Why invite readers to consider a book of critical scholarship thirty-six years after its first publication? I can see two reasons, besides whatever value the original insights and information may provide. Participants in recent discussions of race, class, and gender may be interested in seeing how a young scholar in mid-century analyzed ethnic and religious stereotypes in the historical literature of the American Renaissance. The portrayal of Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Roman Catholics, Amerindians, Moors, and Jews by mid- nineteenth-century American historians who wrote the moral drama of European and American progress raises enduring issues about how we should read and write history. That such questions did preoccupy some literary and historical scholars in the 1950s may surprise readers who have accepted the plausible narrative in which a politically conservative New Criticism supposedly drove social, historical, and biographical analysis out of books and classrooms in the 1940s and 1950s.
In narratives with which New Historicist or Postmodern critics depict the prevailing themes of the predecessors from whom they wish to distinguish themselves, the complexity, the variety, and the cacophony of old scholarly voices often fall silent. Writers and readers who know better, forget the old truth that says generalizations are as hard to live with as they are to live without. Dozens of books and scores of articles from the 1950s prove that the actual practice of many scholars differed from the received narrative. The movement for American Studies, moreover, flourished in the very decades that belong, in our received narratives, to the New Criticism.
This book originated at Harvard nearly fifty years ago, when Perry Miller's lectures on Romanticism in American Literature led me to choose George Bancroft's History of the United States as the subject of my undergraduate honors thesis in History and Literature. I had left Harvard in 1943 to join the Army Air Force in the middle of my sophomore year, and on my return three years later I felt moved to study relationships between Nativism, Manifest Destiny, and theories of racial superiority, on the one hand, and, on the other, the pluralism that had made me and my brothers and sisters feel at home in our historic, polyglot native city, York, Pennsylvania. I knew even then that my interest in the literature of history belonged to a general movement, for my classmates Warner Berthoff and Robert Cross wrote theses, respectively, on Henry Adams's History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison and Francis Parkman's France and England in North America. Kenneth Murdock occasionally offered a course on the literature of American history, and Paul Buck offered a similar graduate seminar in the History department. As Harvard graduate students in the History of American Civilization, moreover, while I was preparing what became the first six chapters of History as Romantic Art, J.C. Levenson wrote the doctoral thesis that he later transformed into The Mind and Art of Henry Adams; Cushing Strout wrote the thesis that became The Revolt against Pragmatism: Becker and Beard; William L. Hedges studied Washington Irving's sophisticated burlesques of eighteenth- century British historiography in the thesis that eventually became Washington Irving, an American Study (1965); and Laurence Holland began but later abandoned a study of eighteenth-century New England historians. Perry Miller's Jonathan Edwards, Oscar Handlin's The Uprooted, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s The Age of Jackson, Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, and Samuel Eliot Morison's History of United States Naval Operations during World War II all provoked vigorous discussions not only of historical interpretation but of innovative historical writing. Morison published an essay on history as a literary art but, despite his generous approval of my work on Bancroft, urged me to "write history" rather than critical studies of histories.
Not until several years later did I see that this movement extended far beyond the Charles River and the study of American history and literature. While John Clive extended the Harvard tradition to England in his remarkable study of Macaulay: the Shaping of the Historian (1973), Hayden White approached nineteenth-century European historians from a sharply different direction, through Northrop Frye's categorical genres, Romance and Comedy. White's Metahistory appeared four years after History as Romantic Art. I read Harold L. Bond's The Literary Art of Edward Gibbon when it was published in 1960, but had left Harvard before he wrote the thesis on which he based his book. Otis Pease wrote a master's thesis at Yale on Parkman's History and published it in 1958. H. Stuart Hughes wrote History as Art and as Science (1964); Peter Gay, Style in History (1974); Gene Wise, American Historical Explanations (1973). The journals History and Theory and Clio, founded in those decades, addressed questions of theory and practice throughout European and American historiography. Lionel Gossman's Augustin Thierry and Liberal Historiography (1976) is one of the best of several similar studies of European historiography.
It seems clear to me in retrospect that, besides the atmosphere of Harvard's programs in History and Literature and the History of American Civilization, one other major source for my peculiar emphasis in History as Romantic Art was just as pervasive as the renewed general interest in historiography. Although I never subscribed to the New Criticism (I did not see how a scholar trying to give equal weight to history and literature could call himself a New Critic), the exhilaration of studying individual works of art delighted many of us historical scholars as the waves of the New Criticism splashed into universities after World War II. For me the greatest joy came from studying themes, structure, characterization, and style in individual works. The presence of critics and of aesthetic criticism in the university meant more to me than questions of New Critical doctrine. Surely my association with Yvor Winters at Stanford, while teaching expository writing, led me to concentrate on the quality of the historians' prose. Few models existed for the critical essays that make up Part Three of this book. It was the opening of university doors to literary critics and historians of ideas in the 1930s and 1940s that enabled me to find a way to write about histories in the 1950s.
That way obviously differs from many recent exposes of concealed ideology. I do not reject the discoveries in the best work of the New Historicism, nor did I endorse the progressive ideology in the romantic histories of Bancroft, Prescott, Motley, and Parkman. I did treat the conventions delineated in my first six chapters as ways of understanding how the historians communicated their judgment of the historical evidence. They chose narrative not as a form that denies economic forces and other causes and effects in history, but as a form that shows such forces at work in specific circumstances. Even Bancroft, the most emphatic delineator of a grand Providential design in the history of Liberty, insisted on "scientific" fidelity to the documentary evidence, and he foreshadowed not only the Turner thesis about the significance of the frontier but also Herbert Baxter Adams's focus on Anglo-Saxon and New England towns as origins of democratic politics in the United States. When Prescott sets the energetic "enterprise" of Hernando Cortes against Montezuma's vacillating or passive "fatalism," I admire the insight into a fundamental historical contrast even as I decline to accept the convenient moral judgment against the Aztec emperor. Prescott's historical judgment was more complex and subtle than some of the literary conventions in which he cast his drama, but even when I dissent from his judgment I admire the skill with which he uses those conventions as illuminating representations of historical experience without betraying his sources. With Parkman and Motley, too, I still believe the task for any criticism is to understand their celebration of historical experience through the very conventions that we often find limited and narrow. Their histories deserve to survive for the same reason as the fiction of Hawthorne and Melville, as expressions of historical imagination that use some of the best language of their time to speak truths we can still affirm from what we know to be a more enlightened perspective and in a different rhetoric.
October 24, 1995