Tuesday, May 10, 2011

After the Historical Revolutions: Or, When the Tree Falls in the Historical Paradigm Forest, Does Anyone Listen?

Paul Harvey

The following cross-post comes from my fellow blogmeister at our Religion in American History blog. Paul is a professor of history at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. He's the author or editor of a number of acclaimed books on American religious history, including Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities Among Southern Baptists, 1865-1925 (UNC, 1997); Freedom's Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (UNC, 2007); and the forthcoming Jesus in Red, White, and Black, co-authored with Edward J. Blum.

A review of (and an announcement of) some challenging new works in earlier American History, and the history of the American West, got me thinking about the changing of the historical paradigm guard–or whether those guards get changed at all by scholarly revolutions. These are questions which affect the course of American religious history, but bear with me for a short detour before discussing that further.

My thoughts first came from reading Charles Mann’s review of Daniel K. Richhter’s new book Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Past (Harvard University Press) in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal (yes, Virginia, I do read the Wall Street Journal! But I'm not sure if the link will let in non-subscribers; if it doesn't and you want to read, I'm happy to send it to you).

I know nothing about this book other than this review, but I am a big fan of Richter’s earlier work Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, a favorite of mine to use in class for its wonderful illustrations of how changing one’s angle of vision creates an entirely different historical sense of a period. Richter also engages in some deft analyses of early American documents of religious history from the European-Native encounter, including John Eliot’s bizarre but fascinating Indian Dialogues, of course the Jesuit Relations, Indian conversion narratives, and various ceremonial encounters at treaty negotiations.

In his review of Richter’s new book, Mann writes:

Every few decades, historians develop a new way of looking at the past. I am not talking about ‘revisionism’ but unifying conceptual schemes, the sort of mental framework that Frederick Jackson Turner created in his argument for the importance of the frontier to our history or that Bernard Bailyn established in his studies of the American Revolution’s ideological origins. Historians debated Turner for a long time and continue to debate Mr. Bailyn. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were arguing with Mr. Richter a decade from today.

When I become King of the World I will permanently ban the word "revisionism" and its variant "historical revisionism" (as I have already banned the words "bias" and "politically correct" in my classrooms, since they have become barriers to thought and discussion), since they have been rendered meaningless for precisely the reason Mann explains there.

But the revolution in understanding is not just in the early America of Richter. My longtime friend Anne Hyde, Professor of History at my sister institution Colorado College, is about to publish her magnum opus for the West of the first half of the nineteenth century, Empires, Nations, Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860, part of University of Nebraska’s outstanding series History of the American West series. If this this means anything to you, as it will to some of you, the immediate predecessor to Anne’s book is Colin Calloway’s monumental work One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West Before Lewis and Clark.

(As a brief aside, when Anne and I were in graduate school, she always made it to the library at 8:00 a.m. sharp, while I was lucky to drag myself, half hungover and ears still ringing from some too-loud jazz concert the night before, by 10:00 or 11:00 at best, which explains a lot about the great scholarly discipline it took for Anne to finish this huge work, while I was busy watching the Mavs beat the Lakers).

Anne’s work may suggests a paradigm for understanding the history of the West in that era, in a way such as Richter and Colin Calloway have done for earlier American history. Her work also features chapters fully integrating the Mormon West into the larger picture, and too much else of interest besides to even begin to summarize here.

All of this is exciting as an historian. But all of it also makes me wonder how, whether, and when any of this affects public consciousness of earlier American history. Lately historians have been riled by the amateur scholar David Barton, and of course the bookshelves at your Barnes & Noble are full of everything Founding Father related. I understand that, but considering the impact of the works above–great on historians, perhaps little on anyone else–makes me wonder about similar questions for religious history.

The older paradigm of American religious history will be familiar to a few blog readers, and some are familiar with its more recent challengers, summarized in works such as Tweed’s edited volume Retelling U.S. Religious History. . . .

Much of the newer paradigm seems to come from removing religious history from the specific story of the American nation-state, and using categories that engage religious experience at its own level rather than as some proxy for political parties or current day culture wars. We've blogged at Religion in American History extensively about some recent classics that move American religious history/studies well down this path. Entries on Leigh Schmidt, Robert Orsi, Kathryn Lofton, and numerous others come to mind.

Again, however, for religious history as for the studies of earlier American history mentioned above, one wonders whether and how this affects any sort of public consciousness or discussion, and whether it’s the job of religious historians to evangelize for these perspectives that challenge or disrupt how we perceive the American religious past (and present). Or maybe scholars should just do their work, let popularizers who are good at popularizing disseminate this stuff to the general public (like what happens in science all the time–neuroscientists do their thing, and then someone like Oliver Sacks explains a little bit of it to us), and trust that over a generation or two it will find its way into the more general understandings. That's a comforting and easy role to take, but it leaves not much excuse for complaining about why some pseudo-historians advise presidential candidates while the rest of us get to advise freshmen how to raise their grade from a D to a C.

As usual, I have no answers, only questions.

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