A scholar looks at the writing of history - both old and new

The New History and the Old: Critical Essays and Reappraisals, by Gertrude Himmelfarb. Cambridge, Mass., and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 209 pp. $20. What is the so-called ``new history''? Under this rubric we find a variety of approaches, some diametrically opposed to others: social, economic, demographic, and cliometric history; populist, feminist, black, and Marxist history.

In ``The New History and the Old,'' historian Gertrude Himmelfarb is chiefly concerned with two basic trends: psychohistory (and all theoretical approaches that substitute the esoteric ``knowledge'' of self-validating formulas for hard factual evidence) and quantohistory (which relies on statistics and other ``hard'' quantifications as substitutes for ideas).

Himmelfarb finds it ironic that historians should flock to apply social science methods to a humanities field, particularly at a time when many social scientists are seriously questioning the validity and value of their own methods. A similar phenomenon, however, has occurred in literary studies, where Marxism, for example, long discredited in the real world of politics, has been eagerly taken up by some English professors who know little of politics and less of literature.

The new history, as Himmelfarb concedes, arose to fill a real need that even old-fashioned historians sensed. In 1944 in his famous book ``English Social History,'' G.M. Trevelyan (grandnephew of Macaulay) offered readers ``the history of a people with the politics left out.'' At the time, it was a worthy attempt to redress the balance in a field that had previously favored political, military, and diplomatic history. Instead of chronicling the deeds of kings, generals, presidents, and governments, social historians examined the daily life of ordinary people. Studies proliferated of specific groups (factory workers, women, slaves, artisans), specific places (a French village, a New England mill town), or specific institutions (prisons, workhouses, hospitals, schools, asylums).

The essays in this book, all but one previously published in the years 1975 to 1986, attack the new history on a variety of fronts. The British Marxist historians are attacked for having failed to scrutinize their own Marxism (unlike the French, who have done so). A French historian is attacked for his technique of pointillisme, which substitutes a mosaic of incidents for the traditional cause-and-effect narrative. And there is little to be gained, Himmelfarb argues, from an ``in depth'' microstudy of a colonial American town if such a history contains no reference to the great political issues that were shaping the birth of the American republic.

Above all, Himmelfarb fears that the death (or at least the dearth) of old-style political history may lead to a death (or dearth) of political values. Man, she reminds us, quoting Aristotle, is a political animal, although the saying is often misquoted to read that man is a social animal. (Himmelfarb disdains ``social'' as a term equally applicable to bees and ants.) Politics, she feels, is not a dirty word: It deals not only with means (as in ``power politics'') but also with envisioned ends (such as ``political justice'').

Political life involves the exercise of reason and free will. Too often, she believes, ``new'' historians ignore traditional texts, such as speeches, legislative debates, pamphlets and essays, in favor of ``spontaneous,'' unrehearsed material, such as diaries, letters, and shopping lists. Here, quantohistory shares with psychohistory a belief that what is inadvertently revealed is more significant than what is deliberately said. Himmelfarb asks if it is wise to dismiss the conscious, rational efforts of statesmen and thinkers to formulate ideas about government, ideas that ordinary citizens may well have pondered and discussed as they went about those daily lives that so fascinate social historians.

Himmelfarb repeatedly claims she has no objection to the new history as such: only to its ``hegemony.'' In her 1984 essay, ``History with the Politics Left Out'' (the only one in this book she chose to leave unrevised, in the form that provoked a spate of critical responses), Himmelfarb gives evidence of how the new history has not only come to prevail in colleges and universities, but has even filtered down to the level of high schools.

Despite her disclaimers, one cannot help suspecting that Himmelfarb's disapproval of the ``hegemony'' of the new history also includes a more basic distaste for social history as such. The author of ``Victorian Minds,'' ``Marriage and Morals among the Victorians,'' and other works notable for the respect they show for the spirit of that age, Himmelfarb derides the folly of a history that purports to be ``scientific'' and ``value free.''

She openly declares her allegiance to the Victorian ``moral imagination.'' (She is much in sympathy with Carlyle's prescient remarks on statistics, which she quotes at length.)

She also includes a touching story about the immensely popular historian Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), whose history of England became a best seller of the age: A gentleman invited his poorer neighbors to his home every evening to read aloud to them from Macaulay. At the conclusion, one of the listeners ``rose and moved a vote of thanks to the author `for having written a history which working men can understand.'''

In a democracy, it is especially vital that history ``speak'' to as many citizens as possible. Although Himmelfarb's sympathies are centrist-conservative - ``progressive'' rather than ``utopian,'' as she puts it - her belief in the importance of politics can be instructive to all stripes of opinion. History with a political story to tell can be the most valuable kind, because, as she argues, it reveals our stake in the past and informs present choices with an understanding of tradition.

Written in a clear, direct style, free of jargon, these essays are emphatic, polemical, cogently argumentative, and very close to the kind of discourse that Himmelfarb finds sorely lacking in the discipline of history as practiced today.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.

Thomas Carlyle on statistics

Tables are like cobwebs, like the sieve of the Danaides; beautifully reticulated, orderly to look upon, but which will hold no conclusion. Tables are abstractions, and the object a most concrete one. ... There are innumerable circumstances; and one circumstance left out may be the vital one on which all turned. ... Conclusive facts are inseparable from inconclusive except by a head that already understands and knows.

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