No Minister

The death of history?

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“Posterity who are to reap the Blessings, will scarcely be able to conceive the Hardships and Sufferings of their Ancestors.” – Abigail Adams, March 10, 1777.

Well, the death of one historian anyway, the great chronicler of American stories, David McCullough, who died last week at the age of 89.

I first became aware of him as the wonderful voice behind Ken Burn’s 1990 documentary series, The Civil War. There were other voices reading excerpts from the letters and books of the historic characters, famous actors like Morgan Freeman and Jason Robards, famous writers like Studs Terkel and Arthur Miller. But across all of them were the rich, soft, warm Mid-Western tones of McCullough.

He was of course a very major historian in his own right, having made his name with a history of The Johnstown Flood, which nobody had deemed worthy of such treatment before. He single-handedly rehabilitated the reputation of America’s second President, John Adams, with a monumental, 800 page history that was, amazingly, an easy read that invited you back multiple times.

But like the great Civil War historian Shelby Foote – whom he cited as an influence long before working with him on Burn’s TV series – McCullough started life as a writer and became a historian. As such, he knew how to tell a story and his prose flowed beautifully. That style would get him in trouble with more dour (and less widely read) historians, who snarked on the possibility of being more than former than the latter. Having said that, his research was solid and even on the most contentious points was, at worst, arguable, as most history is. A good example would be the fights that erupted from his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1992 work Truman, over the estimated American casualties leading to Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.

But as this article about him in City Journal points out, there are now bigger issues in the world of history that will try to damn McCullough not on specifics but the general thrust of his histories:

McCullough’s death has been met with warm tributes, but the future of his reputation is less certain. The story he told over and over, of how America became America, is one that fewer of his countrymen seem to want to hear. McCullough’s monuments in prose will inevitably be attacked by those whose view of that history is a good deal darker than his. The patriotic speeches he gathered in The American Spirit (2017) were criticized as naïve. His last book, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (2019), was denounced for presenting stereotypes of Native Americans and downplaying the effects of Western expansion on indigenous people. Academic historians generally thought his work vivid but shallow.

It is not a single historian under attack or even his body of work, but the entire cultural ethos from which it arose. Thus runs the Year Zero mentality of our times, across all areas.

As always, read the whole thing. Also read this on the plummeting number of History majors in US universities up to 2018. Of all the majors studied, it’s had the biggest collapse, even beating that of Religion.

Written by Tom Hunter

August 19, 2022 at 12:32 pm

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