Telling the Truth about History

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Overview

We have lost our grip on historical truth. Popular films depict subterranean conspiracies that shape historical events and public knowledge of those events. Best-selling narrative histories dissolve the border between fact and fiction, allowing the author's imagination to roam freely. Influential critics dissolve the author herself into one among many sources of meaning, reducing historical knowledge to a series of texts engaged with each other, not with the past. Powerful constituencies call for histories that affirm more than inform. This new book by three of our most accomplished historians engages the various criticisms that have fragmented the authority of historical knowledge. Although acknowledging degrees of legitimacy in the criticisms, the authors launch a pragmatic response that supports the historian, as they put it, in her long climb, notebook computer in tow, up the 300 stairs to the archives in Lyon. Even if historical truth is an ever-receding goal, the effort to approach it, they show, is legitimate, worthy, and governed by agreed-upon rules. And while affirming the claims of women and ethnic minorities to a rightful place in any narrative of American history, the authors insist on the accountability of history. They outline a coherent narrative of the American past that incorporates its multicultural dimension without special pleading.

During the 20th century, the accuracy of historical knowledge has been eroded by fictionalized versions of events in films, novels, and self-serving critics. Here the authors call for a return to the historian's legitimate search governed by agreed-upon rules as to what determines historical truth.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Three historians here team up for a worthy, demanding foray into the battle over the academy, taking on ``both the relativists on the left and the defenders of the status quo ante on the right.'' The authors argue that skepticism and relativism about truth, in science, history and politics, stems from the democratization of American society and higher education. They survey the ``heroic model'' of science produced in the Enlightenment, the roots of relativism in Hegel, and the influence of Marx, Durkheim and Weber on latter-day historical schools. They tackle the virtuous mythologies of American history, and critiques by progressives like Charles Beard and post-WW II social historians. They also cite 1960s historians of science who launched politicized critiques and postmodernists who attacked claims of objectivity. The authors urge historians to have a ``stronger, more self-reflexive and interactive sense of objectivity.'' In a final chapter addressing ``political correctness'' and multiculturalism, the authors sensibly call for a middle ground, but diminish their message with a paucity of models. Appleby teaches at UCLA, Hunt at the University of Pennsylvania and Jacob at Manhattan's New School for Social Research. (Apr.)
Library Journal
In a tightly reasoned narrative full of -isms and -ists, the authors, all academic historians, relate how religion and science legitimized the writing of history as a vehicle for the revelation of truth, progress, and nationalism rather than as a medium for the examination of collective individuals. They critically dissect various schools of historiographic thought and make a plea for a multicultural democratization of history in America. We are reminded of the authors' championship of women, minorities, and workers at every opportunity. The prose bounces along more than it flows, and the dashes of irony are welcome. Footnotes conclude each chapter. Rather than aggressively screaming for reform in the writing of American history, this book describes how we arrived where we are and suggests we begin the journey anew, only this time allowing everyone to participate. This is an enlightening overview of American historiography for public and academic libraries.-- James Moffet, Baldwin P.L., Birmingham, Mich.
Mary Carroll
What is the role of history--what is the "point" of history--in a postmodern world of "absolutisms dethroned," in a technological society that has become deeply skeptical of the Enlightenment's heroic model of science? "Telling the Truth" is a fascinating historiographical essay that traces the scientific and political ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment through American history from the Revolutionary War to the present. It is the "insistent democratization of American society," the authors argue, that has produced our "skepticism and relativism about truth, not only in science but also in history and politics," yet they maintain "that truths about the past are possible, even if they are not absolute, and hence are worth struggling for." Appleby and her coauthors have produced an unusually lucid and inclusive explication of what is ultimately at stake in the culture wars over the nature, goals, and efficacy of history as a discipline.
New York Times Book Review
A confident, breezy account of the historical profession's encounters with post-modernism and multiculturalism.— David A. Hollinger
The New Republic - Gordon S. Wood
“It is hard to think of three historians better equipped to deal with threats to the discipline of history . . . [which] is being fundamentally challenged in new ways.”
Caroline Walker Bynum
“A wise and moderate book. The authors, all distinguished historians . . . ,speak with confidence about the value of both the historian's traditional craft and modern criticism of it. Their sane and readable discussion should give hope to [those] who . . . believe in the possibility—even the pleasure—of writing history.”
New York Times Book Review - David A. Hollinger
“A confident, breezy account of the historical profession's encounters with post-modernism and multiculturalism.”
Gordon S. Wood - The New Republic
“It is hard to think of three historians better equipped to deal with threats to the discipline of history . . . [which] is being fundamentally challenged in new ways.”
David A. Hollinger - New York Times Book Review
“A confident, breezy account of the historical profession's encounters with post-modernism and multiculturalism.”
The New Republic
It is hard to think of three historians better equipped to deal with threats to the discipline of history . . . [which] is being fundamentally challenged in new ways.— Gordon S. Wood
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393036152
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/28/1994
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 8.56 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Joyce Appleby is a professor of history emerita at UCLA and the author of The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism and coauthor of Telling the Truth about History, among many other works. A former president of the American History Association, she was awarded the 2009 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Prize for distinguished writing in American history from the Society of American Historians. She lives in Taos, New Mexico.

Lynn Hunt is Distinguished Research Professor at UCLA,
former president of the American Historical Association, and author of numerous works, including Inventing Human Rights and Telling the Truth about History. She lives in Los Angeles.

Margaret Jacob is an author and UCLA professor. Her writings and lectures focus on the work of Newton's immediate followers, and on the British radicals and romantics of the 1790s.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
Pt. 1 Intellectual Absolutisms
1 The Heroic Model of Science 15
2 Scientific History and the Idea of Modernity 52
3 History Makes a Nation 91
Pt. 2 Absolutisms Dethroned
4 Competing Histories of America 129
5 Discovering the Clay Feet of Science 160
6 Postmodernism and the Crisis of Modernity 198
Pt. 3 A New Republic of Learning
7 Truth and Objectivity 241
8 The Future of History 271
Index 310
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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2002

    A good overview

    This is a generally good overview of the various perspectives from which western history has been told and the paradigms through which it has been interpreted. Because it is an overview it does not go into tremendous depth about a lot of the subjects, but the book does not pretend to be an exhaustive explication of its various topics. While some critics have suggested that the book ignores various perspectives, the fact remains that it covers those that have actually had an impact on the discipline. Occasionally the authors make ideological leaps with which I disagree, nonetheless they achieve their overall goal of providing a relatively broad and thorough summary.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2001

    One of the Worst Books Written on Historiogrpahy

    What is most surprising about ¿Telling the Truth about History¿ is that Appleby et al, attempt to include the postmodern, multicultural, and feminist perspectives as valid paradigms for historical inquiry. Appleby et al fail miserably in integrating these perspectives into the text. The majority of the text is, yet again, another grand historical narrative in which the intellectual ideas of white, presumably heterosexual, men are given priority and the most detailed attention. Apparently the intellectual ideas and lives of women, feminists, people of color, the poor, and those other than the elite intellectual class have fallen upon deaf ears. Appleby et al chide those who have in the past excluded the ¿others¿ but yet fail to include these others within their historical narrative. Appleby et al¿s treatment of racial minorities, sexual minorities, and those without hegemonic control of intellectual power structures is tokenistic at its best. Feminism is given a paragraph and queer theory is left out entirely. Any discussion of racial minorities and their ¿perspective¿ is lumped under the heading of multiculturalism and no where are ¿multicultural¿ authors given any specific mention by name. We are yet again asked to assume that the ¿others¿ are nameless, faceless, and unimportant. Yet again, we are asked to believe that history is the history of white heterosexual capitalist Eurocentric white men. Appleby et al maintain that, ¿What you don¿t know is especially hurtful, for it denies you the opportunity to deal with reality. It restricts choices by restricting information¿. (307). If this is so, when why is so much left out! Why is there no mention of the 19th century African-American women and their perspective on history? Why is there no mention of South American historians, Asian historians, Native American historians, the way the Maya and Incas and Nuer of Africa viewed history? Why is so much left out? Where are the Audre Lorde¿s, the Frantz Fanon¿s, the bell hooks¿, the Anna Julia Cooper¿s, the Claudia Card¿s, the Judith Butler¿s, the Barbara Smith¿s, the Cornel West¿s, the W.E.B. Du Bois¿, the Trin T Minh-ha¿s, the Gayatri Charkravorty Spivak¿s, the Patricia Hill Collins¿, the Gloria Anzaldua¿s, and the Wei Jingsheng¿s? They do exist; they do have a voice. I am sure that they are excluded because ¿History¿ as presented by this book is supposedly European enterprise, that no one else had anything significant to say about the past other than those who have been venerated as purveyors of the ¿historical truth¿. Martin Duberman, a historian at Lehman College states, ¿You cannot link arms under a univeralist banner when you can¿t find your own name on it. A minority identity may be contingent or incomplete, but that does not make it fabricated or needless. And cultural unity cannot be purchased at the cost of cultural erasure¿. It seems that Appleby et al wish for us to live under a univeralist banner of historical inquiry, in which, the belief in the historical narrative of the past is the best way to interpret and understand history, that political history, or the history of the powerful, and therefore of the important, is history. I think not.

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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