VII. History: Instant or Authentic

During the interval between the centennial lectures and the preparation of the final essays in this collection the writer had an increasing number of graduate students and the opportunity to participate in three Experienced Teacher Fellowship programs. In the latter he presented a seminar in State and Local History. Discussions in the seminars and colloquia convinced him that historians must give constant attention to the nature of their discipline. In spite of frontal and reasonably sophisticated attacks upon his view of history the writer remained attached not only to the principles, but to the language of the earlier formulations.

In a sense the final essays are a recapitulation of earlier statements against the background of an increasing interest in state and local history. The invitation to present a series of lectures at Chadron (Nebraska) State College extended by Burton J. Williams, Chairman of the Division of Social Sciences and fellow-learner of the writer while completing his doctorate at the University of Kansas, led to the restatement of earlier views in somewhat altered form, but employing much of the same language.

(These essays were delivered on March 29 and 30, 1968)

Under the ambiguous, almost flippant, titles given to these lectures, the serious objective is to discuss two of the indispensable components of the intellectual discipline that is called history. These two are time and space. They provide the physical framework within which human beings, either as individuals or groups, carry on their activities, and contribute almost simultaneously the events as well as the data from which the historical record of those events will be written. It is the activities of human beings within the context of time and space that demand the treatment of history as one of the humanities. The fact that human beings provide the connective tissue which weaves into one piece the component elements of time and space requires that history be viewed as a humane discipline. The alternative is to regard human beings as something other than human, perhaps as ordinary material objects that just happen to populate the terrestrial and celestial stage of time and space.



The general theme or keynote of these lectures having been indicated, the focus must be sharpened by concentrating briefly upon the nature of history. First of all it will be helpful to recall the distinction made by Carl Becker between history as actuality and history as record. History as actuality is as broad and as rich as life itself, and it is as deep as the span of recorded existence and as broad as the most distant probes into outer space. It is as varied and as complex as the subject matter of any field of study, because in a sense it includes every field of study. Millions of people through centuries of time, scattered over the entire earth, each one different, living under all sorts of conditions, in all sorts of places, doing all sorts of things: worshipping and working, planning and producing, writing and painting, governing and being governed, learning and teaching, fighting and loving all of this and much more is grist for the historian's mill. Rightly understood and rightly pursued the study of history is far more complex than many fields of study that are ordinarily thought to be more intricate. Lewis Mumford has observed that "Even the small part of human history that is visible to historians is one of the most complex and mysterious of all the phenomena presented to man...." This is history as actuality.

History as record or history as it is studied and learned by scholars whether orally or in written form is an entirely different matter. Here the principle that Daniel Boorstin has called the "bias of survival" becomes operative. In some cases buried by sand and soil awaiting the work of the archaeologist and the anthropologist; in other cases obliterated by fire and flood; and in still other cases damaged by the ravages of time, all of the records of man's activities are not and have not been available for study. Just as surely, in collections of artifacts, in manuscripts, in archives both public and private, in files of newspapers and periodicals and in edifices, art objects, and musical scores much more has survived than any single historian or all historians in combination will ever be able to use.

This contrast between history as actuality and history as record makes clear the task of the historian. It is to reconcile

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as nearly as possible, to use once again the formulation of Carl Becker, the remembered series of events with the actual series of events or to use the phrases employed by James C. Main, to present the past as a whole knowing full well that he cannot present the whole of the past. It is this last consideration that gives to the study of history its cast or quality of tragedy. Knowing full well that he never will be able to know the whole of the past, the historian labors in his small corner of a rich garden. Or to shift the metaphor he only does what he is able to do study the rich and seamless tapestry that is the past in order to produce a fabric that is as faithful to the past as he can make it. He knows full well that those who come after him will have access to data that were not available to him, and to procedures for analyzing data that were unknown to him. He knows full well that his word will not be the last word on a subject no matter how small his corner of the vineyard is, not because an event in the actual series will in some fashion alter its character, and not because some shift in the contemporary scene will change the event or modify its intrinsic meaning, but simply and only because he cannot know enough about an event to describe it completely and finally.

Placing the emphasis upon knowing makes it possible, on the one hand, to assert that in the tradition of the humanities the role of history is to add its bit of knowledge, incomplete though it may be, to the intellectual storehouse. Knowledge of expressions of thought in literature; of formulations of values in philosophy and religion; of creative achievements in all of the arts; of the deeds of engineers and scientists; of the folk contributions of peasant as well as patrician, of artisan as well as capitalist, and of modest tradesmen as well as great merchants; of the plans and programs of politicians and statesmen: knowledge of all of this and much more needs to be passed on from generation to generation, so that what has been, becomes a part of what is and what is to be, simply because people know that it happened. On the other hand, the emphasis upon knowing makes it possible to deny that the justification for the study of history resides in methods or techniques; that knowledge must be embellished or adorned with model-building, postulates, assumptions,


hypotheses, broad generalizations, or, indeed, with functional objectives, in order to be worth the time of those who study and teach the historical record. Additionally, the emphasis upon knowing makes it possible to assert that the creativity of the learner in history does not derive from his ability to demonstrate the validity of an assumption, but in being able to acquire sufficient knowledge to present a meaningful account of his subject. A corollary of this assertion is the denial of the widespread notion that knowledge of what has happened, and the interpretation of what is known about what has happened are two separate categories; a denial that interpretation is a kind of frosting on the cake, an oasis of insight in a desert of facts, or a kind of glittering crown on the bald forehead of information. Parenthetically speaking, some so-called interpretations of history seem on close examination to be mere waves floating in a sea of ambiguity or of ignorance. Finally, the emphasis upon knowledge makes it possible to conclude that what is referred to as meaning or interpretation is part of the historian's knowledge of an event. It is not an extrinsic formulation, but an intrinsic ingredient. It does not originate in the present as the exponents of the ``every-generation-must write-its-own-history" school of history assert. It is a component of the past and the historian is able to express a meaningful interpretation of an event or a series of events only when his knowledge is adequate to the task and commensurate with his obligation.

Before the preceding remarks are summed up in a brief definition of historical study, one facet of what has been referred to as a historical event needs to be explored even at the risk of some repetition. This is the uniqueness of everything that has happened. It is not possible within the limits of reason to controvert the statement that each event involving a human being is unique in an absolute sense. Having happened once, no act no matter how simple, can happen again under exactly the same circumstances. There is no "Big Play-Back" in history; not even a quick second look on video tape. A word once spoken cannot be returned to the lips of the speaker nor can the impact upon the heart of the

History as knowledge of the past 115

hearer be altered. A blow once struck cannot be undone nor the bruised spot be wiped away even with tears of regret.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

or in the words of Shakespeare "What's done is done and cannot be undone." All of these seemingly trivial observations are relevant to the problem of uniqueness in history. Each event that has occurred is engraved in the granite of remorseless time and circumstance. Because it is unique it possesses intrinsic meaning and no person can separate the meaning from the context in which the event occurred. Moreover, there can logically be no such thing as rewriting the historical record in the sense of altering or changing the sequence or intrinsic character of events. Events cannot be studied from the present backward; they must be studied in the order in which they occurred. History as the written record is rewritten rightly only as a result of increased knowledge. The idea that each generation must write its own history, viewed from the premise of the granitic record of unique events, is as illogical as the idea that every generation must select the genes and chromosomes of its ancestors. All that any generation of historians can do is to add to the storehouse of knowledge by utilizing new materials and procedures. Finally, the uniqueness of each event does not necessarily mean that all of the past is pure chaos, that events happening in time are like grains of sand in a shifting dune, or drops of water in a limitless sea. Nor does it call for some extrinsic formulation that will seem to give meaning to history for a day and then like words written in water be obliterated by the next wave of mood or whim. It simply means that the historian as man is only man and not God, and that even when as man he sits on a throne of Univac computers he still cannot discern finally and certainly the pattern of historical events.

It is the quality of uniqueness of historical events which requires the learner of history to be concerned exclusively with the pursuit of knowledge. There is so much to be


learned that there is not time for anything else. And it is the quality of uniqueness which is the barrier to the use of the facts of history for functional purposes. The data of history cannot be sized and shaped to serve a specific functional objective without the imposition of some pattern upon dissimilar events in order to make them appear to be similar. If a relationship between events actually existed, fuller knowledge will reveal it and the learner of history has made his contribution. If a synthetic relationship is read into events in order to promote a cause or undergird a system, the student of history has abdicated his role as learner in favor of the more dramatic role of apologist, promoter, or propagandist. Even teaching history, as distinguished from learning history and from helping others to learn it, almost inevitably involves the postulation of some functional objective over and beyond knowledge of the subject that is under consideration. This view of the learner in the classroom does not provide any basis at all for the alleged dichotomy between teaching and research. At times the historian is a learner in the classroom sharing what he knows with those who do not know quite so much; at other times he is the research scholar adding his grains of knowledge to the intellectual storehouse. This is his primary responsibility.

Out of all of this emphasis upon knowing and upon constantly pursuing knowledge exclusively for its own sake comes a brief, simple definition of history. It is the record of what has happened in space and throughout time. The primary concern is with man and what he has done. As studied and learned, it is the profession of those who seek to reconcile the remembered series of events with the actual series of events; to present the past as a whole and not the whole of the past. It is, in other words, simply a matter of knowing, of knowing enough to understand; of knowing enough to present a meaningful record; of knowing enough to be honest and accurate. The learning of history is thus conceived to be an intellectual enterprise of the highest order.

It follows, then, that knowledge of the record of what has happened is the simple and all sufficient justification for the study of history. No fancy terminology or unintelligible

History as knowledge of the past 117

jargon; no complicated verbiage; no clarion call to assume the role of the promoter or put on the robes of the prophet; no conceptual soapbox for the apostle or the advocate, but just a simple statement that history as we deal with it from day to day is the record of what has happened, and that the study of history is a process not of teaching and preaching, but of learning. History must be learned. It cannot be taught without doing violence to its basic nature.

That the view of history presented here does not harmonize with some present trends in historiography should be clear to all. None of the components that have been suggested are essential to the views of some who are pleased to call themselves historians. To those who are in search of a "radical past" or a "usable past," neither time nor verified knowledge are of great importance they are merely convenient. To those who find themselves in sympathy with the exponents of situational ethics or of the new morality, neither time nor space nor knowledge are of great importance. The model-builders have scant use for chronology. They test their models by tapping the most likely sources of data irrespective of when the events occurred.

Refreshingly enough, support for the view of history expressed above has come from an unexpected source. Wes Gallagher, General Manager of the Associated Press, in an address delivered about a year ago used the words of Robert Ardrey to call attention to the emergence of a new audience of readers, "a new human force ... a force anonymous and unrecognized, informed and inquisitive, with allegiance to neither wealth nor poverty, to neither privilege nor petulance," young in years, holders of college degrees, and impatient with trivia." Using his own formulations Gallagher asserted that this new audience tends to be "cynical and critical," swallows up vast amounts of information and entertainment, and hungers for the significant, for perspective, and for understanding. His solution to this complex series of problems is to emphasize "investigative reporting" or as he prefers to call it, "perspective reporting." Earlier, Gallagher had quoted James Reston's comment, "The Lippmanns and Krocks have followings, but news is more


powerful than opinion," but concluded his argument on this point with two positive assertions of his own. "We can convince only by the most detailed presentation of facts, for facts alone have the ring of truth ... opinion alone is useless," and finally, "you must come back again and again until the flow of news the flow of facts if you want to put it that way makes its impression on our new audience."1 In view of the testimony of this distinguished journalist, in view of the havoc created by teachers of history who believe that presenting two extreme opinions disguised as historiographical analyses of the same problem and permitting students to reach some mythical mid-point which will be the correct view of the matter, and in view of how uninformed image-producers and myth makers have mated their ignorance with their talents to convert Bonnie and Clyde, William Clarke Quantrill and Jesse James, and others of like stature into folk-heroes, it is long past the time that historians should apologize for presenting the facts as correctly and completely as they are able.

Thus in a general way the stage has been set for the discussion of two of the principal components of the intellectual discipline that is called history. In discussing time under the general rubric, "History Instant or Authentic?" it should be kept in mind that in this context the word "Instant" has two faces. It may be used as a general synonym for "presentism," that is, for mobilizing historical data instantly and quickly so as to bring them to bear upon a present problem as the searchers for a radical past wish to do; or it may be used to describe the frenetic efforts of participants in contemporary events, some of whom are pleased to call themselves historians, to rush into print with accounts of the thousand days of a recent presidential administration. Like instant tea or soup, instant history presumably contains all of the flavor and authenticity of older forms with the plus of proximity and familiarity. Perhaps it is relevant to recall that this phenomenon has occurred many times in American history. The Civil War may be taken as an example. First there came accounts by the participants; then apologia by friends and descendants; then analyses by historians and interpretations by the

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system-builders and determinists, and then monographs by even more highly trained specialists using the most sophisticated procedures known to them. After a century and more of this, the first task confronting the present day historian is to separate legend and myth from fact, to strip away the overburden of debris that has been imposed upon the hard strata of what did happen, and finally to deal with the raw material itself. Perhaps the same problem will be presented to historians a century hence as they attempt to deal with the nineteen fifties and sixties.

Just as there are several facets of the word "instant" so there are many senses in which the word "time" is used. First of all, time as time is not as simple as it seems to be at first glance or in casual use. Correctly used one can only utilize the past tense or the future tense in referring to time. There is no such thing as the present time. Before the word is written or spoken, the moment that it takes is part of the past. At best there is only a specious present. Even this specious present is very brief when compared with the eternity that stretches backward to the dawn of creation. But because he is a historian and not a prophet, the historian must take the backward trail realizing that it is a very, very long trail; knowing that his fund of knowledge will not permit him to use all relevant data, and always seeking to broaden and deepen his reservoir of factual information. If all of this seems utterly ridiculous consider how James C. Malin has been able to bring his knowledge of Pleistocene geology to bear upon the problems of the grasslands dust storms, underground water resources, soil coverage and related issues.

Support for this view of time, as well as for Professor Malin's view of the relationship that exists between man and nature, comes from an unexpected source. In commenting upon the theme selected by the National Wildlife Federation for emphasis during National Wildlife Week, "Learning to Live with Nature," Ray Heady, Outdoor Editor of the Kansas City Star had this to say:

We like this year's theme. We note that it says "with nature." Not over it, under it, around it but with it. This is a big order. Man has not yet learned to live with his fellow men, if riots, wars


and violence are an index. And nature's laws and precepts are much more subtle than man's. Some of man's laws are lenient, others subject to interpretation. Nature's laws are fixed and unchanging. Mistakes are not condoned. Nature moves in centuries and eons. To man 75 years is a long time. Few men look beyond their lifetime, which to nature is not even a tick on the second hand of the clock.2

A lifetime not even a tick on the second hand of a clock and some speak seriously of "the present?"

But if time as time has particular characteristics, time as a component of historical study is a many-sided element. First of all, there is the matter of velocity, the speed, the tempo with which historical events occur, and, as a corollary, the speed with which the people, the audience as it were, become aware of what is happening. It may be hazarded as a broad generalization that many people, including far too many historians, have not been and are not now aware of the impact of the increased velocity of the dissemination of news. Instant history may not be a possibility, but almost-instant news reporting is, a bloody battlefield scene in Vietnam, a Peggy Fleming winning a figure-skating championship, a crucial free throw in a basketball game, all are there for millions to see almost the second they occur. Even the capture of a Pueblo is reported after a very brief lag in time.

A further generalization may be risked. One source of confusion today is that many people do not seem to realize that instant decisions must be made on the basis of incomplete knowledge. On that August evening, in 1914, Sir Edward Grey with a friend could stroll on the balcony of his official residence, watch the lights going out all over London, observe that they were going out all over Europe, and predict that they would not be lighted again in his day, but a diplomat today does not have the days or even the hours that were granted to Sir Edward. Perhaps there was a day when a nation did not need to trade something for time, but now it is almost certain that something valuable will have to be traded for precious time. Time, like air and water, has ceased to be a free good.

History as knowledge of the past 121

This matter of the impact of velocity upon historical research and analysis can be placed in a different context. A slow moving horse on a dusty street or an even slower plodding ox on a trail did not present many hazards to pedestrians, but the faster horses driven by the gay-blades on the paved streets of the eighteen nineties did. Then before the city fathers could deal adequately with this problem the automobile came in with its myriad of traffic problems. And in the broader area of transportation hard upon the heels of the auto came the airplane, first slow moving ones, but soon big jets and supersonic speeds. All of this in the span of one generation, indeed in the lifetime of many living people today. With keen insight Henry Adams observed what was happening and seemed appalled by the impact of it, but historians of lesser stature and especially the great system-builders and determinists committed themselves and those who devoured their simplistic, mono-causationist theories to determinisms, cyclic theories, and to the "history is repeating itself" motif. If no other factor were operative except the increasing velocity with which events occur it would be sufficient to demolish cyclic theory.

Another aspect of time as a factor in historical analysis is described simply and directly by the word timing. Automotive engineers and a few car drivers know that the spark and the correct unit of gasoline must arrive at the right place at the right time if maximum results are to be achieved. The informed, dedicated, and observant athletic buff knows that it is not an accident that the hole in the opponents' line appears precisely at the moment that the ball carrier gets there, or that the ball whether football or basketball is within fingertip reach of the intended receiver just as he reaches the right position and turns to catch it. The perfect play in all multi-participant sports is a product of perfect timing. It is done on a count or number of steps that has been pre-arranged. People interested in athletics know this and applaud the successful execution of a play, but curiously enough historians have failed to take timing into account. Focusing their view too narrowly, they have failed to take into consideration all possible factors. Again a brief reference to the contribution of James C. Malin will clarify this point.


The time is the mid-nineteenth century. The issue is the organization of the territory of Nebraska. For far too long and in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the erroneous view has been held that two territories were organized so that ultimately one might become a slave state and the other a free state. The slavery issue was made the key to the whole matter. But this was not true at all. The organization of Kansas and Nebraska was a matter of competing cities and rival railroad routes. Consider first of all that the issue of the organization of Nebraska territory first came up in 1844. Consider next that the United States did not even possess the land west of the territory, and consider finally that it was an age of water transportation that was making a slow adjustment to the use of the steam engine fuelled by wood. Now consider all of the factors that came into conjunction within the space of a few years. The United States did acquire the territory to the west; there was a shift from water transportation to land transportation, but down underneath there was an even more important shift and that was from wood as a fuel to coal as a fuel and this was a matter plain and simply of the right kind of grates. It would be far more authentic to present a steam-coal interpretation of the Nebraska-Kansas Act of May 30, 1854, than a slavery interpretation. But the significant point is the conjunction of several factors: the acquisition of the area to the west, the pressure of settlement building up on the Iowa-Missouri frontier, the development of a steam locomotive that could operate on the great grassland area where there was an inadequate supply of fuel, and finally, and just one factor of many, the agitation over slavery. One could make a similar analysis of the background of the so-called free silver movement of the latter part of the nineteenth century, but time and space do not permit another example. Again, it may be possible to conclude that if no other feature of historical analysis were involved, the factor of timing which presupposes a multiplicity of factors would overthrow most deterministic explanations.

Finally, there is the matter of the passage of time lending perspective to historical analysis. Although used more widely, indeed, accepted more generally than those just discussed, it

History as knowledge of the past 123

is not understood as clearly as it deserves to be. The elimination of any possibility of perspective is the most deadly effect of the virus of presentism that is still current in historical circles. Presentism is the selection of bits and pieces of the past in order to bring them to bear upon a current issue, to bolster the promotion of a current reform, or to support a current political leader or program. In effect the presentist undertakes to convert the past into a never-ending present; to replace the rich landscape of the past with its mountains and valleys with the drab sameness of a flat desert. There can be no possibility of historical perspective if the factor of time is drained out of history. History ceases to be a great tree with its roots deep in the soil of the past and becomes instead a bouquet of cut flowers.

From a somewhat different standpoint Daniel Boorstin has discussed the "Myth" of historical perspective. He has emphasized among other things the iridescence of historical data and the bias of survival, but he has also emphasized the necessity of the historian to be past-minded, to see the past through the eyes of the past, and to realize that the people of years, decades or centuries ago, had only their stores of knowledge and not ours. Some years ago Frank Heywood Hodder put it differently when he said that the student of history must equip himself with the "mental furniture" of the period he is studying. It is a manifest absurdity to poke fun at some early explorers of this central region who believed that they could establish an all-water route to the Pacific northwest by utilizing the Missouri River as one leg of the journey and streams flowing into the Pacific for the other; or on a more limited stage that they could ultimately reach Santa Fe by following the Missouri River to its source. They had their fund of knowledge, not ours. It is even more absurd and utterly disastrous to historical analysis to hold Alexander Hamilton responsible for the financial and industrial ills of the nineteenth century when in his day there were only three small banks in all of the United States and ninety-five percent of the American people lived in rural areas.

The elimination of perspective from historical study is one of the key premises in the development of subjective


relativism with its rejection of the possibility of objectivity and even of the desirability of objectivity. It makes it possible to speak of history as an "act of faith" and "history is what the historians say it is." It might even make it possible to say that history is what the historian had for breakfast. This emphasis upon time is intended to present the study of history as a challenging intellectual enterprise based upon the premise of knowing simply for the sake of knowing.

Some time ago Professor A. William Salomone published an essay entitled "The Freedom of History." Although his every point does not harmonize with the views presented in this paper, the beauty of his language and the depth of his thought justify rather liberal quotation from one of the earlier paragraphs and the whole of the concluding one.

History, this sphinx of the modern, is the logic of all ironies in man's journey through time, the disembodied stuff of human contradiction, seductive in her cruelty, lethal in her beauty. History is a mere wastrel of Time until it is "adopted" by knowledge and vision and is nursed and then transmuted by human intelligence grappling with the riddle of truth. All these together give history structure and a human habitation in the active remembrances of things past. Not passive memory, not chance recollection floating in the `stream of consciousness,' history is a strenuous quest, a recurrent re-discovery, intellectual action, a conquest always in need of vigilant self-renewal. The present is a moving Archimedean point without which the arc of time-as-past would collapse in senseless ruin and the potential arc of the future-as-history would have not even the shadow of a meaning. No `perspectives on tomorrow' nor on man's yesterdays can even tentatively be envisaged either by an irreverent, witless `futurist' or by an antiquarian worshipper possessed only of reverential devotion to the past as mere past. For history is neither radical nor reactionary, neither liberal nor conservative, neither pastoral nor revolutionary, but all of these things together and yet there are still more things in it than are dreamt of in the pettiest or most grandiose philosophies of men in search of self-justification. History `proves' everything and absolutely nothing; it embraces men's desires and mocks at human illusions; it cries out with boundless pain and sings of godlike human greatness. Sisyphus with his rock of necessity and Prometheus with his fire of freedom: these are for us the true symbolic demiurges of human history.

History as knowledge of the past 125

And finally,

No chain of fatality binds our civilization to a tragic end. There is no iron inevitability in any political collapse, no inescapable determinism in any moral catastrophe that can overwhelm and annihilate us. The sphere in which the deadly game between necessity and freedom operates in history has not been and need not be foreclosed. And it is only in that sphere that lies the difference between preservation and ruin. Choice, not chance, intelligence, not fear, freedom, not fatality, stand between today and all `perspectives on tomorrow.' Not any force nor law nor science but man alone has it in his power, in the free will of his spirit, in the solitude of the individual conscience and in his fearless, faithful solidarity with all mankind to decide that history this tragic, wondrous, multitudinous creature he has molded shall not have an end.3


1.Typescript copy of lecture delivered at the University of Kansas, February 10, 1967.
2.Kansas City (Missouri) Star, March 10, 1968.
3.Guest editorial in Colloquium. John Wiley and Sons (New York, 1968, 1-10. Quotations from pages 1 and 10.


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