A Tale of Woe

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

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.

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