsche, Heidegger) into conversation with American pragmatism (Dewey, William James) in order to construct a revitalized liberalism. In like fashion, Gates has creatively connected continental poststructuralist literary theories to the venerable African-American cultural practice of "signifying" ("saying one thing to mean something quite other," which has "been basic to black survival in oppressive Western cultures").

In bringing his own scholarly heroes into conversation with each other in this book, Harlan provides a further example of the sort of cultural history he is advocating. At one point, he urges us to approach the texts of the past not from some impossibly "objective" standpoint but rather and merely "with an alert and willing mind," staying attuned to the sudden appearance of something "that knocks the reader off balance, that imposes itself, that quickens and provokes." The Degradation of American History will itself have such an effect on attentive readers.

Fred Murphy is a writer living in New York City. He has studied and taught in the Committee on Historical Studies at the New School for Social Research.