Historians in the Age of Aquiescence

Historians in the Age of Aquiescence

The modern historian generally recognizes that his writings
are to some degree tied to the contemporary climate of opinion, zeitgebunden as the Germans say. The common assumptions of the time are all-pervasive; for the scholar to filter all of them out of his work is impossible. In subtle ways his views about even the most remote ages are shaped by the impact of modern times. History as written is in part a reflection of the present.*

Today’s American historian probably reflects his age more completely than in any previous generation. Three major wars within a half century have razed the ivory tower; historical works produced by long years of work in undusted and secluded rooms are a rarity. The typical historian’s working place is likely to be a glass-walled carrell in a busy library with a telephone only a few steps down the corridor. The historian works at a “project,” usually financed by a foundation grant after its merit and respectability have been approved by boards of recognized scholars. Often there is a publisher in the background to give encouragement after a careful survey of the marketability of the future product. American historical writing is now in the main stream of American life; it embodies the prosperity, the conventionality and the nationalist emphasis of the Truman-Eisenhower years.

* Perhaps I should say that in this article I am concerned not primarily with those serious historians who have been revising certain “progressive” ideas about American history: these revisions, whether one agrees with them or not, merit separate consideration. My topic is a large-scale trend in recent popular and text-book histories, which in turn reflects something of the general temper of post-World War II American life.

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Lima