Monday, November 8, 2010

A Usable Past

I just finished Albert Baumgarten's engaging biography of Elias Bickerman,
Elias Bickerman as Historian of the Jews: A Twentieth Century Tale, which was also recently reviewed by Anthony Grafton in The Jewish Review of Books. In Baumgarten's telling, Bickerman was a permanent refugee (who for the almost forty years that he "lived" in America actually spent half the year in European hotel rooms) never in command of English who had little but disdain for most everybody except the very small group of scholars with whom he was in dialogue. He also appears to have been what I would call a misogynist. Having read much of Bickerman's work - which even when problematic is always smart, provocative, and worthwhile - I confess that I felt a little let down. I had hoped for a more sympathetic character.

Baumgarten argues that Bickerman attempted to create a "usable past" for the Jews of his age. Baumgarten's case here is not entirely convincing; did Bickerman know what he was doing, and for whom was he doing it? At the same time, though, Baumgarten highlights a prominent theme in Bickerman's work that really was, and to a lesser extent remains, an issue in contemporary Jewish life: universalism vs. particularism. Bickerman took a side. The best Jews were those who remained particularist while adapting the best of universalist values. This is perhaps why, according to Baumgarten, he found the faculty at JTS far more sympathetic to his work than his colleagues at Columbia.

The case of Bickerman raises yet again the issue of the historian's work. Should our goal as historians be to create a "usable past"? Nearly all historians, I think, would agree that historical work should be relevant, but to whom and for what? Relevant to the scholars in one's sub-sub-field? Relevant to a particularist community? Relevant to humanity?

Earlier in my career I was very clear about my audience: other scholars. It would be an exaggeration to say that I focused on this audience solely because it was their approval that held the key to my professional success, but it would also be disingenuous for me to say that this was not an important factor. Whatever those outside of my field, or even outside of scholarship, thought of my work - well, whatever. It would be nice if they liked it and found it useful, but they would not tenure and promote me.

I still write articles for my academic colleagues but now mostly because they are fun, not for money, promotion, or prestige. I enjoy the questions, the writing, and being part of an academic community. If my academic writings add up to a "usable past" it is certainly not a conscious effort.

On the other hand, in other writings, and my teaching, I do make a very conscious effort to address a larger audience in a way that is relevant. I want to emphasize here the distinction between relevance and the construction of a usable past. The latter is but one flavor of the former. I was attracted to the study of antiquity in large measure because I found this history - like a good book, multiplied - to be a valuable conversation partner. When I engage my sources I inevitably learn from them, not only about the past but also about the present, and myself. Good historical writing does not confirm what we think we know; it challenges us to think in new ways. A usable past is in some ways antithetical to this goal, making the past familiar so that we can appropriate it for our own ends. How dull! A history should not challenge simply for the sake of challenging (some history admittedly is boring, uncertain, and all too familiar), but good history has to bring us into a world that we don't already know. Bickerman, despite his narrow audience, did that, and I am grateful both for his work and to Baumgarten's for bringing his world to life.

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