Historical fundamentalism has been a hot topic as of late. Partly as a reaction to movements like the Tea Party, partly as a continuation of the frustrating distance between mainstream and academic history, and partly in response to the growth of constitutional originalism in public discourse as an opposition to societal and political changes—all three parts, it should be noted, are unmistakably interconnected—there has been an increase of ruminations concerning the relationship between the past and the present. (See here, here, here, and here, for example. Also, and especially, here, and here) A recent and significant contribution to these debates comes from Harvard historian Jill Lepore, whose The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History is a captivating account of how people use (and abuse) the past for modern causes, collapsing the distance between then and now in an effort to gain political and intellectual validation. (A great overview of the book, as well as an insightful interview with Lepore, can be found here. For an enlightening previous interview with Lepore on the importance of being a “public historian,” sees here.) Personally, I’ve been looking forward to the book for months.
While sick with a cold (my body is adapting to bicycling in the Cambridge rain), I had a chance to read the book over the weekend, and am happy to say it lived up to my high expectations. Lepore spent a tremendous amount of time with people who associated themselves with the Tea Party, sincerely trying to capture their political and historical views. (Her willingness to leave the academic “ivory tower” and honestly try to understand the common populace is one step toward closing the academic distance bemoaned by another Harvard scholar earlier this year.) Then, Lepore uses the modern debates over history as one corner of a historical triangle for the book: all chapters begin with her interactions with Tea Party members in the 2000s, then jumps back to the actual events that led to the Revolution in the 1770s (demonstrating the complex nature of the historical period as juxtaposed to the simplistic assumptions of modern-day protestors), and often finish with the failed attempts to unify the nation during the 1970s with the country’s bicentennial activities (focusing on the inability of historians to present a compelling historical narrative for the mainstream audience). While there is much to dig into with the book (I hope to do at least one more post on issues Lepore raises), it is the third of these three angles I’d like to consider in this post.
I found it fascinating the Lepore was at times as critical of academic historians as she was of those currently promulgating what she considers “antihistory.” Part of the reason a large segment of America has a distorted view of the past, she argues, is how academic authors have been either unwilling or unable to reach the common reader. During the 1770s, as the government and private organizations sought to depict an American past that could excite and unify the nation, academic historians disregarded the activities as amateur and as a result wanted little part in the festivities. Thus, a large void of the public discourse was left unfulfilled, and unqualified voices were more than willing to take over. From that point, unqualified voices have continued to determine how many Americans understand their history, and the rift between the two sides has only lengthened. The average reader wants an emphasis on exceptional characters and captivating narratives; the average academic emphasizes nuance, heterogeneity, and the difficulty (impossibility?) of constructing these tight syntheses, arguing that such an approach reeks of presentism and generalization. (John L. Brooke [yes, Mormon readers, Brooke has had a successful career since Refiner’s Fire] recently skewered in William and Mary Quarterly two synthetic attempts by acclaimed historians [Daniel Walker Howe and Gordon Wood] for generalizing the early American republic.) It seems one can never please both sides.
Is the reader at fault for yearning for a past that never was, rejecting academic scholarship because it does not fit their desired worldview? Or is the academic at fault for being so focused on impressing the academy—often by emphasizing nuances and frameworks that are simply uninteresting to those not affiliated with departments of history—that they lose sight of the public? Is it even in the academic historian’s interest to educate the general population, or is that primarily the role of elementary, intermediate, and secondary school teachers? More fundamentally (pun not intended), are there set boundaries or expectations for these issues?
These issues have particular relevance to Mormon history. As I’ve written elsewhere, Mormon historians often only focus on writing for fellow Mormon historians, and then bemoan the fact that the general membership of the Church is ignorant of their collective past. We leave the task to indoctrinate the Saints to unqualified authors, and then act surprised that the result does not match the ideal. I fear this problem may only grow, as many academically trained historians (myself included) grow more interested with addressing broader questions, larger issues, and more interdisciplinary frameworks. The next generation—my generation—seem more interested in focusing their work for the Society for Historians of the Early Republic, the American Academy of Religion, or American Society of Church History than, say, the Mormon History Association—let alone Sunday School. Is the bifurcating between academic and general destined not only to continue, but amplify?
In Mormonism, history is important. Some have ventured so far to say that history replaces theology at the heart of the Mormon tradition. To believers, Joseph Smith’s actions really mattered, not just for the historical record, but also for the church’s validity. Perhaps this is why the average member is especially cautious of historical work. The Church embraces history, but only if it is coming from sources deemed “safe.” The dominance of historical fundamentalism among the Church (I’m thinking specifically of LDS history here, but this point may also be related to the abundance of fundamentalism concerning American history among American Mormons) may be because it is the only protected framework for the past. History is too important to be infiltrated with complexity, nuance, and problems.
Thus, perhaps the Mormon equivalent to America’s inability in the 1970s to provide a unifying historical narrative is the battles over New Mormon History in the 1980s and 1990s. (Mormon intellectual debates always seem to lag behind the larger national issues by a decade or so.) With the end of “Camelot” came disillusionment on behalf of many believing Saints toward the usefulness of academic history. The call-out of “alternative voices,” the excommunications, the debates-in-print exacerbated an already tenuous relationship. Though I would argue not to the complete fault of academic historians, the perception of academic histories as an unsafe—and even dangerous—source for understanding the past seemed solidified. John-Charles Duffy may be correct that “Faithful Scholarship” won the period’s war among the intellectual and moderate section of Mormons involved with academia, but historical fundamentalism may have been reaffirmed among the general public. (For an outline of the competing views, see here.)
Or perhaps I am being too pessimistic. At the highest levels of the Church, there seems to be a renewed—if, again, tenuous—trust of professional and academic history. The new library, the continued support of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, and the wonderful things taking place in the Church’s History Department (largely thanks to the icon, Marlin K. Jensen) gives hope for the future. It will be most interesting, though, to see how much of it trickles down to the general membership.
 Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). For originalism, see Jack Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Knopf, 1996), chapter 1.
 John L. Brooke, “The Trouble with Paradox,” William and Mary Quarterly 67 (July 2010): 549-556.
 For the scholarly critique of popular history, see, for example, Sean Willentz, “America Made Easy: David McCullough, John Adams, and the Decline of Popular History,” The New Republic, July 2, 2001.
 John-Charles Duffy, “Faithful Scholarship: The Mainstreaming of Mormon Studies and the Politics of Insider Discourse” (Master’s Thesis: UNC, 2006).