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The Difficulties Of Writing Contemporary History

by Bruce Kuklick 8th October 2019

Writing a contemporary history textbook is challenging, to say the least. Bruce Kuklick, author of A Political History of the USA, explains why.

At the end of 2008, a few days after Barack Obama won the presidential election in America, I finished the first edition of A Political History of the USA. I added a few paragraphs on why the election result made sense, that it was in some way a fruition of the history of the country. Of course, I was entirely wrong, 100%.
Ten years later, at the start of 2018, I was lucky enough to get asked to do a second edition of the book. I got the opportunity to make varied substantial revisions in all parts of the text. But easily the most important and most difficult were two basically new chapters, the first going from the presidency of Richard Nixon through that of Bill Clinton, 1968-2000; and a second from the end of the Cold War to the election of Donald Trump, 1989 to 2016.
Photo credit: Photo of President Obama from 2009, taken by Executive Office of the President of the United States. In the Public Domain and available on Wikimedia Commons
I have had some experience writing recent history. But I have often thought to myself that if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election, the 1,000 words I wrote on Obama in the frist edition would have made far more sense than they do now. Trump’s victory was an idiosyncratic surprise that really happens far more regularly than historians make out. It is the sort of surprise that compels scholars to rethink basic assumptions and, in the case of history, to force the scholar to re-conceive all sorts of assumptions about the past that have given order to events or ideas.

So, for well over a year I have watched CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. I have listened to more pundits on National Public Radio than I can remember. I have read serious journalists in the Wall Street Journal and The Times and The Post; and a lot of less serious tell-all memoirs. Then there are angry and distressed liberals and establishment conservatives in the intellectual magazines and victorious followers of Trump in less intellectually respectable venues and blogs. To tell you the truth. I am glad to have finished my revisions. Sixteen months of this sort of engagement is long enough.

My ability to make the present intelligible will soon be subject to the judgment of others, which is as it should be. With some regret, I decided not to go beyond 2016, even though several people urged me to include the 2018 congressional elections. Several more argued that I should lobby my editor to wait for some decisive moment at the far end the 2020 election.
Figuring out the present in historical terms is a truly difficult enterprise. Indeed, I might even say impossible.
In the end it was clear to me that any of these options might give a sense of security, but that it would be false. For what I had learned in distinction from the substance of my history is that figuring out the present in historical terms is a truly difficult enterprise. Indeed, I might even say impossible.

The whole premise of writing history is that in the present we have an incomplete or even false understanding of what is going on. It is only later that we can get a full grasp on what was occurring at a certain time. We put things, as we say, in historical context. If, now, we understood things as well as a historian will in the future, we would not need history.

So I look forward to ten years in the future when I can see how accurate I was; and I have also been told that I might then have another shot.
Featured image credit: Photo by Steve Harvey. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash license.