Historians and Their Memoirs

Randall Stephens

What can we learn about the craft of history by reading the autobiographies of historians? A great deal, I think. We get a picture of the context and era that shaped research and writing interests. We see how a historian grew into his or her work. We get an idea of how he or she was trained and mentored . . .

In my Critical Readings in History course I've paired selections from John Hope Franklin's memoir with selections from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s autobiography. Both went to Harvard in the 1930s. Students can see pretty clearly the basic differences in their backgrounds. One grew up in a well-to-do white family with ties to America's intellectual aristocracy. The other came of age in Oklahoma, struggling with poverty and race prejudice. It's not difficult to move from that reading to a discussion of how historians pick the topics they study and how historians are formed by their setting. From there students can reflect on their own interests and how history is, at least in some sense, autobiographical.

I recently dusted off and started rereading C. Vann Woodward's Thinking Back: The Perils of Writing History (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1987). Years before he became the tweedy, pipe-smoking Johns Hopkins and then Yale sage of southern history, Woodward was an aspiring historian, not quite sure what the next stage in his life would hold for him. Still, he was ahead of the game. He already had what would be a major book underway while he was still a grad student at UNC in the 1930s:

With a fresh if empty mind and an exciting book of my own underway, I reasoned that perhaps I would now see this unexplored field take on a new glamor and I would rise to the challenge. Much better minds had done so. After all, I was nearly four years older since my first brush with the subject and far riper in wisdomor so I thought. The first thing to do, I was told, was to master the standard "sets"the old American Nation series, the Yale Chronicles, and others guaranteed to bring one up to date. Noting with some puzzlement that most of the many volumes were already a generation old, I nevertheless plunged in. That first plunge was chilling. Plodding through volume after volume, I began to wonder if I had ever encountered prose so pedestrian, pages so dull, chapters so devoid of ideas, whole volumes so wrongheaded or so lacking in point. Was there anything memorable about what one was expected to remember? Was this the best my newly chosen profession could do? Was it what I would be expected to do? A career, a lifetime dedicated to inflicting such reading on innocent youth? Or accepting it as a model for myself? Fleeing the stacks repeatedly, I spent much of that first year pacing Franklin Street by night debating whether I might fare better as a fruit-peddler, panhandler, or hack writer. . . . (21-22)

No Southern youth of any sensitivity could help being excited by the explosion of creativity taking place during the early 1930s—in fiction, in poetry, in drama. Nor could I help seeing that the novelists, poets, and playwrights were in the main writing about the same South historians were writing about and making the whole world of letters at home and abroad read what they wrote and ring with their praise. With this awareness and the expectations it aroused, I arrived as a young apprentice at the doors of the history guild for training—and what a striking contrast, what a letdown, what a falling off! No renaissance here, no surge of innovation and creativity, no rebirth of energy, no compelling new vision. This was a craft devoted primarily at the time, or so it seemed to me, to summing up, confirming, illustrating, and consolidating the received wisdom, the regional consensus that prevailed uniquely in the South of the 1930s and
though I could not then have known it—was to continue through the 1940s. That consensus proclaimed the enduring and fundamentally unbroken unity, solidarity, and continuity of Southern history. (23)

The business about continuity sums up much of Woodward's work as a historian. Indeed, at the beginning of The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) he wrote "The people of the South should be the last Americans to expect continuity of their institutions and social arrangements" (3). The bookwhich Martin Luther King, Jr., called the historical bible of the civil rights movement argued forcefully that the South's segregationist turn in the 1890s was something new. Woodward's memoir abounds with similar insights into his life and career.

There are many other memoirs by historians that I'd still like to explore. I include here a handful of those I've read and a great many more that I haven't.

Max Beloff, An Historian in the Twentieth Century: Chapters in Intellectual Autobiography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992)

Thomas Dionysius Clark, My Century in History: Memoirs (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2006)

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000)

Gerda Lerner, Fireweed: A Political Autobiography (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003)

Forrest McDonald, Recovering the Past: A Historian's Memoir (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004)

John Hope Franklin, Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (New York: FSG, 2005)

Margaret Atwood Judson, Breaking the Barrier: A Professional Autobiography by a Woman Educator and Historian before the Women's Movement (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1984)

George F. Kennan, Memoirs, 1925-1950 (New York: Pantheon, 1983)

William Hardy McNeill, The Pursuit of Truth: A Historian's Memoir (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005)

Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918)

Maria LĂșcia G. Pallares-Burke, The New History: Confessions and Conversations (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002)

James M. Banner Jr. Jr. and John R. Gillis, eds., Becoming Historians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)

John Lukacs, Confessions of an Original Sinner (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1990)

John B. Boles, ed., Autobiographical Reflections on Southern Religious History (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001)

John B. Boles, ed., Shapers of Southern History: Autobiographical Reflections (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004)

Guy Stanton Ford, ed., (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1910) Essays in American history, Dedicated to Frederick Jackson Turner. Read Carl Becker on Kansas!