The preface begins by discussing a recent change in how American history is taught and studied. Previously, American history depicted the U.S. as a wonderful peace loving nation that only went to war to protect itself and democracy. Though this America did have its problems and injustices, those issues have since been solved. Such a view of America was challenged and redefined in the 1980s by a new group of historians such as Howard Zinn. These historians produced a radically different story of an America that had betrayed almost all of its values and committed terrible atrocities. In addition to Zinn, the author credits the historical fiction work of Gore Vidal and a new generation of historians (previously trained by “revisionist” New Left historians, who themselves were also trained by a generation of revisionist historians) with bringing about the change in interpretation of American history. The author ends the preface by posing a series of questions related to the study of history designed to get his readers thinking.
Moving on to the first chapter, the author opens by discussing Peter Novick’s “That Noble Dream” and its discussion of the complicated nature of objectivity in history. The author uses Novick to demonstrate the task of fact selection in the development of history. He follows up by adding that one must determine which facts are true before he/she can move on to the selection of the facts. The author believes the process of ascertaining the facts is incredibly challenging and analyzes the cons of some of the most commonly used historical sources to demonstrate this. For instance, buildings can show us into the past, but only if they are still there, and often times they are not. Newspapers can provide firsthand views into a past society, but the journalists who write for those newspapers are often inaccurate and incompetent. Even primary sources themselves can be heavily biased; perhaps written with a specific purpose that distorts facts, exaggerates some, and ignores others. The author continues by discussing the inherent subjectivity that goes into studying history and the difficulties of obtaining an objective history.
The author’s preface is designed to get his readers thinking. For instance, he does not simply open by telling his audience that the interpretation of American history has changed dramatically since the 1980s, he asks them to posit why. The purpose of the preface is particularly evident towards the final few paragraphs in which the reader is hit with a barrage of questions regarding the study of history designed to get the reader to start thinking analytically.
The author uses a similar approach in his first chapter. In discussing the most common sources used by historians and how even they are often unreliable, readers are inclined to wonder how history can possibly be studied objectively when even the most reliable historical sources often possess fatal flaws.
The author’s preface and first chapter are a good set up to get readers thinking about objectivity and history. Obviously, they do not go very far in providing actual solutions to the problems involved in finding an objective history, but I think it is safe to assume that is what the rest of the book is for. I thought his analysis of the fallacies of the most commonly used historical sources effectively demonstrated the challenges in crafting an objective history. He demonstrated that sources such as newspapers and other primary sources can be incredibly unreliable yet still the best sources available notwithstanding. I thought the author did an incredible job of explaining how searching for an objective history can be dangerously subjective. By warning how the search for objectivity might encourage some historians to adopt a correct version of history in opposition to an incorrect version, the author shows us the danger of subjectivity is always close at hand. After all, can history really be all that objective when one claims its interpretation to be absolutely correct and thus impregnable to new facts or perspectives?
If I had to point something out that the author could improve, I would perhaps suggest he elaborate a bit more on Gore Vidal’s “American Chronicles.” He discusses how these short stories, such as “Burr” and “Lincoln” contributed to the change in the study of American history and demonstrated that such works showed that the American public was open to alternative interpretations of its history. But unlike “That Noble Dream” and Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” the author does not really describe Vidal’s “American Chronicles,” making it difficult to understand how such work contributed to the change. A good historian should be inherently skeptical in using works of fiction to interpret history, but I will not knock the author in this instance. As the purpose of the preface was to get the reader thinking and that the second chapter of the book is titled “History and Fiction,” I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume he intended to address the relationship between history and fiction in the meat of his book. Still, the author could have provided more background on Vidal’s work than he did. It is difficult for an audience to understand what the American public and critics were reacting to regarding Vidal’s work when the author’s audience itself is not sure.
Additionally, given the book’s title, “Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism,” I am surprised that revisionism was not really addressed in the preface or first chapter. If revisionism is a major aspect of this book, then perhaps it should have been addressed in the preface. I suppose I cannot say he did not address revisionism at all since he technically mentions that the newer generation of historians changing American history were educated by revisionists (who were also educated by revisionists), but that tidbit of information does not do much (if anything) in introducing the reader to what the title suggests is a major theme of the book: revisionism. Other than leaving readers in the dark over Vidal’s supposedly important work and failing to address revisionism early, I thought the author did a solid job of getting his readers’ minds running.
Word Count: 1026
Riggenbach, Jeff. Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to
Revisionism. Auburn, AL: Jeff Riggenbach, n.d. Accessed September 13,