The Textual Vibe
The Textual Vibe
The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964: The Beginning of the “Sixties”
by Jon Margolis
William Morrow & Company, 1999, 401 pp., $25
I have been thinking a lot, lately, about what it is history professors do, what journalists who write history do, and what the difference is. Recently, I wrote a profile of the Stanford historian David Kennedy, whose Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 is the most recent volume in the monumental Oxford History of the United States series. Two of the rare historians who enjoyed the esteem both of their professional community and the common reader, Richard Hofstadter and C. Vann Woodward, around 1960, endeavored to institutionalize their accomplishment by commissioning major synthetic treatments of American history that married gripping narrative to scholarly rigor. Kennedy’s volume is a masterpiece, fulfilling in every way Hofstadter and Woodward’s grand vision—delightful enough to take to the beach; rigorous enough to turn to for reference in any dozen topics in financial, social, diplomatic, military, cultural, and legal history. Freedom From Fear is the series’ fourth book. The history profession so militates against producing scholars willing and able to write this way, a ninety-year-old C. Vann Woodward told me when I reached him by phone, that he doesn’t expect to live to witness the publication of another volume in the series.
When I interviewed Kennedy, he ticked off the names of some journalistic historians who have gladly filled the gap: Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Taylor Branch Where historians are not, journalists will be—which is not always to the good. He might have added that these are authors the president of the United States has been known to savor. The New York Times recently published a piece about Bill Clinton’s reading habits. The article told of the briefings the new president had received on the possibility of launching strikes against Slobodan Milosevic’s ethnic-cleansing forces. The Common Reader in Chief strolled into one of the meetings carrying a book—Balkan Ghosts, by the journalist Robert Kaplan, who has never seen a reductionist portrait of a foreign clime that he didn’t like—that he said had convinced him that ethnic conflict in that region was so primordial, so ineluctable, of such ancient provenance, that the world was helpless to try to do anything about it. It was only years later, when Clinton got his hands on a more scholarly account of the subject published by an academic press, Noel Malcolm’s Bosnia: A Short History, that he allowed the Serbs the same tangled motives—answerable to the same disincentives—as every other
group of mortal human beings.
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