". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Frederic Bancroft Definitely Not the Son of George Bancroft

Even though he is a fascinating figure, part of that cluster of young American historians in the next generation after George Bancroft, Frederick Bancroft (1860-1945) was not a relative of George Bancroft (1800-1891).

However , at one point in 1885 - 86, while a young post-grad gentleman-scholar in Berlin (like Henry Adams was, in 1859), Frederic called upon Leopold von Ranke (1795 - 1886),* the most renowned of German historians.

Young Frederic had no letter of introduction or any mutual aquaintance to introduce him to von Ranke. So, in order to call upon the great man, Frederic employed the ruse that he was the nephew of George Bancroft, still the dean of the American historians, and close friend of von Ranke.

Age 90, von Ranke's mind remained sharp and inquiring. Throughout the long afternoon, von Ranke reminisced to Frederic of his and George Bancroft's long, intimate friendship. As well von Ranke asked many questions about Frederic's curriculum at University and the other Americans who were studying there at the time.

Frederic Bancroft: Historian (1957) by Jacob F. Cooke, from which I gathered this information, researched and written presumably during the same years as Edmund Wilson's wrong headed, but still highly praised Patriotic Gore (1962), is notably before the transformation of the study of American history.  It comes, indeed, before there was a department called American Studies (which too, by now, has rather fallen to the wayside as African American Studies and the other Studies have turfed it out). But that is not the only reason that Cooke's text tends to frustrate the contemporary historian.

Cooke, does not approach the quality of writer that Frederic Bancroft would be. The material is poorly organized, without a through theme or focus around which to aggregate his research. Though Cooke refers to the Frederic Bancroft papers throughout, his interpretation of them feels to me, having read through many of the same folders to which Cooke refers, as well, mistaken. He also has little regard for Bancroft as an historian of either the South or the Civil War -- which may explain a great deal about the trajectory of F. Bancroft's publications, and why Slave Trading in the Old South wasn't published until 1931. But it remains baffling how historians of his own time and even after WWII see any, or at best only little, value in the enormous work of salvage, organization and number crunching Bancroft did in these matters -- while producing so much else, including a biography of Seward.

All of which makes me wonder why Cooke did this book, which he himself labels, "a minor monograph" on an "historian of little note."  My guess is the true subjects of Frederic Bancroft: Historian are the German universities' methods and German historians' influence on the practice of American historians writing American History in that era post Civil War through World War 1.

If so, even there Cooke missed the transformational influence on the practice of American History, that we would be seeing after World War I, that of the fledgling discipline of Anthropology. Columbia University figures such as Franz Boas systematized the methods. Though Cooke describes in detail young Frederic putting the methods into practice as he learned at Columbia, particularly the importance of interviewing people who were part of the scene of inquiry, he doesn't make the connection. For me, this leaped off the page. I felt genuine excitement to see this transformation in action. This is another way in which the methodology of historians has changed. To be good at it you need to have the tools of a multiple of disciplines.

Of course there is one area in which we as historians have degenerated since the days when American historians tended to be gentlemen-scholars who didn't make a living from their work -- few of us have any other language than English, which circumscribes our investigations, as well as limits our understanding.

Bancroft, Adams -- all these figures were fluent in at least French, and generally German too, and the best of them like Adams and Hay, were also fluent in Spanish. It's hard to do American history in its largest scope -- or even in the granular, as with Jackson and the Floridas, without being able to read Spanish, but few of us do. This inability then, to see ourselves as others saw us means we miss an enormous amount, which makes it even easier to adhere to our triumphalist interpretations that our country is never, has never, been anything but the best, the brightest, the cleanest, kindest, rightest, and most honest and god-blessed nation, who, only by our own bootstraps' virtue, was destined to own all the rest.


* George Eliot was as deeply steeped in Von Ranke and his circle's methods, as she was in German philosophy, biography and literature.

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