Historians and journalists tend to circle warily around one another. Some journalists know what they don’t know, and recognize the merit of the deeper knowledge and contextualized understandings that professional historians bring to their work. I say “some.” Others either could care less, or rarely if ever get the opportunity to plumb greater depths, given the nature of journalism, especially in the 24/7 reality of the blogosphere and its impact on all contemporary writing.
Historians on the other hand famously resent the obscurity in which they toil, as they pile up footnote after footnote the McCulloughs and Caros of the world get all the attention, the money, and even the prizes. In recent times historians recognized their own culpability in this dynamic, understanding that social science methodologies sharpened their analytical skills but made their writing duller, more geared to problem solving than to writing compelling historical narratives that told a great story AND answered important historical questions.
We should all take heart from the Jill Lepores of the world, as few as they may be. Professor Lepore teaches at Harvard, and she contributes regularly for The New Yorker. She writes beautifully, acutely conscious of the opportunity and the necessity of using her tools to engage in some old-fashioned enlightenment, trying to make her readers better citizens of the republic. She weaves past and present together, as in her work on the tea party She knows that history in this sense should be about bringing readers into the public square, and making that public space a more interesting, thoughtful place for us all to congregate. In so doing she knows that she walks in the footsteps of Richard Hofstadter and other historians who lived through the tumultuous times of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, and who recognized that scholarship needed not only to study civilization but to become an active player in the civilization building enterprise.
In that vein I offer this piece of Charles Pierce, from a recent Esquire piece on the best political books at least according to him. A serious list, with the exception of omitting Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition, still the holy grail for understanding American politics past and present.