The Historian's Baedeker

HARVARD GUIDE TO AMERICAN HISTORY, compiled by Professors Oscar Handlin, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., Samuel E. Morison, Frederick Merk, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Paul H. Buck (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 760 pages--$10.00)

A plethora of books is the bane of American history scholars who use a large library, while a paucity of them troubles the historian in the hinterlands. Either way, the serious scholar needs a general bibliography when he selects books for his research, and until now historians have necessarily relied upon the Channing, Hart, and Turner Guide to the Study and Reading of American History, published in 1912. But a bibliography four decades out-of-date and twenty years out of print has limited usefulness, and it remained for the authors of the Harvard Guide to American History to recommend to big-university scholars the best few books of the hundreds available on each subject in American history, and to give isolated researchers some idea of the literature available on inter-library loans.

If the Harvard Guide were solely a bibliography of American history compiled by six distinguished Harvard professors, it would earn loud, professional acclaim, for it will save historians thousands of hours of digging in years to come. But because it is dedicated primarily to the beginner in history, it has even wider usefulness. Preliminary essays explain the changing roles of the historians through the years, while others list trade secrets of the profession: where to find material, how to evaluate and take notes on it; how to organize, write, and even sell a book.

The historian, says the Guide, must weight the prejudices of past writers before accepting their statements as true. Settlers in the seventeenth century, attempting to stimulate immigration and investment "mingled hopes with realities and fiction with fact." Puritans and Quakers alike credited abnormal occurrences with excessive importance. Eighteenth and nineteenth century historians emphasized politics, often to the exclusion of vital social and cultural information.

Next to inaccuracy, the Guide warns, the most grievous sin the historian can commit is to write uninterestingly; in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, "He must remember that . . . unless he writes vividly he cannot write truthfully, for no amount of dull pains-taking detail will sum up the whole truth unless the genius is there to paint the truth." To end the "chain reaction of dullness," the essay suggests a thorough study of the classics, and goes on to offer valuable suggestions on combining interest with accuracy.

Throughout, the Harvard Guide to American History is a scholar's companion. By following its reading lists, the intellectually curious will be well-rewarded; in its advice the fledgling scholar will find guidance, while the older historians will learn new tricks. The Guide seems destined to fulfill the fond purpose of its authors; it is sure "to be outdated quickly by the writings of those who use it."