March 14, 2009

Is that all there is?

Fourteen years ago, then-Prof. Edward L. Ayers asked his University of Virginia graduate students of southern history to name their favorite historians. My response ? ?Thucydides and Tacitus? ? made me the odd-ball of the group, as my classmates offered up mainly names of contemporary Americanists whose works they had read in graduate school at UVA.

Now comes Prof. Peter Charles Hoffer of the University of Georgia to the H-LAW e-mail list for scholars of the law and asks, ?would the members be willing to list the top ten historians??  A Straussian offers up this list:  Thucydides; Livy; Plutarch; Eusebius; Machiavelli; Gibbon; Boswell; Macaulay; Maine; Churchill.  Another professor, holder of a distinguished chair at an American law school, instantly shoots him down by saying that (I?m not making this up) ?Presumably, historians have to offer some evidence and anylsis, [sic] that might go beyond Thucydides telling us that the ?Gods? caused a war.?  The chaired professor?s comment lends corroboration to my long-standing assertion that virtually no one engaged professionally in writing American legal history reads even the two or three most eminent ancient historians.  (Thucydides? account of the Peloponnesian War is notable primarily for its clear-headed, naturalistic account of that central event in classical Greek history.  In that, it marks a notable advance from the gods-drenched work of Thucydides? eminent predecessor Herodotus.)  The Straussian?s list is obviously the work of a Straussian, as it at once omits Herodotus and Tacitus and includes ? Churchill and Machiavelli!  Really!

Besides the omission of the Father of History from every list, one might have expected an American historian to want to bring up Henry Adams, America?s greatest historian.  John Adams? great-grandson?s style makes his works a pleasure to read, and his accounts of the Jefferson and Madison administrations are nearly unique in American historiography in still being widely read by experts in the second century since the one in which they were written.  Surely the Annales school, easily the most significant development in 20th-century historiography, would have been widely referenced?  But no.  Instead, virtually all of the scholars? suggestions make the Straussian look positively a product of a Great Books program.  Hoffer?s colleagues have written hyper-provincial lists of various contemporaries whose work will be forgotten very soon, many of whom focus on the relatively obscure field of legal history, as well as a couple of complaints that the names being offered tend too strongly toward the white and the male.  Maybe Europeans invented historiography, the subtext says, but there must be something to dredge up out there that wasn?t written by a European.  Obscure race, class, and gender experts, plus some non-western historians:  that?s the recipe.

Perhaps the response to Hoffer?s query would have been different if he had posted it to a historians? list, one likes to think.  Perhaps.

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