Thank you for this honor, and for this very handsome prize. It means all the more because I am privileged to share it with Richard Wilbur. [Editor’s note: Richard Wilbur was the 1996 recipient of The Ingersoll Foundation’s T.S. Eliot Award for Creative Writing.] I have long admired the art and craft and wisdom of his poetry.
A good part of this prize should also be shared with Paul Revere, who never got an award, and had trouble even collecting his travel expenses. He deserves something, not only for making all those many rides, but also for giving us the story of the midnight ride, which came first from his pen.
As I was telling that story, I often thought of the German pianist Walter Schnabel who once said of Beethoven’s sonatas that “this music is greater than it can ever be played.” That’s the way I think about my books Paul Revere’s Ride and Albion’s Seed. The stories of American history are better than they can ever be told. Thank you for this encouragement to storytelling.
Today I’d like to tell another story about the books that you have honored, and especially about Albion’s Seed. It has had a strange career, which is full of clues for happenings beyond the book itself.
The book began as a historian’s inquiry, very much in the spirit of Herodotus (in ancient Greek, “history” meant inquiry). Albion’s Seed was a search for the origins of an opening society in what is now the United States. After many years of reading and reflection, I found an answer to that question in four great migrations of English-speaking people to America, from 1629 to 1775. They came in four great waves, sharply defined in time and space. The first was New England’s Puritan migration of 20,000 people, mostly families of middling rank and a strong Calvinist faith who came mainly from eight counties in the east of England in the period 1629-40. The second was a movement of a small Cavalier elite and large numbers of indentured servants from the south of England to Virginia (1640-75). The third was the Friends’ migration of Quakers and other Pietists from the north midlands of England and Wales to the Delaware Valley (1675-1725). The fourth and largest was a flight from the Borderlands of North Britain and northern Ireland to the American Backcountry (1717-75).
These four groups had much in common—the English language, their strong Protestant faith, and their fierce pride in British liberties. But they were profoundly different in other ways: in their dialects and religious denominations; in the way that they built their houses and raised their children; in their attitudes toward work and play, love and death. Most important, they had very different ideas of order, power, and especially freedom. Albion’s Seed is about four distinctive cultures of freedom that were transplanted to the New World and took root in what is now the United States. America’s diversity stemmed from this regional pluralism of American life, and the interaction of these four cultures gave rise to a libertarian system that was more free and open than any of them alone had been or wished to be.
None of this seemed controversial to me when I began to write it in 1986. The book was first drafted in the quiet of an Oxford college. Much of the research had been done when we were living in an idyllic East Anglican village. Most people I grew up with agreed entirely with its findings. In my origins I am an American mongrel of the most common variety—part Anglo, part Saxon—a mix of German and English ancestry. I had been a small child during World War II, ten years old when the war ended. As part of that generation, I was raised in the shadow of great historical events, in a moment when the “special relationship” was very strong and everyone was talking of Anglo-American unity. When I was very young, I was taken on board Winston Churchill’s flying boat, which was moored in Baltimore harbor. I still remember the sight of a huge flying bedstead of Churchillian proportions. From such moments, careers are made. I also remember the British seamen who were invited into our house, and told us tales of events they had witnessed. Every Christmas we were given red boxes of Britain’s soldiers, and my parents talked at the table about books such as Clarence Streit’s Union Now with Britain. We went to events that were sponsored by the English Speaking Union. Shortly after the war, when the Band of the Black Watch visited the Fifth Regiment Armory, my brother and I were cheering from the bleachers. My mother was one of the first female undergraduates at Johns Hopkins. She majored in English literature, and mv’ brother and I were raised on Tennyson and Shelley.
The world of my upbringing was strongly Anglophile, and very conscious of its colonial origins. All of mv books grew from those beginnings. Even after we moved north to a city that is mostly Irish Catholic, and I began to teach at a university that is Jewish in its sponsorship, I was so secure in my Anglo-Saxon attitudes that I did not expect Albion’s Seed to be controversial. Perhaps it would not have been so, had it been published only a few years earlier.
But the book appeared in 1989, coinciding with two movements that suddenly were very strong in the universities and maybe stronger in the mass media—multiculturalism and political correctness. When my book appeared, it generally received positive reviews. But in academe a book that argued for the importance of having been English was not thought to be politically correct. A book that gave much attention to themes of continuity from past to present was not thought to be historically correct. A book that centered on the determinant power of individual choice was not thought to be ontologically correct.
Albion’s Seed was no sooner launched than it sailed into a sea of controversy. I had no idea of the depth of feeling until death threats began to arrive. They were crudely lettered, anonymous, and always postmarked in university towns. One of the death threats had footnotes. The FBI and the Postal Inspector said they had never seen a death threat with footnotes.
This went on for several years. Academic symposia were organized on the book. Young colleagues invited me with high ceremony, took turns in reviling the book, then took me to dinner, and assured me it was nothing personal. I replied with more research, in the naive hope that evidence might persuade them. I also reminded my critics they were responding to an argument for the importance of having been English, and for the cultural persistence of the past, by heaping old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon epithets upon my head. I suggested that it would have been more consistent and multicultural of them if they abused me in Algonkian or Swahili. This made no impression. Multiculturalism often means a settled hostility to one culture in particular.
At first I thought it was mainly that sort of controversy—an ethnic issue, linked to the changing composition of my profession and our nation. The Census Bureau now makes periodic surveys of ethnic origins. It has found that only about 18 percent of Americans think they have any British ancestors at all. There is some question about the accuracy of these self-reported surveys. When Americans are asked who their ancestors may have been, 10 percent are recorded as having no opinion. Some don’t know. Others won’t say, or insist that they are Americans. More than a few told the census taker that their ancestors are none of the government’s business. The largest number of people who say these things live in the Southern highlands, and other places where most people are of British origin. Perhaps as many as 25 percent of Americans are at least partly of British descent, but still a very small minority. I thought at first that this was what it was about—a collision of ethnic identities. In some degree it was so, but some of my fiercest critics were themselves of Anglo-Saxon origin. Clearly something else was going on.
I also believed that much of the controversy rose from differences of ideology. In my own politics I am a little to the left of center, which presently puts me on the far right of academe. This was clearly a factor in the response to my book. But here again, some of my critics were not very far from my own political opinions. Something more was at issue.
Another clue appeared in the 1990’s. The controversy continued for several years. Then even stranger things began to happen to my book. Suddenly, the tone began to change. To my amazement, some of the most outspoken critics began to praise what was in the book, even in print, without any apparent sense of inconsistency. Sales of the book began to increase, at a time in the publishing cycle when most books move the other way. The contents of the book had not changed. Something else was happening, apart from the book itself.
It seemed increasingly clear that the academic controversy over Albion’s Seed was not so much ethnic or ideological, but generational in its origin. I began to notice that most of my critics were of a generation very different from my own. If World War II was the defining public event on my youth, another American generation was shaped by the experience of Vietnam and Watergate. We differed not merely in our answers, but our questions. I wanted to know how and why an open society worked in America. My critics demanded to know why it was not more open. Their passion persuaded me that in fact the opening-process is still going on, and the older questions are still sound. But they had a different point of view.
Now, the generation of Vietnam is graying rapidly. Their children are coming to the university, and we are beginning to see a third generation who have been defined by other historical events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the revival of liberal democracy around the world, and our persistent problems at home.
This new generation has a different set of attitudes toward history. In the mid-1990’s, at the same time that academic attitudes were changing vet again on Albion’s Seed, I began to notice that other changes were happening in the writing and teaching of history—mostly changes for the better. One would never know about them by reading the newspapers, which give us the bad news from academe. Journalistic coverage of my discipline has tended to center on reports that young people don’t know much about history, and on the battle over the new History Standards that the Senate condemned by a vote of 99 to one, and on the controversies at the Smithsonian.
Other things are also happening in the historiographical world. Journalists who cover the universities are largely unaware of them. The first signs appeared in the classroom. In the late 1980’s, enrollment in history courses began to grow. The number of history majors also began to increase. They had been shrinking since the late 1960’s. During the late 1980’s these numbers began to rise further, and they have been rising ever since. At Yale and Brown and Princeton and Williams, history has become the most popular undergraduate major, replacing economics and politics. The Digest of Education Statistics shows that the number of history degrees has been increasing throughout the nation for more than a decade.
Part of the cause is a new approach to learning that students have worked out for themselves. It takes the form of multiple majoring. A few students did that years ago. Now many are doing it. hi growing numbers, they tend to elect two majors, or various major-minor combinations. One major is usually vocational. Another is apt to be in the arts and sciences. History is one of those choices, and it is gaining popularity today.
Another indicator of change is to be found in the work that college faculties are doing. We have been seeing a very rapid growth of historical scholarship outside history departments. The American Political Science Association is divided into, I think, six fields. One of them, called politics and history, is now the second largest, and growing at a great rate. Something similar has happened in economics, where two econometric historians recently w’on the Nobel Prize. In the social sciences much scholarship is now historical—a major shift from only a few decades ago. In philosophy one of the most flourishing fields is the history of ideas. In my own university half the faculty in humanities and arts departments are historians. Most of our programs in area studies are run by historians. In short, history is being written and taught in many academic departments or programs. Increasingly the work that is being done in many other disciplines is very similar—even indistinguishable —to what is done within history departments.
Other signs of growing interest in history come from the nation at large. Attendance is up at historical sites. At Minuteman National Historic Park in Concord, visitors were up 25 percent last year. In Boston, some $20 million will be spent refurbishing the Freedom Trail. Attendance at most of its historic sites is up too, after a long period of stagnation and decline. New York’s Ellis Island has been a great success, and is thronged with visitors.
Another sign of change is the return of serious works of historical scholarship to the best-seller lists, after a long absence. I think of David Donald’s biography of Abraham Lincoln, James McPherson on the Civil War, and Stephen Ambrose’s book on Lewis and Clark, all excellent works of historical scholarship, solidly grounded in primary research.
Yet another sign is that Hollywood is taking an interest. We are seeing a growing number of historical films, and better films. Some have not been successful: Hester Prynne with a hot tub and a happy ending. Others have succeeded wonderfully well as history and drama. Alan Bennett’s and Nicholas Hytner’s Madness of King George and Bruce Beresford’s Black Robe were two outstanding examples of many recent films that have interpreted historical issues with high sensitivity and growing success.
More signs appear in television; the continuing strength of the American Experience series on PBS, and the success of Ken Burns’ superb series on the Civil War. The new History Channel has surprised the executives of cable companies, and disrupted their projections by the breadth of its appeal.
Artists in many fields are increasingly finding inspiration in historical approaches. I think of postmodern architects who have turned away from the international style, and toward historical materials in the postmodernist movement. In music. American composers are moving on parallel lines. Examples are the operas of John Adams (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer); the quartets of Steve Reich, which are scored for historical materials (Different Trains); and the orchestral compositions of William Bolcom, Arnold Rosner, and John Harbison.
These tendencies reverse the trends that were very strong in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s, and even 80’s. Only a few years ago, we were getting books called The End of History, The Death of History, The Edge of History. Now many disciplines are moving in a different direction.
Something’s happening here; a turning of the cultural tide, a movement broadly based, largely unreported, and yet very strong and sustained. Part of it may be caused by historical events in the past decade, and especially the sudden collapse of one of the world’s superpowers, and the revolution in Eastern Europe. Other events of every passing day are reminders that history is happening to us. Another (and related) cause may be the collapse of intellectual systems that were nonhistorical or even antihistorical. I think of the international style in architecture, and the decline of various atemporal schools of thought in social science. And a third factor may be a change in the way that history is being written. We’ve been through the old political history and the new social history, which is now 30 years old. New opportunities are now emerging from the creative union of these two schools. The best history writing today keeps the breadth and comprehension of social history and combines it with the rigor and control and sharpness of edge in the old political history. With that, historians are recovering confidence, and writing and speaking with a clearer voice.
They are also writing on different themes. One theme of high importance in Albion’s Seed, is about continuity in history. In the 1960’s and 70’s, most great problems in history were change-problems. Many centered on an idea of discontinuity in history, which encouraged a sense of distance between the present and the past. Social historians liked to speak of the past as another country—a foreign country. In the process, they encouraged a sense of its remoteness, and even its irrelevance to those who live in the present. The new approaches are better balanced in this respect.
Other new themes rise from a recovery of a sense of contingency in history. Many of us are writing about contingency today. We do it in different ways. James McPherson’s books on the Civil War center on contingencies in the sense of turning points. Stephen Jay Gould constructs his book on the Burgess Shale Fossils around an idea of contingency in the sense of accidents that turned the course of evolution. My book Paul Revere’s Ride is about contingency in the sense of people making choices, and choices making a difference. Only a few years ago, social history was mostly about large determinant processes that denied the possibility of choice. In the history that’s being done today, contingencies are set within those large processes. It is a more accurate understanding of the way m which history actually happened. It also creates better stories and brighter prospects for storytelling in general.
History, in sum, is flourishing today. For all of this, we owe a debt to The Ingersoll Foundation, which by its existence and its acts has kept alive an idea that the past lives in us today, that others have walked this earth before us. You helped to nourish these beliefs in a time when they most needed support. For all of that and for this award, thank you.