High Concept

Just the Artifacts

A cultural history of cultural histories.

It is said that of all his colleagues at the University of Basel, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche could converse with only one: historian Jacob Burckhardt. We can speculate on two possible explanations for this. One is that Burckhardt was a new kind of historian, a “cultural historian.” He chronicled not just kings and their wars but an entire way of life, even the spirit of an era. So perhaps Burckhardt got along with Nietzsche because he was his sole intellectual equal. The other explanation is that, after pondering for decades a concept as flummoxing as “culture,” Burckhardt emerged as mad as Nietzsche himself. Think about that the next time you pick up the latest “cultural history” at the local book barn.

“A cultural history of …” may seem like one of those catchall phrases so overused as to become meaningless, but it too has a history. It is only over the past decade that the expression has become the subtitle of choice for nonfiction authors with grand ambitions. As far as the publishing industry is concerned, “cultural history” is now synonymous with just about everything with a past, from subjects of broad social import (Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertisingin America, by acclaimed cultural historian Jackson Lears) to those of apparently more narrow interest (Handwriting inAmerica: A Cultural History, by Tamara Plakins Thornton). Other recent topics: the pencil, the city of St. Petersburg, the Virgin Mary, vampires, breasts, and traveling salesmen.

In all these books, the implicit definition of cultural history–rarely does anyone attempt an explicit one–is as maddening as that of culture itself. (Another great cultural historian, Raymond Williams, once ventured a definitive definition of culture. Judge for yourself whether he succeeded: “The complexity of a culture is to be found not only in its variable processes and their social definitions–traditions, institutions, and formations–but also in the dynamic interrelations, at every point of the process, of historically varied and variable elements.”) Even in its strictest academic sense, “cultural history” can still be: 1) The history of things we do for ennoblement or diversion–literature, music, sports, food. 2) The folk history of a relatively distinct group, such as New York Jews in Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers (or even the various tribes chronicled in the very first work of history ever written, Herodotus’ Histories). 3) A way of looking at any form of social organization, such as politics (Robert Wiebe’s Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy) or economics (Eugene Genovese’s books about the system of slavery in the Old South) or even meaning and how people make it (Michel Foucault, passim).

This notional slipperiness stems in part from Burckhardt’s influence. Reacting to the stern positivism of his teacher, Leopold von Ranke, who was known for his efforts to turn history into a science, Burckhardt was the first to argue that history was the art of interpretation. His Civilization of the Italian Renaissance, published in 1860, reads like an encyclopedia of its subject–until he slows down and arrays his evidence in essayistic fashion to show that what changed between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was nothing less than the nature of human consciousness. Man went from being “conscious of himself as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation,” he argues, to recognizing himself as an individual. Before Burckhardt, it had never occurred to anyone that the category of “individual” could have its own history.

A later pioneer of cultural history was the Dutchman Johan Huizinga, whose masterpiece, The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1919), was released in a new translation last year. Huizinga announced his conclusion in his gorgeous opening line: “When the world was half a thousand years younger, all events had much sharper outlines than now … every experience had that degree of directness and absoluteness they still have in the mind of a child.” This is history as written by an enthusiast, a man who deplored the flattening effects of conventional historiography, who celebrated the “fervent pathos of medieval life.” In his work we find chapters on “The Cravings of a Beautiful Life,” “Religious Fantasy,” and “The Forms of Love.” For both Burckhardt and Huizinga, cultural history was about conjuring up an age by way of a wide-eyed romp through its artifacts. And if their conclusions turned out to contradict each other, well, that was cultural history too.

For most of this century, historians found the positivist legacy of von Ranke more seductive than the playfulness of Burckhardt and Huizinga. In the 1960s, scholars added populism to positivism, turning away from the study of the powerful to look at the experiences of ordinary people. Since the lowly rarely leave behind rich written records, historians were forced to tally demographic patterns in books that were about as entertaining as the census tracts from which they gleaned their evidence. Or they raided the records of labor unions and working-class benevolent associations to reproduce, again and again, the same quasi-Marxist narrative: Huddled masses, buffeted by the deprecations of their betters, organize to advance their own interests.

But then a brilliant generation of historians, yawning their way through graduate school, hit upon cultural history as a way to honor their populist convictions while capturing the texture of the past. The stuff of culture–meanings, symbols, rituals, even language itself–was everywhere; the trick was to make it signify. Some, such as Genovese, found in the Marxism of Antonio Gramsci a compelling method for studying the way people view the world and vie for power by attempting to convince others that their version of reality is the correct one. Others, such as Joan Wallach Scott (Gender and the Politics of History, 1988), were inspired by postmodern literary theory. They trained their attention on language, asking how the shifting meanings of words such as “worker” and “woman” shaped political change. Still others (Robert Darnton, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, and Natalie Zemon Davis) discovered anthropology, and began to focus on symbols and rituals and their power to make or break communities.

Anthropologists doing fieldwork in faraway lands have long maintained that the highest achievement of cultural analysis is to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. It is ironic that it took the discovery of anthropology in the 1970s and 1980s to return cultural history to the ideas of Burckhardt and Huizinga. When Burckhardt accounts for the origins of “individualism,” he is making something familiar seem strange. When Huizinga reminds us of the directness of experience we once knew as children, in a slightly mad endeavor to explain how the Middle Ages felt, he is making something strange seem familiar.

This is the strategy of the best cultural historians today: They want to unsettle us. I have a favorite example–Michael Kazin’s The Populist Persuasion: An American History. In it, Kazin breaks from the New Left social history he helped to pioneer in the ‘70s, work where the narrative–earnest, uplifting–was understood in advance, and the “ordinary people” always ended up looking somehow identical. The Populist Persuasion, by contrast, is rich in irony. It traces the language of populism, the perennial American notion that the strong should not prevail over the weak, and shows how everyone–from labor unions to temperance agitators, Southern racists to New Left activists, and even a billionaire running for president–was able to exploit the same rhetorical trope, “the will of the people,” for radically different ends.

Kazin, to be sure, was dismissed by some academic reviewers as lacking rigor. They had a point: Cultural history is not the place to look for an account of the past that trumpets itself as authoritative. When cultural history works, it finds a universe–or, in Kazin’s case, a nation, in all its contradictory glory and foolishness–in a grain of sand. Then again, sand sometimes slips through your fingers.