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A Tale of Woe

Truth in History By Oscar Handlin Harvard University Press, $17.50

By Brenda A. Russell

NOT EVERYONE tells the truth.

Historians in our society have the awesome and tedious burden of recounting events with accuracy. Handlin, University Professor of History and dean of American historians, has found fault with the work of some of his predecessors and colleagues. Oscar Handlin is a disappointed man.

In a collection of ominous essays and magazine reprints, Handlin charges his profession with moral violations. He grades each period of historical study and finds the record worsening with time--giving the lowest marks to the 1970s. But historians began slipping up much earlier, altogether missing the goal of accurate interpretation.

Handlin partially blames the discipline itself with the failure to stick to its moral rules. In a preposterous effort to attract students to college history departments, Handling says, the "misdirected search for clients obscured the genuine values of the discipline." History tried too hard to be like other social sciences and bend with the times. Students wanted something useful in the real world, but history's archaic tenants failed to fit the description. So some professors tried to bend with the times like other social scientists, which as Handlin said, could only lead to the end of the discipline.

But have no fear history majors, Handlin is here to save you.

Inattention to research skills inevitably leads to the problems in telling the truth, he argues, Handlin pokes his finger here and there at the naughty historians, mentioning places and points where they have strayed from the ideal. However, his explanation of what went wrong doesn't surface until halfway through the book, after he gives a detailed list of research how-tos for the history major. Handlin repeatedly argues that speculation on the psychological behavior of historical figures does not belong in a history book: subjective data on Hitler's bisexuality or Nixon's insecurity are the stuff of trashy novels.

Hence he sees a need for a renewed commitment to truth and accuracy in history.

Handlin has sharp words for those who have fallen prey to the theory-without-evidence mode of historical accounting. He believes in sticking to the facts--even though at times the "provable facts" were actually incorrect. Works such as U.B. Phillips' American Negro Slavery, written in 1929, distorted the facts of history when they included as a "proven fact" that blacks were racially inferior. Although we are never told quite why, Handlin finds these illusions forgivable.

Their deficiencies as overall interpretations did not drain the single-factor theories of the capacity for furnishing specific insights to the prudent scholar.

What specific insights? Handlin felt they were important enough to uphold entire works, but not relevant enough to explain to his readers.

Handlin includes a string of essays for the new historian on how to deal with evidence more carefully: how to read a word, count a number and so on. He cites an under current of feeling in historical writing call "faction," a bungling combination of fact and fiction. For the '70s, faction appears to be in vogue.

Handlin calls Gore Vidal's Burr and 1876 "inventions that disguised the poisonous portrayal of the early Republic in a fantastic tale of corruption, greed and sex." In a chapter entitled "The Diet of a Ravenous Public," Handlin rips the 'factional' historians to shreds. He assails Ragtime, calling "racial prejudice the crutch on which the book limps along," and renders equal treatment to critics that lapped it up.

Poor Professor Handlin--his true life's work has been abused and distorted by faction writers. Mario Puzo, author of Fortunate Pilgrim, betrayed the historical method in fabricating "the shiny Godfarther" less than ten years later. And television, that boxed perpetrator of evil, flaunts docudramas such as "Washington Behind Closed Doors," and "Truman at Potsdam."

The greatest tragedy of all was that book by that man who claims he descended from the village of Juffure. How dare Alex Haley label Roots nonfiction! Haley's crime was worse because he not only cribbed some information from Margaret Walker's Jubilee, but also totally fabricated the rest.

The market cried for a book as laden with sex and violence as Godfather, like it, fiction suggested by fact and validated by history, but heated with a little racial spice.

Handlin has even found the recipe. Take a family, black not Italian, he says and trace it back to Africa. Make sure it's your history recalled by your grandmother and no one will know the difference because you are its living witness. Handlin says Haley really added yeast to his story when he devoted "85 per cent of his attention to the period before the Civil War, the time least subject to reader verification, the time most readily freighted with nostalgia and fantasy for their benefit."

Juffure never existed says Handlin. Especially the references to the way those Africans behaved: all available evidence proves Africans had no concept of Africa, nor did they regard all Africans as brothers. Also, according to Handlin, Haley's Kunta Kinte is not a man of the 18th-century West African coast, but a 20th-century civil rights activist.

Handlin insists that he does not want black Americans to feel left out of history, but instead wishes to show them myths are not the answer. Myths deny the dignity of those who lived and died unrecognized, he says.

But Handlin misses the point. Just as evidence exists that things happened one way, there are gaps in history where things may have occurred differently. Only where there is evidence is there history, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian tells us. Thus it follows that if there is no evidence, there is no history. How many African tribes kept records at City Hall? Or better yet, how many American Indians kept council meeting notes? Does this mean that black and native Americans have no history? Is that why schoolchildren are repeatedly told Columbus discovered America when native Americans were here first?

Five pages after Handlin's bitter and unsubstantiated critique of Roots, he chooses once again to excuse the writings of John Burgess and of William Dunning that gave credibility to contemporary theories of racial inferiority proposed by social and biological sciences. Sure they were wrong because they allowed their racist attitude to influence their writing of history, Handlin says. Nonetheless, they deserve no more than a slap on the wrist. After all, these works "were products of serious scholarship, had respectable scientific underpinnings, and earned respect as useful contributions to the solution of current problems." Some people found them useful, anyway--state legislators held up these books as supporting "evidence" for Jim Crow laws. But Handlin excuses "the occasional racist slurs" of the 1940s and '50s, calling them "less troubling than the injustice" a few historians served earlier ethnic peoples by falsifying their history "to gratify the passions of their descendants."

Handlin may remain a disappointed man for some time. Truth from accurate evidence is only one part of the search for real history. The other is selection of evidence from uncertain sources and interpretation; these will always remain judgmental decisions.

Aside from his views of where historians have gone wrong. Handlin proposes a strong if not portentous case for accuracy. He has paid close attention to history, but the same challenge could be issued to every academic discipline which proposes to teach that which the public could not discover for itself. The book is nothing new, just a dressy version of earlier ideas filled with one clear message. Historians should try not to disappoint Handlin again.

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