Thursday, February 2, 2012
A Life with History
John Hicks's My Life With History was one of the worst books I have ever read. If nothing else he proved that historians do not lead the type of lives others might find interesting. Hicks included many letters to his wife in the late 1930s, which had little to do with history. I was already at the end of my rope with this particular writer anyway. While I had little to quarrel with the Populist Revolt (which at least presented an interpretation), I found another one of Hick's work to rank among the worst books I have ever read. His account of the 1920s, The Republican Ascendancy, is one long editorial in support of the Democratic Party. It's mission so clouded out the historical account, it is laughable. I am not sure what primary sources were available to Hicks when he wrote this book, but he made substantial use of only one manuscript source, the papers of Hiram Johnson. Hicks's standing in my eyes fell even lower when I read in Peter Novick's classic account of 20th century historiography, That Noble Dream, that Hicks wanted to drum historians out of the profession for not supporting FDR. Not surprisingly he was on thin ice with me already when I wasted time with My Life With History. That Hicks did not warn me off the entire genre of historian memoirs is something of a miracle. I have read several others since. I enjoyed those of William McNeill and Forrest McDonald. Neither got bogged down in personal details and kept their focus on what they wrote, how they wrote it, why they wrote it, how they responded to criticism from others, and other like relevant matters. I would say that C. Vann Woodward's Thinking Back is still the benchmark of historian memoirs. It is a thorough discussion of his career as an historian and the historiography of his writings. Recently I finished my latest effort, John Morton Blum's A Life With History. Blum writes about his own writings, but not as much as I would have liked. While he includes a few reviews of his work, he really does not engage his critics. Instead, Blum focuses much more of his attention on what it was like to be a historian in the Ivy League, with an entire chapter dedicated to his term as department chair. One thing struck me over and over again while reading A Life With History. His life as an Ivy League historian and mine as a community college adjunct could not be further apart and still remain in the same profession.