Why Have American Historians Stopped Writing About National Character?

David Kennedy addresses this question in his recent review of Claude Fischer’s Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character.  (You may recall that we discussed this book in previous posts here and here

Kennedy offers a very insightful overview of the way in which today’s American historians tend to write more about what happened in America and less about the meaning America.  This, however, has not always been the case.  Kennedy places Fischer’s book in the context of other works about America written by Francis Parkman, Charles Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner, Vernon Parrington, Gunnar Myrdal, Daniel Boorstin, H. Richard Niebuhr, David Reisman, Henry Nash Smith, Robert Bellah, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Robert Putnam.  These writers made “the nation” the most important focus of the study of American history.

Why the move away from the nation?  Kennedy explains, with some help from the late John Higham:

Unfortunately, historians have made no significant contributions to that body of work for nearly two generations (Bellah is a sociologist, Putnam a political scientist; Lipset, who died in 2006, was also a sociologist). Higham dated the termination of historians’ interest in national character to the 1960s and attributed it to two factors. One, he said, was “a profound revulsion, initially against the state”—the most obvious institutional representation of the nation—“for the inhumanities it perpetrated or protected at home and overseas. ” The second, and probably more dispositive, reason was a new historiography, largely European in its origins, dedicated to l’histoire totale and especially to the project of bringing onto history’s stage the stories of marginal or submerged peoples and communities, “rather than the uniqueness of any great community.”

That robust historiographical movement was further energized in the American case—where it was called “social history,” or “history from the bottom up”—by the striking emergence of black nationalist and separatist ideologies in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement’s legislative achievements, the dramatic rise of an articulate feminist movement, and the no-less dramatic resumption of immigration after the repeal of the National Origins statute in 1965. In light of these anti-authoritarian developments and quests for racial, ethnic, and gender identity, it became not merely unfashionable, but professionally suicidal, for historians to suggest that the encompassing character of a society was itself a fit subject for study. In the scholarly vernacular, historians became a guild of splitters, not lumpers. In the popular vernacular, they retreated to their many separate silos and gave up the quest for a synthetic principle that might impart some measure of coherence to their prolific but woefully hermetic studies of race, class, and gender. Diversity became the guiding mantra of contemporary culture and historical scholarship alike. What unifying elements might have historically contained, connected, or shaped all that diversity were questions that went unasked. 

Read the entire review in Boston Review.

2 thoughts on “Why Have American Historians Stopped Writing About National Character?

Comments are closed.