For me, it was reading W. Bruce Lincoln's The Romanovs (1981). The grand sweep of 300 years of history of that land and its flawed dynasty just sucked me in. I wanted to learn more and more. That, and an undergrad Russian history course, sealed it. Though my historical interests have varied over the years since, it still comes down to a powerful story, peopled with absorbing characters, and deftly told.
For me, it was Michael Meyer's The Year that Changed the World. I read it while hunting for a topic on modern German history and I loved every little bit about it. I'm a huge believer in social history/little people history, so it never made sense to me that Reagan said "Gorbachev tear down this Wall!" and suddenly Europe was free from Communism (Yugoslavia being a messy exception in 1989). To read Meyer's book about how it wasn't President Reagan that precipitated the people's revolutions made me want to find out what did. Especially in the case of Romania - which was the only revolution (some called it a coup d'etat) in 1989 that was bloody.
Of course, Meyer is a journalist not a historian, so he's frowned upon in the academic world. But few scholarly books I've read on the topic (and I've read a Master's thesis worth), give it such a human spin as Meyer did.
A work that not only inspired my interest in pursuing the History M.A. but that has also continued to interest me in American and World History going forward, is Witness To A Century: Encounters with the Noted, the Notorious, and the Three SOBs by George Seldes. I could not tell you how many times I have read it over the years and it never gets old.
Seldes was one of the original "Muckracking" journalists in America dating back to the early 1930's, he created dozens of books, thousands of journal and newspaper articles and "Witness" serves as his memoirs. He released this book while he was in his 80''s and still going strong..
It is AMAZING how the works that he created in the 1930's are still so relevant to what we are going through today/
There was an excellent documentary made about him titled: Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press and you can watch it free on Youtube:
I also highly recommend his other works such as:
One of my favorites is Kenneth M. Stampp's 1956 history, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. It was an assigned text for a college class. It's amazing for the breadth of research that Stampp did to present an all inclusive look at slavery in the South. I've always found it to be one of those books you can pick up, turn to any page, and find something fascinating about a tragic and immoral chapter in our nation's history.
For studying how the historical method in America came to be, as well as it's many evolution's over time, Novick's tome has yet to be equaled.
Here is a review that i did of it for a graduate class:
October 7, 2008
Review of That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession by Peter Novick
For those individuals that have followed history in a passive manner and were under the impression that the idea of objectivity was simply a clear cut concept comprised of the facts surrounding what “really” happened in a given period of time, the centuries old conflicts in the interpretations of objectivity provide solid proof that the “truth” is not always that easily obtainable. The problems associated with attempts to reach universal agreement upon the concept of objectivity have resulted in long and unending challenges to those who have attempted to rise to meet this occasion. These tribulations have existed from the beginning of time, and due to the complexity of the nature of the debate, historians have created many theories in order to better understand the conclusions that they draw. Historian Peter Novick has spent a great deal of time analyzing these concepts and proves that a rock solid and universal consensus on the concept of objectivity is a difficult, if not impossible challenge to meet.
In his book That Noble Dream, Novick discusses the idea of the concept of objectivity and what it has meant to American professional historians over the last century. Objectivity in his view has been a sacred term for historians much in the same way that “health” would be for a doctor or “justice” would be for a lawyer. In his book he explains that “Historical objectivity” is not a single idea, but rather a collection of attitudes, aspirations, antipathies and assumptions. He also believed that an objective historian’s role is that of a neutral disinterested judge that should never degenerate into the role of an advocate or propagandist. Novick did not believe that the idea of historical objectivity is true or false, right or wrong. He felt that believing in the concept of objectivity was psychologically and sociologically naïve. Novick believed that context shapes this view. One historian in an attempt to write intellectual history, referred to his challenge as “Nailing Jelly to the wall,” Novick empathizes with this point of view.
Novick then explains the differences between an “internalist” point of view and an “externalist” viewpoint. An internalist is interested in what goes on inside the discipline and ignores the surrounding environment. An externalist focuses on an outside relationship. Cutting across this division are the “cognitivists” who focus on the substance of scientific or scholarly work and the “noncognitivists” who stress psychological, sociological, political or other factors in the development of their work. Novick explains that the oldest and most powerful tradition is both internalist and cognitivist. He also explains that the book is about what historians thought of the objectivity question, which he felt was a subject that they knew little about.
Novick goes on to explain the differences between “disciplinary histories” which are written by practitioners and in Novicks view, commonly distorted by “presentism” which is designed to settle scores or challenge trains of thought and “histories of disciplines” which are produced by historians and are supposedly free of these types of traps. He claims that the book contains no overarching thesis and that his aim is to provoke his fellow historians to greater self-consciousness about the nature of their work and to offer those outside the profession a greater understanding of what historians do. In doing this, Novick is attempting to fill a void that he feels exists among historians.
Part one of the book begins with the foundation of the American Historical Association in 1884 and explains how objectivity was established as the central norm in the profession. By examining the actions of Leopold von Ranke who was regarded as the father of modern historical scholarship, Novick traces the very beginnings of the historical movement back to Germany. As celebrated as he was, it is fascinating to note that Ranke’s work was not widely read. It is also interesting to note that there was no European intellectual history classes being taught at an American university until just before the First World War. The historical profession came of age after WWII. According to Novick, “professionalism” was a central term in historical discourse and a focus on academic disciplines came about as a result. Historical professionalization allowed for its operationalization, its underpinning of authority, and allowed for an appropriate mode of discourse. Novick also felt that if it were not for the ideological hegemony that existed within the community during the nineteenth century, objectivity could not have been established as the accepted norm. The performance of ideological functions by the professional historians, reinforced their belief in objectivity and was furthered by their social optimism. Ranke’s faith in history was bolstered by his religious convictions, and for him, his message was deeply a moral one. However, even during this period the concept of objectivity was still a slippery one.
Although Novick concludes that the dissenting currents which emerged within the historical profession concerning the “objectivity question” in the pre-war years were minimal, the idea that there was ever a true consensus on the idea of objectivity is misleading if not an oversimplification. Since Novick concluded that there was no change in the orientation of a substantial minority before the interwar years, he begins the discussion during the war. The war itself became a source of historical controversy undermining the faith that the professional historian had on the objective truth.
Two significant pulls on historians during this period were Germany and Anglophilia and Novick felt that the latter was the most powerful. John W. Burgess, who had studied in Germany and was a professor at the University of Berlin, concluded that Germany was the victim of Imperialism and aggression in the First World War. The German government tried to use academia to gain sympathy for its cause but with the exception of Burgess, Germany received little support in the academic community. Albert B Hart tried his best to separate his pro allied sentiments from his scholarly writing and a great majority of historians stayed aloof from controversies surrounding the war. However, some historians, such as Edward P. Cheyney, opposed American intervention to the last.
With the American declaration of war, doubts about the righteousness of the war all but disappeared in the profession. Most historians during this period were too old to serve, but some attempted to do what they felt was the moral equivalent of combat in serving the national cause and some engaged in overt propaganda. Some American historians changed their focus once the war started and felt that they should in some way repent for not having the nations youth morally prepared for the military. James Harvey Robinson lamented the difficulties in achieving objectivity when he stated that he had come to think that no such thing as objective history was possible. Clarence W Alvord, a self described old school historian, claimed that he was one who had had “conformed to the cannons of their science” and walked along the straight and narrow road of “approved scholarship” while admitting that few old school historians actually knew the meaning of objectivity.
Many aspects of objectivity were under fire under the guise of relativism. According to Novick, historical relativists never presented a philosophy for historiography, instead they offered a series of criticisms of the usual posture of objectivity. They referred to the pursuit of objectivity as the professions “Founding Myth.” While the proponents of the “pragmatic concept of truth” sought to supplement, rather than supplant the notion of truth as agreement with reality, there were some whose pragmatic philosophy allowed for the ridiculous notion that “if Jonnys dog eating his homework kept him from being punished, then it was true!”
There was a disagreement between the new historians and the older historians as to which school was more capable of achieving objectivity. New historians thought that they could achieve a deeper objectivity than older historians. This disagreement was taking place during tumultuous era in the historical community. Historians had began to lose prestige and many felt that they could not sustain middle class status on the income. This inhibited potential recruits from embarking on academic career. While historians never questioned the idea of objectivity, they thought that they might be able to control history at every level. And while professional historians influence over precollegiate curriculum went down hill after WWI, historians adjusted their textbooks to meet their criticisms.
The idea of objectivity also took a huge dent when historians began adopting an ambivalence in their posture. Orwell referred to this as “doublethink” which was defined as the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs in ones minds simultaneously, and accepting both of them. Although the early 1940’s to early 1960’s was described as being congenial to objectivist culture and the historian’s objectivism was usually qualified and tolerant, this optimism disappeared in the 1960’s. There was a great deal of political turmoil during this period and the idea of historical objectivity was often contradictory. Historian David Halberstam stated that the only thing that approached objectivity was the form in which the reporter wrote the news.
There was some that were of the view that philosophical, political or social biases did not eliminate the likelihood that someone could be objective. Novick believed that partisanship no more eliminated the possibility of objectivity than neutrality or the supposed lack of theory or of ideology guarantees it. Novick felt that none of the components that make up the synthesis of ideas that make up historical objectivity was more important than “universalism.” In this concept, the concept of truth was the same for all peoples, addressed to all, and accessible to all.
According to Novick, the founding fathers of the American historical discipline had grounded objectivity in a universalism versus particularism, nationalism versus localism, and professionalism versus amateur history program. Antiobjectivist influences met tremendous resistance in the post war period, triggering a dispute that destroyed what little consensus that had marked the immediate postwar decade. Novick claimed that one found either fragmented chaos or factional polarization that made factionalism seem like solace. The forces of resistance to the intellectual currents that attempted to chip away at the philosophical foundations of the objectivist posture were very powerful. The idea that there would ever be a convergence on “the objectivity question” was a ridiculously idealistic notion.
Larry Shockley October 2008
Picking a drop of water from an ocean...
A recent read that really engaged my interest was Lipo and Hunt's The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the mystery of Easter Island (same guys as those featured in the recent NOVA show about Easter Island) and it's fascinating story of not just the famous moai but the cultural responses to the isolated and resource constrained environment of the island. Along the way they document physical historical evidence that compelled them to re-think the previously proposed narrative of an environment destroyed by human devastation (or, at least, intentional stripping of the island's natural resources by humans.)
I'm one of the people who find the proposed method of moving the moai to be a fascinating and thrilling (re)discovery that serves to document and celebrate a true gem of human ingenuity. If the ideas documented here are correct or mostly so, the preconception so many had that such works could only be achieved by a massive civilization with large resources turns out to be a misconception. The story of Rapa Nui's pre-European history turns out to be not a tale of decline and social collapse but instead an enormous achievement by a small number of people with limited resources. Both the story of the statues and the equally fascinating study of the evolution of a societal structure necessary for long term survival on a small island with limited resources are stories very much worth the read. I can't help wondering if the pre-European social structures of Rapa Nui may someday have much to teach us about how to establish stable human colonies on the moon and other planets, which will surely face similar constraints of limited resources and living space.