Book Review: Sarah Maza, Thinking About History (University of Chicago Press, 2017)

The genre of historians writing about their own field is large and growing. Some of these are quite good, like John Burrow’s A History of Histories, which traces historical writing from the Greeks to the present, or, more relevant to most active historians, Georg Iggers’ Historiography in the 20th century.  But since I’ve also read so many bad books in this genre, it is quite easy to be cynical about new books in the field. I picked up Maza’s book then with some trepidation, (for it had a generic title) but I was relieved to find something more useful, more succinct, more fair and balanced (if I may appropriate that term) than just about anything out there. Thinking About History can work both as a methods text (to perhaps replace Gaddis’ The Landscape of History, or Popkin’s Herodotus to H-net) or as an introduction to the history of the historical discipline. Surely, if anyone is still using Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream for that later purpose, they should switch to this new text immediately, or just go all the way back to the classic John Higham work from 1965.

Maza acknowledges that her book is limited to Anglo-American historiography, with a few forays into the French historical world. Unlike others who trace the deep roots of modern historical writing, Maza starts in media res, in the 1960s. But there is good reason for choosing this starting point. History writing from the 1960s forward looks a lot different from history writing in the century before then. Primarily this is because of new choices of whom we should write about (the topic of chapter 1): the history of slavery, women’s history, and the social history of common people. While the new approaches to history are marked by an interest in theory (Marxism, postmodernism, e.g.)., American historians, remain, in Maza’s eyes, resistant to grand theories or explanations, largely still skeptical and historicist.

In chapter 2, Maza reminds us that “where” historians focus their attention can be just as important as what or who they write about. She follows in the tradition of Thomas Bender and Benedict Anderson in pointing out the new and arbitrary nature of national history writing.  National history is still a dominant frame, but Historians, she explains, have come to challenge national history, and have moved to “oceans, middle grounds, and borderlands” as promising themes of research. There has also been a shift away from writing about “the West” and a growth in global history. Maza displays a lot of honesty here about the structure of the field. She notes, for example, that the structure of academia makes it difficult for historians to switch topics, and that the discipline does not seem to welcome or allow histories of certain times, peoples, or places. “[P]laces like Eastern Europe, Indonesia, or Egypt did not matter for their own but as part of a bundle of regional expertise.” (45) This reminds me of the uncomfortable truth that in the U.S. these days, only senior historians (i.e. Full Professors) dare to write about historical methods, and the few younger folks who write about historical theory are almost entirely literary theorists who haven’t published a page of historical work. Another trend I’ve noticed is that few working historians in the past generation have engaged historical methods and theory at all, leaving it instead to a separate group of “philosophers of history” who generally do not write history. Maza is a good example then of someone, who like J.H. Hexter before her, weighs in on historical methods from a career as an active historian, not a theorist.

It is also great to see that Maza is well read in historiography beyond or not directly related to her area of expertise, the history of France. This is on display in chapter 3, the “what” of history contains a first-rate description of Quentin Skinner and his contextualist approach. It then moves to an unavoidable discussion of Thomas Kuhn, and interesting sections on the history of things (think: Laural Thatcher Ulrich’s Homespun), and the history of nature such as the standard works by William Cronon and Alfred Crosby.

I appreciate that the book is not arranged in a strict chronological fashion, but in useful thematic chapters. Chapter 4, the “how” of history is useful for students thinking about finding sources and writing for an audience for the first time. Chapter 5, “causes and meanings” is perhaps the most philosophical chapter in the book. Here, there is a discussion of particulars and generalizations, again with Maza appearing to side with the historicist view that historians are primarily interested in and capable of giving meaning to the particularities of history. At the same time, however, the history profession has turned its focus towards socio-economic forces. Maza saves a discussion about objectivity and subjectivity (usually the topic of chapter one of any methods book) for her last chapter, chapter 6. Here, she seems somewhat sympathetic to postmodern historians.

A noteworthy characteristic of this book is Maza’s ecumenicism. She doesn’t chide historians for their fallacies or blame the economists for pushing historians out of the public realm. Instead of condemning positions she may disagree with, she points out some of their errors or suggests that other historians have had conflicting views. The book seems to have neither a liberal, nor a conservative, nor a Marxist undertone or judgement (not that any of those are necessary).

To me, this book is also quite representative of the general views of the American historical profession. What I mean is that most of the books Maza referenced I recognized from my historiography readings in graduate school at Florida State. There is a sense that despite all our diversity, historians in the U.S., and our history departments more generally, have decided on a new canon of historical works that all must read and be familiar with: names like Darnton, Diamond, Foucault, Hunt, Lepore, and Schama. Reading this book seemed like a condensed form of my history doctoral program, but this time it took me less than 6 hours, not 6 years to finish!

Some people today still hold to the idea, once common in previous centuries, that history is the teacher of life, the sources of morals.  But, as many have pointed out, history doesn’t seem to be a great teacher, or at least we remain poor students, because we have not and perhaps cannot learn from and properly apply lessons from the mistakes of the past. Maza provides a humble but solid defense of history: “We need our collective pasts for all the familiar reasons: to gain wisdom and inspiration from the success and failures of our forebears, to find our who we were and are, to nourish our imaginations.” (9)

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