THIS SPRIGHTLY, and in the end endearing, inquiry into how historians ask and answer questions is meant for that elusive manatee of the bookstore, the general reader, who in liking a bit of salt as well as fresh water needs to believe that he is coming to grips with the methodology of a discipline without becoming pedantic about asking the right questions in the right way. We all know that the secret to good litigation, to a convincing diplomatic note, and to a happy marriage is knowing both how and when to ask a question that upon examination will have proved to be the "right" one, and Davidson and Lytle have hit the target for which they have aimed square on. After the Fact is a bit more salt than fresh, especially to the professional historian, but it should do very well and deserves to.
First, these two young historians, both specialists in the study of the United States, write well, without condescension, and with a nice sense of the high drama inherent in unraveling a mystery. They know, and demonstrate repeatedly, that history is an art rather than a social science, in which accident, inspiration, creative drift, and plain and fancy varieties of serendipity play important roles. They have chosen a series of problems likely to fascinate most readers and at the same time have intelligently contrived to deal with most of the major issues confronting professional scholars. Perhaps most important, they are not afraid to offer their own judgments on the events described and, even more courageously, are willing to confirm conventional opinion when their own examination of the evidence leads them to. In short, the book almost always plays fair with its readers, a characteristic not as common in "popular history" as usually assumed.
To be sure, the authors are more honest, and thus more cautious, than the person responsible for the copy on their dust jacket. One ought not to review dust jackets, of course, even though most purchasers probably put out their $19.50 (in this case) with the expectation that they will find answers to such questions as, "Was John Brown mad?" "Was the Hiroshima A-Bomb a mistake?" "Was Huey Long an overrated demagogue--or a true 'great man'?" and such like. Any professional historian, Davidson and Lytle included, knows these questions are not capable of being answered, and in fact they do not ask such questions.
What they do ask is, how can the historian best stalk such a question, and in the slow stalking, what germane questions truly capable of answers might be raised and solved? Their text is a bit like the good detective novel after which, in one sense, it is named, Frances Iles' Before the Fact: they reconstruct how earlier generations arrived at agreed conclusions, show why these conclusions ought to be challenged, and from time to time offer up their own shrewd (and fresh) guesses. Thus the book itself is representative of the historian's dilemma: how to convey conclusions sufficiently definite to be satisfying to the reader who is little interested in the integrity of the process of inquiry itself, while maintaining that integrity for those whose primary goal is the testing of the process. Is it the journey or the destination that most satisfies? In balancing the humanistic and scientific sides of history, the authors subtly though clearly, and in my view very rightly, come down on the humanistic side.
What is interesting here is the way Davidson and Lytle bootleg difficult problems into a text that is not at all difficult or (as historians like to say) data-dense. They show what social history is; they apply the methods of oral history; they poke gently into the bramble patch of psychohistory; they take another look at a grand theoretician like Frederick Jackson Turner; they ask what function footnotes serve and how they may be used to camouflage issues as well as evidence; they inquire into whether model building has any explanatory force in historical analysis; and in an especially appealing essay they show how pictorial representations of groups--in this case the so-called noble savage--may distort or overtake the written record.
Still, the salt water is there with the fresh. Not one of these questions is in any way new, though many readers may come to the questions for the first time under Davidson and Lytle's guidance. On the whole the conclusions reached are cautious, sound, and thus to the artisan as distinct from the apprentice, a little disappointing, rather like reading a detective novel and fearing all along that the solution suspected at the end of the first chapter would turn out to be correct despite all hope that a surprise might be in store. Each essay is accompanied with suggestions for additional reading, and these suggestions strike me as unadventurous and in several instances out-of-date; too often an article that would most convincingly support or attack the authors' conclusions is missing entirely, perhaps because they prefer not to cite scholarly journals that might not be easily accessible to our general reader. The result is that despite the honesty of the essays themselves, the supporting scholarly apparatus will mislead first-time adventurers into assuming that the terrain has been little mapped, when in fact most of it is mapped, fenced, mined, and studded with barbed wire at every turn.
Even so, I have only two serious objections to After the Fact. At times the authors are captured by their own sense of the high romance involved in solving mysteries, and they attach more significance to a single fact than they ought. Most historians, like most lawyers, believe that evidence should be accumulative, cohesive, part of a pattern of logical probability, and it is rare that a historical mystery can truly be solved in the manner of detective fiction, by the discovery of a single red hair on the underside of a blood-stained tea cozy. This tendency to want to remind the reader of a truth, that no fact may be overlooked, can blend into an untruth--that an overlooked fact may be of equal importance to all other facts. The authors fall into this romantic fallacy as they examine the question of just who Deep Throat was in the context of a generally balanced examination of the Watergate scandal. A ring, a tapping hand, a manipulated footnote, and we find ourselves led to the conclusion that J. Fred Buzhardt was Deep Throat. This is not a new conclusion; it is not proved, nor is it capable of proof; and that Woodward and Bernstein were writing instant history is not a new indictment.
My second objection is that the book is devoted exclusively to American examples of the problems examined, and a reader could easily carry away the impression that social history or oral history are best or even exclusively practiced in the United States. One really cannot speak of social history without looking to the French, or of oral history without examining the rapid development of African history. The book contributes to an exclusivist, isolationist tendency on the part of American readers (and too many scholars) to pose questions in purely American terms. There simply is no comparative dimension present.
Still and all, this is a fine book. It shows that history is what historians, broadly viewed, say it is. It makes me feel powerful. I like that.