What is History?

I’m current reading John Tosh’s The Pursuit of History. The book provides a general introduction to the discipline of History. A few thoughts have captured my attention in many regards. First of all, Tosh reviews the main tenets of E. H. Carr’s work: “What is History,” in which he notes several important points. According to Carr, “History was an unending dialogue between the past and the present.” In this aspect, the present is interpreted by the past and its existence is contingent and depends on past events. In other words, the present can only be meaningful when it is studied in light of the past. Carr could also observe further that History is, ” To learn about the present in the light of the past means also to learn about the past in the light of the present. The function of history is to promote a profounder understanding of both past and present through the interrelation between them” (62). Hence, we could also conclude that the present and past complement each other in respect to their interrelationship and interdependence. So what is the job of the historian? It is to reconstruct the past against the background of its historical milieu. But, that is not the only job of the historian. The historian expect labors to find continuity and discontinuity between the present and the past. The reconstruction of past events is a matter of the historian’s preference, discrimnation, and careful selection of (his)source materials. Moreover, Carr has also demonstrated that, “At every level of historical enquiry, from the choice of source materials through to the finished work of history, the present intrudes on the reconstruction of the past” ( Tosh, What is History,? Xii.

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Vernon Louis Parrington (1871–1929)


For many contemporary historians, Vernon Louis Parrington, was the greatest literary historian in America. A two-time graduate from Harvard University, 1893 and in 1897 respectively. Upon graduating from Harvard, he was hired as an instructor of English and Modern Languages at the University of Oklahoma. Parrington is known for his Pultitzer winning magisterial work for history (1928), Main Currents in American Thought. In the three volume work, Parrington brought to the attention of the American people important political figures from Cotton Mather to Thomas Jefferson, and public concerns of the American political life; that is, ” Of American letters from colonial times, postulating a sharp divide between the elitist Hamiltonian current and its populist Jeffersonian opponents, and making clear Parrington’s own identification with the latter.” For example, he forcefully defended the doctrine of state sovereignty and successfully (?)disassociated the movement from the the cause of slavery in America. For, he contended that both movements (the state sovereignty and slavery in America) had not supported and advanced American democracy, instead proven “disastrous to American democracy.” (source)

“Ideas are not godlings that spring perfect-winged from the head of Jove; they are not flowers that bloom in a walled garden; they are weapons hammered out on the anvil of human needs.”
— Vernon Louis Parrington

For further reading-
Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians (1968)
Robert Allen Skotheim, American Intellectual Histories and Historians (1966)
Alfred Kazin, On Native Ground (1942)
Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (1950)

Vernon Louis Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought