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Engagement with the Past

Engagement with the Past: The Lives and Works of the World War II Generation of Historians

William Palmer
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    Engagement with the Past
    Book Description:

    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., John Hope Franklin, Daniel Boorstin, C. Vann Woodward, Edmund S. Morgan, Barbara Tuckman, Eric Hobsbawn, Hugh Trevor Roper, Lawrence Stone -- aside from carrying the distinction as some of the most successful and well-respected historians of the twentieth century, these scholars found their lives and careers evolving amid some of the world's pivotal historical moments. Dubbed the World War II Generation, the twenty-two English and American historians chronicled by William Palmer grew up in the aftermath of World War I, went to college in the 1930s as the threats of the Great Depression, Hitler, and Communism loomed over them, saw their careers interrupted by World War II, and faced the prospect of nuclear annihilation. They gained from their experiences the perspective and insight necessary to wrtie definitive histories on topics ranging from slavery to revolution.Engagement with the Pastoffers biographies of these individuals in the context of their generation's intellectual achievement. Based upon extensive personal interviews and careful reading of their work,Engagement with the Pastis a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at a generation of historians and how they helped record and shape modern history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5927-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction: Writing Historians’ Lives
    (pp. ix-xviii)

    This is a book about a generation of historians, and many roads converged in its writing. As the author of two specialized monographs that I virtually had to subpoena people to read, much less buy, I wanted to write a book that would have a broader appeal. I had written several articles on historiographical matters, but it was not immediately clear to me how I could turn that interest into a book for the general reader. But in the mid-1990s several books on historians suggested an answer. In England to do research in the summer of 1995 on other matters,...

  4. Part I: Lives

    • Chapter 1 Beginnings
      (pp. 3-18)

      They were born early in the century during which the modern Western world pivoted, which meant something different to those in England and those in America. For the English, the historians of the World War II generation were born at a time when serious and visible signs of decay, such as strikes, feverish foreign competition, and the erosion of confidence, were appearing in the Victorian industrial juggernaut. More seriously, while the members of the World War II generation were learning to walk, Britain was, like Agamemnon, struck deep from a mortal blow from which it has never entirely recovered. During...

    • Chapter 2 Harvard, the 1930s, and the Making of a Historical Generation
      (pp. 19-35)

      They were in their teens or early twenties, in college or just ready to enter college, when it happened. The stock market crashed in the fall of 1929. The American economy collapsed like a rickety barn in the face of a prairie tornado. Fortunes vanished. Businesses were destroyed. Five thousand banks failed between 1929 and 1932, bankrupting millions of Americans. By 1933 national incomes had declined by more than half, and industrial production had fallen to roughly half of 1929 levels. Unemployment became a grim reality. During the three years after the market crash, an average of 100,000 American workers...

    • Chapter 3 Other American Colleges and Universities
      (pp. 36-51)

      While Harvard served as the promised land for many young American historians in the 1930s, it was not the only university to produce gifted historians. The Depression and the rise of fascism in a sense increased interest in history because they raised many questions that historians were uniquely situated to answer. Many talented young people pursued history degrees even though the job prospects for historians were not encouraging.

      In 1932 Gordon Craig entered Princeton as a day student, intending to study law. By his second year he won a scholarship and had become interested in history in part because he...

    • Chapter 4 The English University Experience in the 1930s
      (pp. 52-71)

      With its antiquity, dreaming spires, and the haze from the Thames and Cherwell clinging to its majestic buildings, Oxford often appears to be a magical kingdom. The oldest colleges, Merton, University, and Balliol, date back to the 1200s. One measure of Oxford’s antiquity is that New College, Oxford, was founded in 1379. Most of the oldest buildings and traditions were established in the Middle Ages, including the traditionally deplorable food. To Americans, used to seeing old buildings on their campuses torn down and replaced by soulless, vertical ice cube trays, Oxford appears to stand in welcome and direct contradiction to...

    • Chapter 5 V Was for Victory
      (pp. 72-88)

      On December 7, 1941, Jack Hexter, then teaching at Queen’s College in New York, was living at 334 W. 12th St. in Greenwich Village in an apartment with seven or eight other men. Already a skilled chef, he was preparing an large Sunday lunch for his roommates and for his girlfriend Ruth Mullin, a Queen’s graduate who had been in one of his classes. As he prepared the lunch, the news came over the radio that Japan had attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor and that President Roosevelt had asked Congress to declare war on Japan. As they...

    • Chapter 6 Building Careers in the Postwar World
      (pp. 89-120)

      With the thousand year Reich and its evil variants vanquished, the heroes dispersed, returning to their homes and loved ones, with a new generation of Homers to sing their songs and tell their tales. But if fascism lay in ruins, other new threats loomed ominously on distant horizons.

      In the summer of 1945 Anne Firor shared a house with three other women. On a sweltering August night, she and her housemates heard the news that a hydrogen bomb had been dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and gathering on an upstairs porch, they could hear the sounds of celebration...

    • Chapter 7 At the Pinnacle (Mostly)
      (pp. 121-150)

      For most of the World War II generation of historians the period between 1945 and 1960 represented the most intensive and productive period of their lives. They began their teaching careers; they did the reading and research that would form the basis for much of their future work, and several of them wrote their greatest books. During the 1960s and 1970s, most of them continued to work and most reaped the benefits of their earlier labor.

      But the times had changed. World War II marked the triumph of their generation, and in John Kennedy’s words, the passing of a torch...

    • Chapter 8 Teaching
      (pp. 151-174)

      While the World War II generation of historians earned renown through their scholarship, it was teaching that kept food on the table, especially during the early stages of their careers. Teaching has become a controversial issue in modern higher education. Many have argued that the quality and amount of teaching in American universities has been sacrificed at the altar of research. It would be hard to apply that criticism to the World War II generation. Most taught enormous numbers of students and considered themselves dedicated teachers, achieving almost as much renown for their teaching as for their scholarship. “There is...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
  5. Part II: Achievement

    • Chapter 9 The Cultural Critics
      (pp. 177-198)

      Between 1831 and 1832 the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville took a trip across America and eventually wrote a book,Democracy in America, about his experience. Tocqueville’s book remains a penetrating analysis of the American character, containing a remarkable range of insights. Tocqueville informed skeptical Europeans that America is not a reflection of Europe in its infancy; it is the European future. Democracy, individualism and rejection of aristocratic tradition comprise the prime components of the new America and the brave new world of the future for which Europeans should be prepared. In some ways Tocqueville’s analysis of early America emerged...

    • Chapter 10 The Controversialists
      (pp. 199-228)

      Controversy was often the preferred form of intellectual engagement for the World War II generation of historians. Almost all of them became entangled in it at some point, and several seemed to thrive on it. By far the most notorious controversy waged by the historians of this generation was the Gentry Controversy of the 1940s and 1950s. The Gentry Controversy involved four members of the generation, Lawrence Stone, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Christopher Hill, and J.H. Hexter, and was conducted in the classic slash and burn style of English historiography. As it turned out, for several of the participants, the Gentry Controversy...

    • Chapter 11 The Archival Revolution
      (pp. 229-260)

      Most mornings in the summer when I have the chance to pursue my own research in England, I make my way from my room in a small hotel in central London near the British Library eastward down High Holborn Street toward the Public Record Office on Chancery Lane. I seldom mind the walk, and I stop for tea and newspapers along the way. There is a moment, as I turn off Holborn onto Chancery Lane, where the Public Record Office flashes into view for an instant and then is obscured by other buildings as the road twists in another direction....

    • Chapter 12 Synthesis, Printed Sources, and Other Kinds of History
      (pp. 261-297)

      In 1621 an African who came to be known as Anthony Johnson arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. At some point in the 1620s he was a free man. He owned land, sued white people in court, voted, purchased an African servant, and emerged as a respectable citizen. The case of Anthony Johnson, reported by Oscar and Mary Handlin in 1950, raised some interesting questions about the nature of race relations in colonial Virginia. One might have expected that Johnson, a black, would have been a slave. But there he was, in 1625, a free citizen enjoying the same freedoms as white...

  6. Conclusion
    (pp. 298-306)

    The bell has tolled for some of the members of the World War II generation of historians. Richard Hofstadter died in 1970, David Potter in 1971, Barbara Tuchman in 1989. More recently, Geoffrey Elton died in 1994, and Richard Cobb and J.H. Hexter in 1996. In 1999 Vann Woodward and Lawrence Stone also passed on, followed by Sir Richard Southern in 2001.

    But the last chapter on the group as a whole has yet to be written. Many of them are still at work, and Ithaca is not even in sight. Christopher Hill, William McNeill, Eric Hobsbawm, Carl Schorske, and...

  7. Appendix: Biographies and Selected Works
    (pp. 307-314)
  8. Notes
    (pp. 315-344)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 345-354)
  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 355-356)
  11. Index
    (pp. 357-374)