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Journal Article

Exceptional History? The Origins of Historiography in the United States

Eileen Ka-May Cheng
History and Theory
Vol. 47, No. 2 (May, 2008), pp. 200-228
Published by: Wiley for Wesleyan University
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25478745
Page Count: 29
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Exceptional History? The Origins of Historiography in the United States
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Abstract

This essay examines how and why historiography - defined to mean the study of the history of historical writing - first emerged as a legitimate subject of historical inquiry in the United States during the period from 1890 to the 1930s by focusing on the practice of historiography by three of the most influential American historiographers whose work spans this period: J. Franklin Jameson, John Spencer Bassett, and Harry Elmer Barnes. Whereas the development of historiography as a field of study signified a recognition that historians and historical writing are themselves products of the historical process, American historiographers in this period at the same time used historiography to further a scientific ideal of objectivity that was premised on the belief in the ability of historians to separate themselves from that process. Modern scholars (notably, Peter Novick) have attributed to scientific historians like Jameson and Bassett a simplistic and naïve positivism; but the ability of these historiographers to recognize the subjective character of historical writing and yet affirm a belief in objectivity reveals that their understanding of historical truth was more complex than modern scholars have acknowledged. In turn, by questioning the belief that the historical profession was originally founded on a naïve faith in the ideal of objective truth, I demonstrate that New Historians like Barnes were more similar to their predecessors, the scientific historians, than they (or later scholars) acknowledged. Thus, rather than portraying the shift from scientific history to the New History as a linear trajectory of development from objectivity to a more relativist viewpoint, I argue that New Historians like Barnes at once expressed a greater recognition than his scientific predecessors of how historical writing was the product of its context, while still insisting on his commitment to an ideal of objectivity that divorced the historian from that context.

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