*I fell in love with reading history when I swiped my brother’s high school textbooks when I was five or six. But by the time I was in college and reading for my American Culture class, I found myself giggling insanely at how stupid the book — and the stuff we had to read — was. It was one vast slough of despond with group after group being exploited, dehumanized, etc. The only way to be well thought of was to lose a war or be exterminated. Southerners went from being villains to being heroes once they lost the civil war, for instance, to being villains again in the present day. One couldn’t follow the thing with rationality — at all. TX Red just explained why. As with the slough of despond on “literary science fiction” shelves the answer is “because the elites are so childish they think depression makes them sound adult.” — Okay, so TX didn’t say that. She says far more interesting stuff and better than I can. We must prevail upon her to guest more often! — Sarah *
Human Wave History or Where have all the Stories Gone?
by TX Red
Hi. My name is Red, and I’m a historian. Today’s episode of “As the Pages Turn” is about the Human Wave approach to history.
Have you ever looked over the shelves of history books at your local bookstore and scratched you head, wondering why so many older works are still in print, while the most recent award winners vanish within weeks, if they are ever stocked at all? Why is it that a small collection of local stories sells steadily at the county history museum, but the Great Dr. So-and-so’s scholarly monograph about class, gender, and labor relations between Irish and Mexican workers on the local railroad gathers dust? It’s because people want to read Human Wave history but the majority of current academic historians do not write it.
Barbara Tuchman, Will and Ariel Durant, William McNeil, Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, V. G. Childe, Paul De Kruif, all wrote Human Wave history. David H. Fischer, David McCullough, Anne Applebaum, and Steven Ozment still write Human Wave, even if the Academic Ones sniff at some, if not all, of their work. Which leads to the questions 1) just what is Human Wave history and 2) what the heck happened in the Ivory Tower?
I’ll answer the questions in reverse order. By the late 19th century in England and the United States, a loose consensus later called “the Whig School” of history had emerged as the dominant voice of the academic history field, so to speak. The Whig School held that history was a chronicle of improving life, more civil rights, economic prosperity, and that things were getting better and better, despite a few setbacks (the Thirty Years’ War, the Dark Ages). Then along came the First World War.
The Whig School staggered, but it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that academic history dove head first into the grey goo. Progressives, who had begun moving into the universities in the 1920s, became the leading voices in historical thinking in the 1950s and 1960s. The Marxist approach to history became more and more common and Marxist-derived philosophies from France and Germany and Italy became popular, “cutting-edge,” and trendy. Academia embraced theories that held that all of humanity’s past is nothing more than a struggle for power among groups, with Europeans being the worst oppressors.
At the same time, new subfields of history gained acceptance. Social history, looking at customs and cultures, became stronger in the 1940s and 1950s. Computers made population studies and statistical history (“Cliometrics”) possible. In the 1970s, the environmental movement encouraged the development of environmental history. Because young scholars had to either do original work in their field, or refute earlier work, they gravitated towards the new sub-fields. Those changes, plus the 1960s foments in the US and Europe, produced the modern Slough of Despond that is much of academic, post-modern history. At its worst, everyone is either a victim or an oppressor, the world is going to heck in a hand basket, and it’s all the fault of the DWHtEMs.* Instead of political and diplomatic history, the best fields to focus on are “Area Studies” (Women’s Studies, Subaltern Studies, Chicana/o Studies, LGBT or Queer Studies, world without end, amen) or the hybrid interdisciplinary studies. If you ever want to cure a chipper mood, go into a university bookstore and look at the books required for area studies classes. Then cruise over and glance at the books written by the university’s faculty, or browse the “new books” shelves at the college library or in the university press catalogue.
However, Human Wave history survived, in large part outside of academia’s inner circle. Barbara Tuchman never went to graduate school or taught at a university and her works are still read, referred to, and in print. It is a rare professor of US or European history who does not own a set of the Durant’s works, or at least know where he/she/it can find a copy. Academics still look askance at Shelby Foote, even though more people learned about the US Civil War from his books than from any of the thousands of monographs written about the topic. Stanley Vestal was an English professor who wrote history on the side and taught his students how to make money, for Pete’s sake! David McCullough is a popularizer, but he’s worked with Ken Burns so he usually gets a pass.
So, what is Human Wave history? In this historian’s view, Human Wave history is history that tells the stories of the past without dragging the reader into despair. A Human Wave historian uses humor, good writing, and a common-sense view of the world to show the reader what happened, then steps out of the way.
Human Wave does not make the past pretty, but it does show how people who got knocked down found ways to get back up. For example, a new book came out last fall about life in Eastern Europe between 1944-1954. The author points out that people found ways to cope with the imposition of Stalinism, carving out pockets of sanity, falling in love, having children, and being ready to regain their freedom when opportunity presented itself. The light kept burning despite WWII and Stalinism, and the historian shows the reader that. The author also did a lot of hard work in archives and conducting interviews, but she writes so well that you don’t see the effort.
Human Wave history can be adventure stories, even if the adventures do not always end well. Several new books about Robert Falcon Scott have recently hit the shelves. Not a happy tale, but still an inspiring one if told honestly. Norman Cantor’s and William H. McNeill’s books about the Black Death, another cheerful topic, draw the reader into the time and show how people endured, then clawed their way towards greater independence and prosperity.
Human Wave does not bore. If you are like me, you’ve tried reading about what sounded like a fascinating topic, only to doze off because the writing style sucked the life out of the past. Some historians maintain that lively writing trivializes the topic, to the extent that a major international university press is infamous for its dull works. No! There’s no excuse for writing grey, gooey history, or science, any more than there is for writing grey, gooey fiction. People can make even water law interesting to read about— not page-turner thrilling, but interesting enough to finish the book. Paul De Kruif’s The Microbe Hunters turned epidemiology and microbiology into a gripping tale for budding scientists.
Human Wave does not induce guilt for being human. Environmental history, my specialty, runs the risk of turning into “humans destroyed paradise” or “Western capitalism poisoned the water, made the soil blow away, and has doomed the planet. Woe, woe.” Human Wave history reminds us that no group of humans ever “lived in harmony with Nature.” What was done in ignorance can sometimes be reversed, or at least ameliorated, through knowledge once someone says, “oops. OK, what can we do to fix/undo/learn from this?”
Human Wave history does not blame the world’s ills on any one group. For example, yes, the Chinese invented a number of things before the West did. The Chinese, for their own reasons, did not take those things and run with them. This is not the fault of the West, nor is it an example of Western cultural imperialism.
Human Wave history does not preach and neither do Human Wave historians. They lets the story tell itself, with some interpretation where appropriate, but not at the expense of the story. Try reading Roll, Jordon, Roll: The World the Slaves Made and then guessing the author’s politics (no fair peeking). You can’t. Nor can you tell what color, sex, sexual preference, favorite food, or religion (if any) the author had. It’s just a Human Wave story.
So, how do you find Human Wave history? You might look at some of the authors listed above. Find out what is still in print and selling. Ask your librarian what she or he recommends. Find an Odd who reads history for fun and see what they like (or don’t like) and why. Skim the reviews on Amazon, GoodReads, and other sites. What have you got to loose?
*Dead White Heterosexual European Males.