Popularizing the Past: Historians, Publishers, and Readers in Postwar America

Nick Witham

University of Chicago Press, $99.00 (cloth)

It seems almost quaint—at a time when the academy is under systemic attack by those who talk of facts, faith, the greatness of the Founders, and the still greater power of “woke” educators—that during the 1990s, historians of the United States with decent job prospects started to beat themselves up over their failure to drop the jargon, engage the public, synthesize their findings, or tell national stories that could also pass professional muster. Did academics fail to learn (or remember) how to gain and retain the appreciation of the citizenry by . . . writing books? Thirty years later, historians continue some of the same self-scrutiny, often on social media, under the more obviously politicized signs of “presentism,” The 1619 Project, and the banning of books that draw on their work.

Though historians—of all people—should know better, we sometimes still talk, and write, as if there is a single national audience for popular history.

The late twentieth-century quarrels took place in the wake of an explosion of knowledge (a crisis of overproduction, really, due to growing ranks of PhDs), the arrival in greater numbers of women and people of color in the academy, and an ensuing greater distrust of happy white male national stories. The divide appeared to widen and morph into an ever more exaggerated distinction between “popular” and “academic” history. In 1994 Harvard’s Bernard Bailyn opined that “there is no systematic reason why good history can’t be popular, but it seldom is, simply because. . . . it is so difficult to maintain the historian’s discipline and at the same time make the story compelling and broadly accessible.” Professors did not want to get caught on the wrong side of this particular railroad track by the wrong people: a promotion or even a career could be at stake. Recent debates about presentism and the politicization of the past are haunted by this dual legacy: rewards and punishments handed out for being political, for being popular, for being neither, or for toeing an often invisible set of crisscrossing lines.

If it wasn’t all so academic, it might be described as the real world. Insofar as audiences denote constituencies and vary from place to place, the academic-popular divide itself might be mistaken, too, for a politics. Ironically, the education of more and more people in the United States has led to an expansion of potential audiences for quality, and progressive, history. It has also generated a series of unresolved questions about overt and implicit politics, style, and the identity of the historian as a writer and a public person.

In his new book Popularizing the Past, historian Nick Witham sheds light on five particularly interesting historians’ writing and publishing strategies during the mid-to-late twentieth century. He has a small but unusual cast of characters—two mainstream historians who taught at elite schools and straddled an intellectual but popular fence (Richard Hofstadter, Daniel J. Boorstin), and three radical new faces who developed new fields or, at least, new audiences (John Hope Franklin, Howard Zinn, and Gerda Lerner).

In the first group, Witham sees a genre of national popular history that draws not necessarily straight lines from politics past to present, which comes in liberal and conservative guises and is aimed at a “general” reader. (Witham acknowledges the vagueness of this category and approaches it less as a fiction than as something under construction during the postwar paperback revolution—an insight that follows from other scholarly work on the history of the book and popular culture, though usually with more attention to the whiteness and middle-classness of the phenomenon.) By contrast, Witham sees Franklin, Lerner, and Zinn speaking to or constructing an audience of “activist readers,” a mode of historical writing that persists to the present and arguably has been just as important in shaping the sense of what history can or ought to be. Indeed, by giving the majority of his pages to “activist” historians who, paradoxically or not, achieved popularity, Witham begs the question of where change comes from, in history as well as history writing.

Ultimately, Witham says, all five of his subjects were “intellectuals who created their own publics,” comparing them implicitly to today’s social media–savvy activist-scholars. Before the podcast, there were paperbacks—perhaps as democratic in effect, if not in production. (It’s much harder to get a contract with a publisher than to upload your own show on Spotify.) While acknowledging and in some cases even championing professional specialization in new fields like women’s history (Lerner) or African American history (Franklin), all of Witham’s models “showed faith in the idea that given the right support and guided by the right understanding of what made for popular history, the historical profession could produce work that would inspire everyday Americans to think differently about their nation’s past,” he writes.

The “think differently” part is essential, but so is these historians’ experience of the mid-century paperback revolution that could put their books into the hands of anyone who perused those once ubiquitous, squeaky rotating racks of little, 6” by 4” books whose pages had already turned brownish. When it came to printed history, both the student audience and the popular one seemed to be growing. These professors didn’t think their job was to conserve and re-present, much less dumb down, old understandings on cheaper paper. It was to craft and synthesize new knowledge, but in an accessible way that had political implications.

In light of the laments and controversies and crises in the discipline—fueled by a dearth of secure jobs amid rising denunciations of historians for trying to do their jobs, both inside and beyond the classroom—Witham’s retrospective is as refreshing as a half-full glass of water. By celebrating the historian as writer without considering what other popular and political writers and historians with similar interests were doing in those years—and especially what they did when accused of being political—Witham dodges an opportunity to do more than previous handwringers. The present may not be so different than the recent past for historians, but the infrastructures that support scholarly work that might translate into mass or activist readership are under attack as never before, in part because of the perceived successes of radical history. In other words, the contemporary crisis looks less like a failure of historians to rise to the writerly aspirations of their forebears than a concerted “antiwoke” backlash to their popular successes as well as their activism.

Witham starts out with the “narratives of declension” that leading U.S. historians—from Allan Nevins in 1939 to Eric Foner in 1980 to Jill Lepore in 2018—have spun about professional, college-teaching historians’ failures to reach and enlighten the masses. Was the problem sheer inaccessibility due to narrow specializations or “abstruse” prose? Was it mistaken migration away from uplifting (or even tragic) stories about presidents, wars, the nation-state? Didn’t anyone succeed in marrying sophistication or political punch with popular appeal?

Witham finds underappreciated understandings of audience and purpose in his five case studies, beginning with a searching brief for Hofstadter, whom Lepore has used to prod colleagues who have allegedly lost their liberal, nationalist, storytelling way.

Hofstadter’s breakthrough book was written on a competitive fellowship funded by publisher Alfred A. Knopf, and it can be surprising to recall just how critical Hofstadter was of what Knopf decided to call The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (1948). The young Columbia University professor told the reader that he had “no desire to add to a literature of hero-worship and national self-congratulation.” He analyzed ideals but insisted they had to be understood in social and economic contexts. He paid attention to slavery and to class as shaping facts of political economy, bringing it up at the outset of chapters on the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson. He was unconventionally kind to Wendell Phillips at a time when radical abolitionists were still denounced as utopian ideologues. And he called out aristocrats and capitalists as populist posers. Hofstadter was tough on populism later, especially its anti-Semitic varieties. But as Witham’s case makes clear, the tendency of twentieth-century specialists to read his career and his sense of U.S. history backward from Age of Reform (1955) and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1962) misses too much of what’s still useful (and entertaining) in his vision of American political culture.

It’s revealing that the closest thing to what was once called a pointy-headed intellectual among Hofstadter’s statesmen is John C. Calhoun, whom he called the “Marx of the Master Class.” Hofstadter excoriates Calhoun not as an old-fashioned paternalist but, in Witham’s update, as a “racial capitalist”—in other words, definitely not as the racial anti-capitalist that Eugene D. Genovese, who chose to study with Columbia’s Southern history specialists rather than with Hofstadter, would later make him out to be. Hofstadter’s chapter on Calhoun in The American Political Tradition can be read as a satire of the recondite debates between American socialists and communists over intellectuals and the bourgeoisie, much as his takedown of Jackson buying a slave literally on the road to Tennessee and destiny made—and still makes—a mockery of the excuses for Jackson offered up by Democratic court historians like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Sean Wilentz. This was “a version of popular history that maintained a critical stance toward the past while addressing an audience whose ideas he sought to fundamentally disrupt,” Witham concludes.

Popularizing the Past traces Hofstadter’s emplotment of irony and tragedy in U.S. history to his writerly ambitions. His aim, Witham says, was “not to appeal to what he viewed as the lowest common denominator in contemporary culture” (which he would go on to witheringly dissect in Anti-Intellectualism and in The Paranoid Style in American Politics) “but to emulate his literary heroes” in New York, like Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson, “while educating the American public.” The American Political Tradition won praise from reviewers “precisely because of its transgression of national historical pieties,” its egalitarian sympathies, and its realism about social movements and alliance politics, though by the late 1960s it would be seen by some radical historians as too fatalistic about the triumph of capitalist values and the failures of the left.

Richard Hofstadter wrote about a capitalist consensus in order to criticize it, for an audience across the political spectrum.

What Witham captures especially well is how Hofstadter, with his iconoclastic approach to statesmen that made them at once representative of movements and full of contradictions, enabled many readers to appreciate the grand march of American partisan politics while keeping a critical distance from all of its paragons, including the Roosevelts. He neither disputed that these men were important nor reduced them to cardboard figures of glory or betrayal. The V-9 Vintage paperback—with its red-white-and-blue striped cover, one of the first of what would be more than a thousand Vintage titles over the next three decades—had something, if not for everybody, at least for anyone with a skeptical bone in their body. Hofstadter dealt in similes that juxtaposed archetypes, calling attention to epic pretensions, tragic flaws, and less than inspiring realities: “the Aristocrat as Democrat” (Jefferson), “the Patrician as Agitator” (Phillips), “the Democrat as Revivalist” (William Jennings Bryan). One might admire what these men and American politics accomplished, he suggested, but in a measured way that marked the differences between the past and the present. Each figure and movement suggested persistent American capitalist and reform themes but also the shifting obsessions of past generations: not so much founding fathers as more or less embarrassing grandfathers. If you listen to them hard, Hofstadter seems to say, you realize that they didn’t have all the answers in their own times, much less in ours.

Hofstadter wrote about a capitalist consensus in order to criticize it, for an audience across the political spectrum. Ultimately, though, Witham is more interested in Hofstadter’s style than his substance, missing opportunities to see their relationship. If these were “professional and political contradictions,” as Witham writes, Hofstadter embraced them as much as he embraced anything—as a writing problem. (One of his students once described to me a teaching practice that included both close editing—“Surely there must be a more felicitous way of making this point?”—and lecturing directly from his own manuscripts.) “I am really a suppressed litterateur,” Hofstadter wrote to Alfred Kazin sometime in the early 1950s. Excavating Hofstadter’s own developing understanding of his method from his letters, Witham shows how he embraced artistic genres like “caricature” while “blurring the literary boundaries between scholarly and popular writing.” He also considered himself unusual among historians in both trying and succeeding at this, even though he clearly owed much to a tradition of Progressive debunking, from the 1890s to the 1930s.

These lessons were not lost on Foner (also his student) or on Zinn, who was still quoting him approvingly in 1995. With Foner we get the rigor and political savvy, if more rarely the irony; with Zinn, the debunking and the caricatures. Perhaps what has been lost is the felicitous balance, already under great pressure as Hofstadter matured and the political contexts for his writing changed.

In Boorstin, Hofstadter had an alter ego on the moving-right side of the political spectrum, one who agreed with his view of “a relative absence of real growth in the American Political Tradition.” Eventually, in the last, self-critical, yet forward-looking chapter of The Progressive Historians (1968), Hofstadter made Boorstin the foremost negative example of the “consensus” school with which he felt he had been mistakenly lumped. The skepticism was mutual and built over time. Boorstin had publicly mocked Hofstadter’s incorporation of social science (and literary flair) in Age of Reform; Hofstadter objected privately to his doppelganger’s “smug nationalism and his anti-intellectualism.” Witham agrees that Boorstin’s emphasis on no-nonsense capitalist practicalities in his The Americans trilogy meant “ironing out, or simply ignoring, much of the conflict and violence” in U.S. history—something Hofstadter could never be accused of, despite his emphasis on a capitalist ideological consensus. Hofstadter returned to themes of violence and tragedy at the end of his career, in response to students and to the conflicts of the 1960s. Boorstin fled them.

Boorstin’s own trademark use of irony, like Hofstadter’s, made it possible for him to be read appreciatively yet differently by different people. Reading Witham on these two historians, I felt I finally understood what both had in common with celebrated fiction writers of the same years, like J. D. Salinger or even Vladimir Nabokov. Or to put it differently: these guys were the Rod Serlings of popular, synthetic, but high-end American history, guiding young and old into the twilight zone of the distant and the near pasts where everything was familiar yet weird. The problems with detachment and irony, however, are more evident with Boorstin, much of whose work has not stood the test of time.

Daniel Boorstin was a liberal who punched left so hard and so often that his other hand withered.

Boorstin was a liberal who punched left so hard and so often that his other hand withered. He famously swore before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that despite his brief Communist Party membership in 1938–39, his Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (1948) promoted “the unique virtues of American democracy.” (He also ratted out names of other Communist Party members he had known.) Two decades later, historian John Patrick Diggins observed that had the committee actually read the book, they would have been outraged at the academic’s deliberate misdirection, for the book actually criticized Jefferson’s idealism. Boorstin’s Genius of American Politics (1953) similarly argued against “modern abolitionists” and their idealist schemes, and he gave Pennsylvania Quakers the same treatment in The Americans: The Colonial Experience (1958). For Boorstin, the usable past lay in pragmatism, not dreams, even dreams of equality or democracy: “the nation simply had ‘no philosophy’ that could be exported to the rest of the world,” he wrote. And if anybody did have an ideology—well, too bad for them, because history just doesn’t go according to plan. The genius of America was not to have genius (which meant: theory, intellectuals, real European-style or anticolonial revolutions).

With no ideology but practicality, there was no need, Boorstin thought, to look for classes or alliances underneath the seeming consensus. Take Boorstin’s 1966 introduction to An American Primer, a collection of “the eighty-three most important documents of the American past” with generous prefaces and afterwards by contemporary historians:

This is a book of Citizen’s History. Our American past always speaks to us with two voices: the voice of the past, and the voice of the present. . . . Historian’s history is the patient, endless effort to resurrect the dead past.

But the citizen cannot wait. . . . The good historian warns against a too-simple moral, a too-clear answer to any question. The citizen’s duty is to think and feel and act promptly. The historian who refuses to draw conclusions—until more evidence is in, or because we can never know—is fulfilling his vocation. . . .

Much of the history of our national testament consists in the ironies and the whimsies by which slogans cried up in one cause become shibboleths of quite other causes, causes which as often as not their original authors would have fought against. To read these remarkable “Afterlives” is to acquire a sobering humility about our power over our grandchildren, and to discover the extent and the limits of our ancestors’ power over us. But it is also to realize our great power and our need, in every generation, to rediscover and to re-create our tradition.

There’s little room here for politics or reform informed by rigorous history: the default is going to be myth and more myth as Boorstin reinscribes the very divide that his primer sets out to transcend. For Boorstin, history should make us wary, skeptics of change rather than agents of it, and the past and the present have to be kept separate by historians even if they won’t be by citizens. Everything misfires except going with the middlebrow flow—and maybe wise men who take a knowing, worldly, long-term view. This is patriotism with ironic detachment, and by the time Boorstin wrote, it had long since reeked of reaction. Hofstadter had more respect for his readers—and for students and colleagues. While Boorstin helped run the pathbreaking bottom-up historian Jesse Lemisch out of the University of Chicago—because, as Lemisch recounted, he “enjoyed what he called my ‘sea stories’ but could not abide my introduction of the notion of class”—Hofstadter encouraged Foner and Michael Wallace, among others who went on to write definitive histories during the later twentieth century.

And yet, Boorstin’s observation that slogans could be interpreted in ways their creators might recoil from applies to his own work. His “democracy of consumers” and individualists provided grist for critics as well as conservatives, much as Hofstadter’s ironies could reassure those who thought fundamental change either undesirable or unlikely in America. Harvey Neptune, for example, has brilliantly interpreted The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson, which the “Jefferson establishment” of the time hated, as a mocking takedown of emerging racial “science.” Witham cites but doesn’t really engage Neptune’s bold thesis that Boorstin later pursued an “un-American,” indeed postcolonial, critique of American exceptionalism in his comparisons of the “new nation” to other former colonies in the Americas. Perhaps Boorstin’s years at the University Chicago taught him, à la the acolytes of Leo Strauss, to send different messages to the masses and to the philosophers.

Boorstin seems to have enjoyed the personal inscrutability and distance from politics that many post–Popular Front creatives cultivated. He identified “not as a lawyer, a historian, or an administrator,” though he worked at all these, “but as a writer.” Or was the slipperiness born of distrust and fear of the mob, from the son of a lawyer who had to get out of Atlanta after defending Leo Frank in court before his lynching? What Witham calls Boorstin’s “indifference to entrenched racial inequalities” in the United States, despite growing up in Tulsa during and after the pogrom of 1921, suggests a distinct and not minor, though less often highlighted, case of twentieth-century Jewish assimilation. Witham does not solve the puzzle of Boorstin, in part because he seems unequipped to deal with the varieties of Jewish American experience represented by four of his five historians. But by following the middle of Boorstin’s career, he illustrates how historians aiming for the “middlebrow” intervened ambitiously yet ambiguously in politics even when they were distancing themselves from the vulgarities they associated with student activism.

In his own red-white-and-blue Vintage paperback of 1968, Staughton Lynd, who died last November, explicitly identified “radicals” in search of a usable past as his intended audience. His title, Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism (1968), suggested pluralities in a broader left tradition—in marked contrast to Bailyn’s singular story in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967). The second part of Popularizing the Past pivots to three historians who wrote explicitly for “alternative audiences” of such “activist readers.” Witham finds not one tradition, but several related ones. Again he emphasizes the successes of the work rather than the ironies.

Though John Hope Franklin was “skeptical” of interdisciplinary Black studies, radicals found his “liberal Afrocentrism” useful enough.

John Hope Franklin found a sweet spot in an audience across the color line for a rigorous and comprehensive history of African Americans, From Slavery to Freedom, first in 1948 “to tell the story of the process by which the Negro has sought to cast his lot with an evolving American civilization”—a clear integrationist, pro–Civil Rights agenda—and then, after 1969, in a paperback, which Franklin insisted on to compete with “cheap, polemical” alternatives beginning to flood the market. Trained at Harvard by Progressive historians and influenced by Black left historians like W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Eric Williams, Franklin was liberal and optimistic about progress. He didn’t seek controversy but adapted to it, much as he managed to fit in at North Carolina Central, Howard University, Brooklyn College, the University of Chicago, Duke University, and Bill Clinton’s presidential commissions on race.

Though Franklin was “skeptical” of interdisciplinary Black studies and of cultural nationalism, radicals and nationalists found his “liberal Afrocentrism” useful enough. As Robin D. G. Kelley has put it, “cloaked in the protective armor of judicious prose was a surprisingly radical interpretation of American history” in which African Americans were central to the national story and in which many if not most of their gains derived from their own efforts. His book’s origins and continuing use as a course textbook allowed for regular, careful, and unapologetic revisions—seven editions through 1994—in response to “fundamental disputes over questions of racial politics,” including his own resistance to the use of “Black” instead of “Negro.” Witham is sensitive to all this, but more discussion of Franklin’s actual interpretations of U.S. history would have clarified that Franklin furthered a long tradition of “Black study”—a tradition that didn’t depend on New York’s downtown and midtown publishers.

Franklin’s persistence complicates the emphasis on generational conflict in histories of the civil rights movement, as well as the assumed academic/pop culture divide. At the same time, Witham ignores Franklin’s close ties to Boorstin, who published Franklin’s short history of Reconstruction in a series he edited and helped bring Franklin to Chicago. They remained friends for the rest of their lives and even planned to write a book together. When he penned his memoir forty years later, Franklin was still disgusted by students leafletting Boorstin’s classes with excerpts from his HUAC testimony. Either both their stories are more complex than radical-versus-conservative or general-versus-activist readers, or something is missing from Witham’s account. That something is also suggested by the fact that when John Lewis was arrested in Selma, he was carrying a copy of The American Political Tradition in his backpack. Sometimes Witham, like a savvy publisher, puts his historians into boxes that both authors and readers resisted.

Howard Zinn’s clear intentions provoked what now looks like the prehistory of attacks on wokeness as unpatriotic propaganda.

Witham sees Zinn similarly, as a generational bridge between the Old and New Left. The very notion of A People’s History of the United States (1980) owed much to the Popular Front. To a paleo-progressive suspicion of militarism and imperialism, Zinn added his early New Left experience in the South, where he taught at Spelman College and encouraged students to organize (from 1956 until he was fired in 1963), which led him to highlight both oppression and resistance. Like his friend Lynd, he appealed to activists by putting radicals and radicalisms front and center, over a long arc. In his 1964 book on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Zinn was one of the first to (approvingly) call civil rights protesters The New Abolitionists.

The basic idea was to go over or under the head of the establishment and its textbooks that pushed a seemingly neutral view that was actually the ideology of an oppressive establishment. Zinn embraced controversy and deliberately politicized history. He believed in protest and illustrated how business leaders and politicians responded violently to initiatives from below. Accordingly, he wasn’t especially focused on college-educated readers: he looked younger and broader, not least because he understood youth itself as a radical political force. He and his publisher, Harper & Row, gradually conceptualized their readership “as members of a politicized community of activists” who might be teenagers or their teachers but could be anybody tired of patriotic bromides that papered over genocide, slavery, exploitation, and the sins of industrial capitalism and the state.

These choices opened Zinn to criticisms from professionals, including next-wave labor and social historians, for being romantic and simplistic. But there’s no denying the inspiration that so many have drawn from Zinn’s popularization of Old and New Left themes. The function, for Witham, mirrored that of Franklin’s generative textbook, even if the audience only partially overlapped and the style differed. Zinn’s clear intentions, and the radical uses of his widely popular book, also provoked what now looks like the prehistory of attacks on wokeness as unpatriotic propaganda.

There was a cost. Increased controversy often led to interchanges “where his arguments . . . were reduced to soundbites,” most notably with A People’s History as an “iconic text,” an apt symbol of a culture war that anyone could fight. In Zinn’s new world, one that may be more familiar to a new generation of historians qua op-ed writers and podcasters, “popularity was synonymous with controversy.” Zinn himself became something of a “people’s history” brand. But he was always more than that. In Doing History from the Bottom Up (2014), Lynd reminds us that after their Spelman experience (Zinn had hired him, only to be first fired for his activism), his friend directly addressed the way that the myth of a unitary Southern continuity and culture fooled people into thinking that attitudes had to be changed slowly, not precipitated through alterations in law and behavior. No wonder they looked again at the debates in antebellum antislavery. Nodding to Betty Friedan, Zinn called this book The Southern Mystique (1964). Among the experts on race and Southern history he cited was Franklin, whose book Zinn and Lynd used in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools curriculum.

Popularizing the Past broadens its ambit with a final chapter on Gerda Lerner, an indispensable pioneer of women’s history and a contemporary of the four male historians born during or shortly after World War I. It might be obvious to those who have read her that Lerner combined Franklin’s scholarly precision with Zinn’s activism and a commitment to feminism as both politics and a mode of inquiry, but it is less well known that she shared the literary ambitions of Hofstadter and Boorstin. As a Jewish émigré from Austria, Lerner had first been an activist and aspiring fiction writer, and coauthor of an off-Broadway musical Singing of Women (1951) and the screenplay of John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961), before deciding to go to graduate school during the early 1960s. Looking back on her career, she would repeatedly emphasize how women’s history needed rigor, clarity, and style to gain the popular audience, and political effects, it must have. Lerner forms a fitting conclusion to Popularizing the Past because she combined all the trends Witham specifies, with the exception of the ironic veil—something she could not afford given “the struggle Lerner faced,” as a woman writing about women, “to break into the mainstream of American historical writing.”

Women’s history, for Gerda Lerner, had to be more than the story of the women’s rights movement. It became all of women’s experience.

Witham rightly emphasizes the breadth and sheer learnedness as well as radicalism of Lerner’s project: first, a pathbreaking biography of the feminist-abolitionist Grimké sisters, but even more impressively, her two-volume study of The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (1993). Her most-thumbed work, however, may be her mass-marketed Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (1972), which prioritized female experience but also highlighted the intersection of race and class. Witham also points out that the growth of the popular audience for good and useful women’s history depended not so much on university curricula as the proliferation of feminist bookstores and consciousness-raising. (And perhaps the evolution of the professional-managerial class. My own used copy of Lerner’s last essay collection, Living with History/Making Social Change (2009), has a bookplate from the “Executive Women in Government 2009 Annual Summit and Training Conference.”)

Women’s history, for Lerner, had to be more than the story of the women’s rights movement. It became all of women’s experience and also “equally concerned with men and women,” a transformative way of looking at national and world history—what sometime colleague Joan Wallach Scott would theorize as a gendered approach to power. In a sense, with her patriarchy-to-feminism synthesis, Lerner circled back to an ambitious, scholarly, yet popular search for an educated general reader—building out from an activist base. There wasn’t any point at all in even entertaining the notion that this work was not political to the core. Nor was there any denying that Lerner, like Franklin and Zinn, achieved something that many of their academic colleagues had begun to say was impossible: grand narratives that reflected the new work in many subfields.

Witham’s readings of these five figures offer sensitive analysis and point to the key questions about politics and publishing, but his interpretation of what it all adds up to will probably strike some readers as banal. There were and are “multiple and competing publics for popular history,” Witham concludes. The audiences for history simultaneously “broadened” and “diversified” in the late twentieth century in ways that “blurred” the line historians drew between the popular and academic—“and perhaps even rendered that tension meaningless.”

Though historians—of all people—should know better, we sometimes still talk, and write, as if there is a single national audience for popular history. There wasn’t and isn’t, at least not any more than there is for a novel or a play. By illustrating the strategies and the successes of these five historians, Witham takes down the heated if not hysterical tone of both historians and pundits about presentism and the politicization of history.

What if historians had more than the smallest fraction of the public support given to social scientists or scientists?

Still, it is hard not to wonder what Witham’s study might suggest if he had dealt with some examples that cut across his categories of general versus activist historians and readers, followed their entire careers or backlists as such, or even looked more closely at their relationships with each other. Hofstadter, after all, is still often read as essentially antipopulist and antiradical, but he seemed to take a more critical turn (or return?) in 1968, as he began working on a multivolume history of the United States. Unfortunately, he died of leukemia in 1970, so all we have is his extended prologue, America at 1750: A Social Portrait. Would this have been the lost synthesis, stylistically and interpretively, Americanists are still trying to find? Witham treads lightly over Boorstin’s conservative third act, implying more consistency than Boortsin actually demonstrated: timing, and the rightward turn of U.S. politics, usually explains these things, but in Witham it is strangely absent, as if historians not only make their audiences but also their eras. What if he had considered C. Vann Woodward, the southerner as liberal who by the early 1990s (much like Wilentz now) came to serve as a historian-cop of race discourse from a perch at the New York Review of Books?

Meanwhile, Lynd, a decade younger than the historians who are Witham’s focus, wrote accessibly and influentially, but his actual activism pushed him onto a blacklist (with assists from Woodward and Genovese), from which he could not pen the kind of ambitious histories of the Revolution and the politics of slavery for which he laid the groundwork during the 1960s. In autobiographical writings Lynd reasons that he was more committed to politics than to writing history. Yet for a half century after he lost his job at Yale and was ostracized after nearly being hired at five Chicago-area institutions, he chose to keep experimenting with history from the bottom up. What if Knopf, the National Endowment for the Humanities, or Yale had gotten over Lynd’s antiwar activism and given him a fellowship to write more about radicalism, antislavery, the Revolution, the Civil War, and the American political tradition? What if, indeed, historians had more than the smallest fraction of the public support given to social scientists or scientists? Debate about these issues would have been richer for it, and the 1619 Project would have had more to work with. In that possible world, the rhetorical situation facing historians today almost certainly would have been very different—so different, perhaps, that the 1619 writers might not have made the overstatements that certain of our would-be Woodwards have seized upon in a specious bid to reject the whole effort out of hand.

The new divide, in any case, seems to be not so much academia versus public sphere or scholarship versus presentism (or activism) as hagiography versus iconoclasm, harder right versus harder left, and whiteness versus its substantive or performative rejection. Maybe the false choices Witham writes against remain the same because, as Hofstadter and Lynd understood, our politics goes in cycles and doesn’t change quite so much as it may seem. Looking back in 1993 at his career, and bemoaning how “social history has become too academicized and deactivated,” Lemisch asked waggishly if “it might help were another such time as The Sixties to come, to clear our heads and help us to see the world plainly.” Maybe that time has come: maybe it is now.

Correction: An earlier version of this essay mistakenly stated that Hofstadter was the only historian included in the Library of America. This clause has been removed.

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