Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Amateurs, Professionals, and Popular Histories

Dan Allosso

As I look at the historiographical “tree” I drew, it strikes me that the books on it have all been chosen by historians. I wonder what it would look like, if it included books that were especially important at imparting historical ideas to the general public?

The other day, Lisa responded to Chris’ post with a comment about appreciating older scholarship, and the “parents/grandparents” element of our intellectual lineage. I’ve been thinking about that, as I’ve been reading professional historiographies (John Higham, Peter Novick, Ian Tyrell) this week, along with assessments of the influence and popularity of books: Frank Luther Mott’s Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (1947) and Cowley & Smith’s Books that Changed Our Minds (1939). Malcolm Cowley and Bernard Smith's book, dedicated to Charles Beard, consists of a series of essays on authors or books deemed especially influential by American intellectuals responding to a New Republic inquiry. While it does not provide first-hand information about the books that influenced regular people (or even women, since all the respondents were apparently male), many of the people they polled had written books that did influence large groups of Americans. Carl Becker, for instance, nominated William Graham Sumner's A Study of Mores, Manners, Customs and Morals (1907), “which impressed me with the relativity of custom and ideas,” and Hans Vaihinger's The Philosophy of 'As If ' (1911), which “confirmed me in the notion that social thinking is shaped by certain unexamined preconceptions current at the time.” (quoting Becker’s letter, 6) Beard said “Brooks Adams’s two books are thumping,” which the editors took to mean The Law of Civilization and Decay (1895) and Theory of Social Revolutions (1913). Both Becker and Beard recommended Benedetto Croce, History: Its Theory and Practice (1923).

Beard himself was the second-most widely recommended author, just behind Thorstein Veblen (really!); An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution and The Theory of the Leisure Class got an equal number of votes. Authors popular with the surveyed intellectuals for their body of work rather than a particular title included Sinclair Lewis, H. L. Mencken, George Bernard Shaw, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Autobiographies included Henry Adams’, Theodore Dreiser’s, Joseph Freeman’s, Robert M. La Follette’s, and The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, which is called “the key book of the depression...[that] came at exactly the right moment.” (12)

Several of Cowley and Smith’s picks also appear in the lists of popular, “amateur” history I’m compiling from Higham, Novick, and Tyrell, which focuses more on the question of whether or not an author was academic, and how he (yes, 99% of the time, he) fit in the growth of the profession, but nevertheless offer some guidance regarding popularity. For example, former Senator and amateur historian Albert Beveridge’s Lincoln (1928) earned $51,000 in royalties in its first six months (Higham 75). H.G. Wells’ Outline of History (1920) was “issued by a hesitant publisher at an exorbitant price . . . it sold one and a half million copies--one copy for every twenty homes in the country--within twelve years.” (Higham 74) Although the multi-volume set is global in scope, it deals extensively with American history and perhaps contextualizes it in a way that resonated with readers. Volume Four begins with back-to-back photos of Lincoln at Antietam and Bismarck at Versailles. Novick compares sales of Wells’ Outline with J. Franklin Jameson’s American Revolution Considered as a Social Movement (1926), which sold less than a thousand, and John D. Hicks’ Populist Revolt (1931), which “took seventeen years to sell fifteen hundred copies.” (Novick 193) Allan Nevins, always interested in popular history, said that Mark Sullivan’s Our Times (1926) had “probably done more to interest people in American history than anything else written in our generation.” (Tyrell 49)

Cowley & Smith mention that Robert Lynd responded to their survey on the most influential books, with authors like Alfred Adler, John Dewey, William James, Veblen, Thomas Huxley, and with Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. These suggestions, the editors noted, were much different from the “books taken from the Middletown public library in 1935,” which Lynd described in Middletown (Chapter 17) and Middletown in Transition (Chapter 7). Those chapters probably deserve a closer look, alongside the titles I’ve pulled together on reader response theory and interpretive communities.

See also:

Waldo Frank, Our America

Van Wyck Brooks, America’s Coming of Age

Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World

Sigmund Freud, Interpretation of Dreams

Herbert Croly, Promise of American Life

Louis Brandeis, Other People’s Money

Joseph Krutch, The Modern Temper (said to be “very influential in the colleges,” 13)

V. I. Lenin, Imperialism

John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World

Graham Wallas, The Great Society

John Strachey, The Coming Struggle for Power

Gustavus Myers, History of the Great American Fortunes

James Frazer, The Golden Bough


Lisa Clark Diller said...

Again, Dan, the contingency of our profession and of who/what counts as authoritative is driven home to me as I realize how few of the works you've cited I've even heard of, let alone read. Yes, I'm not an historian of U.S. history, but I am an American.... What works would be on a contemporary list? What is the half-life of an authoritative work of history? I tremble to think...

Unknown said...

I'm struck by how much these ideas seem to be circling each other: contraction of the profession (Randall 1/3), the value of older histories (Heather 12/28), and my interest in what regular people read. Maybe it's just synchronicity, but I'm sitting in my carrel reading the intro to Williams' _Roots of the Modern American Empire_, where he talks about the relevance of history and its lessons for the present.

Authority, audience, relevance, and lasting contributions are some of the issues put in play by the crisis in the academy. We live in interesting times.