Comfortable history … in the Ivory Tower

Sorry for the prolonged silence. I had hoped to follow up the previous posts much more quickly, but life — in this case the needs of my aging parents — took precedence. More coming. I’ve had it all bottled up inside for the past couple of weeks. Look for more very soon. In the meantime, as I was sayin’…

So…American readers prefer American history. And they prefer stories with which they’re already familiar, characters to whom they’ve already been introduced if only briefly. The American reading public, such as it is, isn’t necessarily moved to read or buy books about new or different things. Big surprise. Once you get over the whole “I can’t believe that that many people would actually fork over the money for Glenn Beck’s Being George Washington [“George Washington as you’ve never seen him!” Indeed!] when there are so many less objectionable alternatives available outrage, then our collective reading tastes are not all that shocking.

What may be shocking – okay, not shocking, more like “unexpected” perhaps – is that academic historians have their comfort-zones too, their own range of the familiar, the acceptable, the preferable. The boundaries of those comfort-zones aren’t exactly the same as those of the general reading public but they’re there all the same, and in many cases they’re no more rational or defensible. These prejudices come in all flavors: geographical, chronological, topical, methodological. Sometimes they’re prompted by broad trends in the profession (witness, for example, the overwhelming popularity – among academic historians, that is – of social history since the Sixties); sometimes they’re prompted by short-term methodological fads. Just look at the program for a major national or international conference, like the American Historical Association, and you’ll see what I mean. Sometimes those comfort-zones reflect current political or economic realities. In history departments across the USA, Asian and African histories are hot – while medieval or early modern Europe is distinctly less so.

In part, that’s because some historical fields simply draw more budding scholars than others, just as some topics attract more enthusiasts outside the profession. American readers are drawn to the Civil War; so are many would-be historians in Ph.D. programs. The same goes for World War II. The Third Reich. Victorian Britain. Tudor England. The American Revolution. Military history in general.

And, conversely, there are fields in history that don’t inspire much interest at all. They may be interesting – I hold that any field in history is interesting if approached the right way – but students, like readers, aren’t drawn to them. It doesn’t help that – for many of the more arcane topics – there are few if any specialists representing these fields in history departments…which in itself is a reflection that these areas don’t inspire enthusiasm.

I know, because for most of my professional career I’ve worked in such a field: Scandinavian history, specifically Danish history. Very interesting to Danes, as one might expect, and to Scandinavians. Not so much to Europeans outside of Scandinavia. Very little to Americans. For me, it’s been a genuinely lonely experience. It’s one of the reasons – unconsciously taking a page from the late, great Henry Steele Commager, though I can’t pretend to Commager’s erudition or prolificacy – that I have largely abandoned Danish history for American. Although there’s something to be said for carving out your own little niche, after a while one feels as if one were pleading plaintively to be heard, trying in vain to convince the academy that your chosen field is worthy of study. From the moment that I first read C.V. Wedgwood’s Thirty Years War when I was twenty-one (incidentally, still my favorite narrative on the war), I knew that Denmark and the lands ruled by the Oldenburg kings together made up one of Europe’s great regional powers, and that in the political calculus of the early seventeenth century Denmark played a bigger role in international affairs than did, say, the England of James I. I knew that, at the height of its power, Denmark had one of the largest and most technically proficient fleets in European waters, that the kingdom controlled the Baltic trade on which England and the Netherlands depended, that the king of Denmark was the wealthiest sovereign in all of Europe, that he ruled over a state that in sheer territorial extent eclipsed everything else on the Continent save Habsburg Spain. I wanted to secure for Denmark – and Norway and Iceland – a place in the narrative, the way that the late Michael Roberts had done, or almost done, for Vasa Sweden.

And in that aspiration I would be terribly disappointed. I wasn’t entirely alone. There was, and is, a small community of scholars – in North America and in the Anglophone world in general – who have dedicated themselves to the study of Scandinavian history. But it’s not, or at least hasn’t been, enough to change the established narrative of European history. Twenty years ago, Scandinavia was all but invisible in the more popular Western Civ textbooks employed in college survey courses in the States. Sure, a few events or personages from Scandinavian history would put in an appearance. Gustavus Adolphus. The “Danish” and “Swedish” “phases” of the Thirty Years’ War. Maybe Charles XII (and then only as a foil to Peter the Great). Tycho Brahe. Søren Kierkegaard. Niels Bohr. And that would be about it. But it hasn’t changed in the years since, despite all of the very good material on Scandinavian history to appear in English. The Protestant Reformations in Scandinavia have earned, at best, two sentences in the same Western Civ textbooks that give a couple of full pages to the Reformation in Scotland. Does that mean that the Protestant Reformation in Denmark-Norway and Sweden-Finland was somehow less important than that in Scotland? No. It just means that that’s what the textbook authors knew, that’s the course that’s dictated to them by the prevailing narrative.

That’s only one example. It just happens to be one that I know really well. But it raises a larger question, one that goes way beyond the narrow confines of the history of a single region: why do certain topics, geographically-defined or otherwise, fade from view? Why do we, as historians, push them to the side and ignore them? I think for Denmark, for Scandinavia, and for any region or polity that has dropped by the wayside, the answer isn’t all that obscure. It’s mostly a matter of teleology – meaning, here, that we (academic historians as much as the general public) have a hard time separating ourselves from the present and taking the past on its own merits. We tend to focus on what’s been important in the past couple of generations and not on the more distant past. Ever notice, around the time of the dawn of the millennium (meaning the fake one in 2000, not the real one in 2001), that every cable TV documentary about the “one hundred most important people of the millennium” always included John F. Kennedy near the top? Nothing against JFK, but can we really say that there are not a hundred people in the past thousand years who might deserve the sobriquet “important” more than he?

We tend to think about history from the standpoint of the near-present; history – or, rather, historians, for a narrative can’t exist without authors to shape it – also tends to reward winners. It’s an old aphorism, of course, but there’s much truth in it. To quote Robert Frost’s excellent book on conflict in the early modern Baltic world: “History, it is often suggested, is written by the winners. Yet losers also write history; they just don’t get translated.” Frost was referring mainly to Poland, once one of the most important, most sophisticated, wealthiest states in Europe, and until fairly recently all but ignored by historians outside of the Baltic, but the sentiment could be applied almost universally. In early modern Europe, for example, it goes a long way towards explaining the virtual exclusion of Habsburg Spain from the established narrative. Anglophone historians all but ignored Spain until the 1970s. Before then, Spain appeared in Western Civ textbooks only sporadically and usually in a very bad light – especially as the necessary “bad guy” in the story of the 1588 Armada.

I could go on and on about the varieties of history – and not just geographical ones – that, to my mind, have been left out of the narrative. But what do you think? What stories have been left out, and why?


About Paul Lockhart

I'm a history professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio...and I write books about history.
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7 Responses to Comfortable history … in the Ivory Tower

  1. potsdamsr says:

    Anne and Art Johnson are enjoying your latest book!

  2. Thanks, Anne! Say hi to Art for me…I’ll drop you an email later. Paul

  3. Jeremy says:

    I remember reading Frost’s book, the title escapes me, in your War in the Western World Seminar. As a person of Polish ancestry, it was the first book I had come across regarding Poland. Granted I never dug too deeply, but Poland 101 was never an offered course at my undergraduate institution and since Poland isn’t a China, Russia, or England, I never really thought too hard about it.

    I see that Ireland and Irish History is becoming a bit more popular. I suppose more people can relate to an Ireland has made a bigger splash in America. It is pounded into history books that the Irish came over during the potato famine; they formed gangs in New York, and created Iron Brigades. Throw in the love affair for Notre Dame and St. Patty’s Day and I guess it makes sense. I’m not sure Mrs. T’s pierogies piqué anyone’s interest in Polish History. I guess we still have Casimir Pulaski.

    • Hey Jeremy — great observations. I think you’re right — American interest in Irish history has at least something to do with the Irish presence/influence in the States. And because that presence has nearly always been colorful. And because Americans tend to like (or think they do, anyway) underdogs. There’s something else there, though, besides: the American fascination with anything and everything Celtic. For some reason I can’t pretend to understand, Americans think it’s cool to be Celtic. Polish identity (or any flavor of Slavic…and many others besides) just doesn’t have the same attraction.

  4. Very interesting, thanks. I’ve been wrestling with the same issue with Australian history. Nobody wants to know (not even Australians, outside a few ‘comfortable’ themes), another small population in publishing terms, but at least without the added problem of a foreign language to cope with. Maybe you’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but I’ve only just found your blog – did you already read Danish when you began?

    • You know, I’ve always wondered about Australian history — of course I’ll have to confess nearly complete ignorance, and that’s lamentable. But it doesn’t even draw Australians? Wow. What historical topics do Australians seem to like, if any?
      About Danish: I think it was in my second semester of grad school when I became so obsessed with Danish history that I just *had* to pursue it, though it disappointed my doktorvater, Rothenberg, who wanted me to do something more Napoleonic and something with Dutch history (I already had German, French, Latin, and Dutch under my belt). As soon as I resolved to work in Danish history, the first thing I did was find the one faculty member at Purdue who spoke/read Danish (a prof in the German department), who told me to get Bredsdorff’s grammar and a Gyldendals dictionary, and I taught myself. Since I already had German and Dutch it wasn’t all that difficult — not to read, anyway. The really difficult pronunciation of spoken Danish came as a rude shock to me when I first went to Copenhagen in 1988.
      Even more shocking was the realization that I couldn’t do Danish history without at least a reading knowledge of Swedish, Norwegian (in various incarnations), Icelandic, and possibly Faroese. Fortunately they’re closely enough related that it wasn’t *too* hard.
      Like you blog, by the way. Thanks for the compliment. P

      • I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s no interest in Oz history, but it can be hard to reach that critical weight you need to run higher level courses. I discuss it a bit here –
        Those language skills sound pretty impressive to me, even if they are related languages. I can see how they could limit the number of non-Danes working in the field – and it’s like the irony of citations: work in a well trodden field, and everyone cites you, work in a genuinely new field and get ignored. Comfort zone again.
        Good luck with the novel approach! And thanks – there’s something very liberating about writing non-peer reviewed stuff!

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