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Present Tense

When Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, eulogized the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. this month, he claimed there are now no longer any historians who write about the past as if it mattered to us today. Schlesinger and his contemporaries "rummaged in [the past] for clues to understanding, if not solving, the most pressing political questions of the present," Tanenhaus said, but today's "current historians" don't. While Tanenhaus is right about what happened, he's wrong about when: A generation of historians did try to expunge this kind of history, but now it's coming back in.

In his 1970 book Historians' Fallacies, David Hackett Fischer identified Schlesinger-style history as a historical error called "presentism." You couldn't look for the origins of the present in the past without doing damage to the past, and you'd do it based on your politics. "Presentism," Fischer wrote, "appears in the new-liberal narratives of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., where American history is the steady progress of pragmatic liberalism from Jefferson to Jackson to Franklin Roosevelt. Finally, the Kennedys become Top Family." The apparent political bias of presentism irked Fischer. At the time, a variety of New Left historians had adopted the idea of a "usable past" as a way of pointing to a more progressive future with more civil rights and less cold war. And, by 2002, Fischer's anti-presentism had become mainstream: Lynn Hunt, the president of the American Historical Association (AHA), could write "Against Presentism," and open by asking rhetorically, "Who isn't, you say?"

But opposing presentism doesn't get politics out of history. Writing about the past as if it existed wholly on its own terms and did not lead to the present suggests that history is utterly useless today--a cozy pursuit that cannot disturb our assumptions about what is happening now. It makes history marvelously conservative--which is, of course, a political point of view, too.

Anti-presentism is also philosophically dodgy: All history gets written by someone, somewhen. Our paths to the past start in the present. A tiny sliver--and never a representative cross-section--of humanity has access to research libraries and proprietary databases, to publishers, to income and leisure time sufficient to pursue history as profession or avocation. Pretending that historians are detached from present circumstances is no more than pretense.

Worse, anti-presentism costs historians book sales, as Tanenhaus argues. The generation of professional historians who actually sold books to actual people (and not just to research libraries) was the generation that invented presentism as a necessary guide to writing history. As James Harvey Robinson noted back when he was president of the AHA, he had to revise his 1907 history of Modern Europe after World War I--suddenly, the stuff about imperialism, nationalism, and industrialization had a new and urgent focus in the war. Robinson had a nice phrase for his version of presentism--"framing a coherent narrative making close connections with the morning newspaper."

So far, it's easy to agree with Tanenhaus, but no farther. Because, though Tanenhaus blames "younger historians" for junking Schlesinger, he mentions only gentlemen like David McCullough, Gordon Wood, and James McPherson--all of them more accurately described as nearer to retirement than farther from it. (Tanenhaus also mentions Peter Beinart, who is young but not so much a historian.) But recent years have seen a resurgence of Robinsonism among younger historians. I was born the year Fischer published his anti-Schlesinger, anti-presentist brief. Among people my age, there's less confidence that one can avoid writing history that speaks to the present, and nearly no insistence that one should.

Mentioning only authors I've read lately: Heather Cox Richardson's 2007 book West from Appomattox (which discusses the unification of the American nation in the late nineteenth century) begins with the words, "A week after the 2004 presidential election" and tells the whole story with an eye on present political alignments. Elizabeth Borgwardt's 2005 A New Deal for the World covers arrangements for the post-1945 world with an eye toward their implications for twenty-first century Rwanda, Serbia, Iraq, and the International Criminal Court. David Silbey's 2007 A War of Frontier and Empire tries to peel away the presentism with which Vietnam-era historians colored our understanding of the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 (and, in doing, retells the tale of Americans' benevolent imperialism and counterinsurgency, which has obvious contemporary resonance).

Silbey's book suggests another problem with presentism (the one that Robinson identified back in 1929): Books written about how the past shapes the present will seem, if not wrong, then inadequate as the present itself recedes into the past and we learn more about what happened. But this is not a problem of presentism, but of history. Books written as if from some fictional vantage outside the present will also seem stale and false once history catches up with them. Absent divine direction, we cannot assume a God's-eye view but can write only about the past as we see it from our present. We might as well seize the opportunity to do so in such a way that has meaning to a public, and sells books. Even Fischer has changed his mind: In his 1996 The Great Wave, he wrote, "The study of history ... cannot reveal the future. But it helps us to understand the present and very recent past."

By Eric Rauchway