History: A Changing Discipline

A professor recently asked our class if we believe biographies offer a fair account of the historical record. After some debate, he asserted that they tend to overemphasize the subject’s actions and downplay the roles of supporting characters. He cited Joseph Ellis’s biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, as an example – one that exaggerates Jefferson’s centrality to history and, at least by implication, understates others’ significance.

To support this point, my professor noted Ellis’s treatment of Maria Cosway, an Italian woman who held Jefferson’s romantic attention while he served in Paris. He argued that the essential problem with Ellis’s portrayal is that he describes Cosway only in reference to Jefferson. Instead of elaborating on her successful artistic career, the author limits her role to one of romantic interest, thereby insinuating that she was historically significant only as an object of Jefferson’s flirtation. By refusing Cosway importance on her own, in other words, Ellis supposedly exemplifies a sort of misogyny typical of biographies as a genre. The professor maintained further that Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton’s most celebrated biographer, fell victim to this same “misogyny” in his portrayal of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza. The greater point made in this class discussion seemed to be not the pitfalls of biography, but rather that history should not just be the study of “old, white, aristocratic men.”

In presenting his views, my professor implicitly touched upon a relatively recent trend in the study of history. Over the past 20 years, scholarship has shifted away from studies of prominent military and political figures toward portraits of “everyday people.” Accordingly, when I used JSTOR to research a paper on the First World War, articles like “Expanding the Narrative: A First World War with Women, Children, and Grief” and “The Homosexual Scare and the Masculinization of German Politics Before World War One” popped up in the results tab.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to unearth a more complete history than the one previously presented by scholars. Women, children, and gay men all contributed to the greater political and cultural climate of the early 20th century. However, I fear that increased attention to these groups has led some scholars and students to perceive a false dichotomy between “old, white, aristocratic men” and everyone else. One cannot simply celebrate a history that ignores the so-called great men to whom, until recently, scholars paid a disproportionate amount of their attention.

For instance, one cannot deny that President Wilson exercised more influence over the course of history than, say, a poor woman from Detroit. This is not a value statement; it is merely a fact. I am not arguing that historians should not consider this woman’s experiences during the war, merely that someone else − Wilson − was more influential and should be treated as such.

One result of the current academic culture is the conflation of identity politics with sound historical inquiry. What concerns me most is that many historians are now sacrificing an understanding of all these supposedly overblown men in the spirit of inclusivity for its own sake.

Consider how one such historian might address the German general Ludendorff. His German and Polish ancestry put him outside the category of Anglo-Saxon descent – which people have begun to interpret as the real meaning of the altogether useless ethnic category of “white.” Yet he could easily, nonetheless, get lumped into this group on account of his fair skin and duly ignored. Offering a history that disregards, based on his “whiteness,” General Ludendorff and his actions is nothing more than academic laziness.

There should not be two opposing schools of thought on these matters. An accurate account of history would recognize the greater influence, for good and for ill, of the actions of those in charge while explaining the larger world made up of common folk.