This was a little heartwarmer for me today. A professional historian pays proper tribute to the amateur:

I don't think there's a good word for what Mr. Hall did: "researcher" is too dry, "historical investigator" carries hints of melodrama, and "archivist" suggests a dutiful drudge, which Mr. Hall was not. "Amateur historian" probably fits best, though it sounds vaguely derivative and second-tier. Following a career with the Labor Department--he retired in the early 1970s--Mr. Hall turned himself into the world's foremost authority on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Historians, pros and amateurs alike, sought him out for his knowledge and access to his exhaustive files. As one of them put it, James O. Hall knew more about Lincoln's murder than anyone who ever lived, including John Wilkes Booth.
I probably have too much education to be considered an "amateur," but certainly not enough to claim to be a "professional." What I do mostly is history with a little "h." It's not my primary source of income. Big "H" historians write biographies of generals. Little "h" historians publish correspondences of corporals.

Big "H" historians write about "why did the French Revolution happen" and try to come up with a different answer than the previous generation believed. Little "h" historians become experts in the eccentric script and shorthand of 18th century French parish clerks. The French Revolution will have a different cause 20 years from now, when the next generation of graduate students gets its grants lined up and its word processors plugged in. But those parish records will be there forever, and either you can read them properly or you can't. Those big names who tackle the French Revolution know well their debt to the man who can guide them through the archives, or can spot an obvious error in your thesis based on a minor but telling detail.

I know my debt to them; I acknowledge it in every book preface I write. But, like I said, I'm as often in the little "h" camp. You pick your specialties carefully, if you're a little "h" historian. You wouldn't bother staking out a turf that's already been claimed. I've got nothing so dramatic as the Lincoln assassination to my credit, but it's been worth the trouble of a BBC crew to cross the Atlantic to walk around the countryside with me and interview me on the topic of Welsh settlement in America in the 1600s, and I've discovered or proved some hitherto-unnoticed details about the role of the Know-Nothing Party in the rise of the Republicans in the 1850s.

It's small beer. Like growing the biggest pumpkins in your hometown or winning a blue ribbon in a goat-milking contest (like my prima donna princess-y Italian ex-girlfriend did once, to everyone's amazement). It won't get you into any clubs. But there are moments when you wouldn't trade it for anything.

For me, it comes when I manage to boost someone from my little "h" into big "H." After my young teen-age Bruce Catton enthusiasm, I never was much of a Civil War buff. I studied medieval and European history in college. But afterward, the blue and gray kept coming back to me. Partly because the place I settled and worked sat atop a trove of archival material that never had been published. So I started to dig, and when I had mastered it, I began to write it. I distilled that meticulous county-level record-keeping, and those packets of crumbling letters and diaries from the astoundingly literate Quaker lieutenants (and the semi-literate, but gloriously expressive, farm hand privates) into a book that told the war through their eyes, their stories.

My own books have never been on anyone's best-seller lists, and probably no more than a few thousand ever have read that one. But the book is in the libraries of research universities and on the shelves of professional historians whose names you know. I know that because they sometimes write to me, and I occasionally find myself footnoted in their big-selling tomes.

And when I track the footnotes back to the page references, there I find -- not me, but the boys born 120 years before me who never made it to 25, whose corpses rotted in the Virginia sun. I came to know them while they lived, in the magical suspended time in a sterile county archive basement. Their names, their words, their stories. In the 200-somethingth retelling of the Battle of Fredericksburg, by one of the most famous living historians, their lives now take their place with the others that have been told in print. The camera pauses on their faces among the dense ranks. They are, somehow, less dead than they were yesterday. If that's all that comes of my research, that's enough.

Once upon a time, in the late 19th century, the history-writing profession was not divided into insiders and outsiders. Once upon a time it was dominated by literary gentleman amateurs and not by what we now would call professional historians. They helped define America -- they helped Americans understand what they were and they helped immigrants understand what they were joining.

Their scholarship was impeccable. William H. Prescott's histories of Mexico and Peru are heavily footnoted. Francis Parkman's books were highly praised by even the most rigorous academic historians.

What doomed them was their form and tone and overall lack of objectivity -- or Objektivität, to use the correct term. A new generation of young American scholars had learned their history in the universities of Germany, and, following the lead of the German masters, they sought to turn American history into a profession, and to apply the methods of science to it. And this required a commitment to complete objectivity. So, not only should serious history only be written by credentialed academics, it should involve no personal passions or cultural commitments.

While the old amateur class may have done historical research as correctly as anyone would have wished, they also tended to tell it as a story -- their books seemed to echo the architecture of Sir Walter Scott's novels or Shakespeare's plays. And they were prone to write things like:

Where there is no free agency, there can be no morality. Where there is no temptation, there can be little claim to virtue. Where the routine is rigorously prescribed by law, the law, and not the man, must have the credit of the conduct. if that government is the best, which is felt the least, which encroaches on the natural liberty of the subject only so far as is essential to civil subordination, then of all governments devised by man the Peruvian has the least real claim to our admiration.
[Prescott], or:
If ten people in the world hate despotism a little more and love civil and religious liberty a little better in consequence of what I have written, I shall be satisfied.
[William Lothrop Motley]

Motley also wrote of Philip II that, if he "possessed a single virtue it has eluded the conscientious research of the writer of these pages. If there are vices -- as possibly there are -- from which he was exempt, it is because it is not permitted to human nature to attain perfection even in evil."

Their books still are stimulating to read. These men were great storytellers and they could craft an English sentence that felt full and alive in the mouth if you spoke it aloud. Read 1,000 history books published in the last 5 years: Find one to match a paragraph of Prescott or Parkman or John Bach McMaster.

They were a little better, a little more enlightened, than their contemporaries in the American polling places and theater galleries. But not too much so. They sang the national mythologies, but they also could lead The People to the better angels of their nature. They tended to boost Anglo-Saxon Protestant virtues, but regretably they did so by contrast to Catholic vices. Yet as the ancient Greeks could have told you, and they invented democracy, a people without a mythology is not truly alive, not truly a people.

The academics succeeded. They turned out the amateurs, imposed objectivity, and turned a craft into a profession. They banished the author from the text and the values-booster from the national history.

And they instantly fell under attack, in the 20th century, from the deniers of objective truth, from the relativists, iconoclasts, and Marxists. They could not hold the ivory tower, and as they made compromise after compromise with their enemies, new enemies arose, more fierce than the ones before. In the 1960s, it all collapsed and left us with -- what? Whatever it is we now have: "[T]he present period of confusion, polarization, and uncertainty, in which the idea of historical objectivity has become more problematic than ever before." [unsigned cover blurb for "That Noble Dream" by Peter Novick, 1998]

Of course, most Americans who aren't assigned their reading (and paying $40,000 a year for that privilege) will choose to read well-written stories of the past rather than the academic hash. And the loving amateur craftsman of history has never gone away: More Americans learned their Civil War history from Bruce Catton and Carl Sandburg and Shelby Foote, when I was a boy, than from any tenured Ph.D. As, I suppose, more learn it today from Ken Burns. Among living writers, David Hackett Fisher (a proper academic historian) and Paul Johnson have taken up the mantle to some degree. But there never are enough of them, and we always could use more.


Online Work





Some Sites

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© May 29, 2007 Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"