Populist historian Page Smith believes history is too vital to relegate to academics
Santa Cruz, Calif. — FROM Pine Flat Road, it's hard to tell where the redwoods leave off and the Smith household begins. In his home up in the dark-green, fog-swept hills just north of Santa Cruz -- hills that overlook the jagged California coastline as it begins to curve inward to form the Monterey Bay -- Page Smith is at work on the final (eighth) volume of his massive ``People's History of the United States.'' Mr. Smith is the first 20th-century historian to write a full-scale history of America.
His reasons for undertaking such a work -- 12 years running -- go back to his teaching days, when Smith asked his college students to write histories of one another. ``I was surprised,'' he says, ``at how little students knew of their own past -- even of their grandparents.'' In writing his history, then, he has hoped to attach Americans to ``their antecedents, their roots.''
Smith has always been a dissenting voice in education. Throughout his career, he has spoken against the ongoing fragmentation of learning. In 1954 he wrote, ``We are the victims of our misguided reverence for `the facts' . . . . Most of us teach as though the important points had been pretty well settled.''
Thirty years later, Smith's message hasn't changed. ``I can't tell you how much we aren't taught about our history,'' he told the Monitor. ``Academic history leaves out so much -- it is simply silent about the spiritual and moral dimension.''
He is a large man with a rolling walk, dressed in an old pair of overalls -- a red handkerchief dangling from the side pocket. When giving a tour of his house and property (``It's very much a part of me''), he points out paintings by his wife, Eloise, an artist; shows his study -- a separate structure, set among redwoods, with books flowing over from the shelves onto the floor; and introduces three horses grazing in a nearby pasture.
Back in the living room, Smith -- in his wire-rimmed glasses, with his longish white hair swept behind one ear, and large feet in heavy work shoes from which the laces have been removed -- looks very much his part: a country-style populist intellectual, who takes it upon himself to tell the academic emperor he has no clothes.
In the 1920s and '30s, Smith says, higher education was much more self-confident about itself. The picture of the world it offered to students was rational -- suggesting that social science would explain the function of society; that psychology would solve the problems of the human psyche.
``That's not really held with much conviction by the academic world any longer,'' Smith says. ``The academy is in a curious state of carrying out certain ritual activities. It no longer has the potency, the confidence, the authority that it had.''
Smith himself was one of the founding fathers of the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California, in the early 1960s. The campus was intended as an experiment in community, as opposed to what Smith felt was the impersonal ``knowledge-transmitting of huge universities.'' In the early '70s, he resigned over the firing of a member of the faculty denied tenure because he preferred teaching students to writing research papers -- a preference Smith fully agreed with.
Since that time, Smith has written more than 6,000 pages of history -- he calls it ``an eight-volume hint'' of America. The seventh volume, covering the period from Teddy Roosevelt to the end of World War I, was issued by McGraw-Hill last week. The final volume, which ends on the eve of Pearl Harbor, is filed in manila folders piled on his dining room table, next to a humming electric typewriter.
He says the difficult thing about such an undertaking is putting down a variety of historical problems quickly -- some of which could take years to settle.
It is partly for this reason that many of Smith's peers don't take him seriously -- think him merely a popularizer. But Smith's disfavor is also due to the fact that he never bought into ``scientific history'' the prevailing mode of study since the '30s -- characterized by use of ``data'' to arrive at ``truth.'' Says Irving Bartlett, director of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, ``Once historians found out they could apply quantitative techniques, they went crazy -- thought they could get history from a computer. History went the way the world went, and narrative historians were looked upon as old-fashioned.''
Morton Keller, a historian at Brandeis University, says that today ``Historians write for historians. The public is bored with the small-scale, highly theoretical questions historians ask -- but, though we need more-general histories, most historians aren't educated to write them.''
Smith comments: ``In the 19th century, a person was called a historian if people read his history. Today, a historian is somebody who writes books that nobody reads. Of course, the academy doesn't want to define it that way . . . .''
While his own history employs a narrative to unfold events -- the forming of the Union, the Civil War, labor movements, and so forth -- the drama is enriched, given emotional texture, by use of countless diaries, journals, letters, and biographies of both known and unknown figures: The people tell the story. In the Civil War volume, for example, letters home from a foot soldier might be quoted on the same page as excerpts from the diary of the wife of a Southern general.
Smith, a Christian, also gives attention to the spiritual element in history, a practice that separates him from much modern historiography. He shares Toynbee's belief that the American Revolution was made possible by American Protestantism. For Smith, the ``Protestant passion for redemption is a major theme in American history -- maybe the major theme.'' This redemptive force is ``at the core'' of women's rights, the abolitionists, populists, and the Progressives, he feels.
In The Times (London) recently, Smith was labeled as writing ``conventional political-military-diplomatic narrative,'' a label proved inaccurate by a reading of his work, which treats the social history of blacks, women, minorities, and of various cultural and artistic tides.
He is especially interested in black people. Smith agrees with D. H. Lawrence that, while the work of forming a new nation, surviving a civil war, and taming a wilderness was a phenomenal achievement, it broke something in the spirit of the American people. Lawrence calls that ``soul.'' And Smith feels ``soul'' is what the black people retained through all hardships. ``We have the black people to thank for preserving that for us,'' he says.
He discusses his subject as though he is on stage with the characters. In describing a British staff officer's first meeting with General Washington he says, ``These [Americans] were small, provincial politicians held in contempt by the rest of the world. And this English colonel thought he was going to meet some scruffy rebel leader -- but when he walked into the room, Washington's presence knocked him for a loop. Washington carried in his being such a sense of the historical situation at hand -- that the English colonel was suddenly aware that this war was going to be serious business.''
Despite his reputation as a California renegade, Smith shares with Reinhold Niebuhr a conservative suspicion of secular revolutionaries, who, as Niebuhr said, are always trying to reshape the world after their own ideals. But Smith also retains a certain utopian streak, a sense that, more and more, history is trying to realize what the British thinker Wyndham Lewis called ``the Cosmic Man'' -- a higher concept of the creature, man.
Smith feels that, however incomplete their attempts may be, Americans have made progress in this direction in the 20th century. ``I started out [his history] more pessimistic about the future of this nation and the world than I ended up. There's no question that we live in a better, more humane society than we did 100 years ago.''
Today, he feels, peace is the planet's No. 1 issue. ``Historically, the atomic age has said to us, in effect, `OK, are you going to be serious about this business of brotherhood, one world, a just and decent society, or are you just going to play around with the idea?' '' He feels we are trying to ``win time'' in achieving this.
If it does not appear that a majority of Americans are committed to resolving such major issues, Smith isn't worried. ``History doesn't care a bit about Gallup polls,'' he says.
``Eight percent keep saving the world.''