On Jennings’ recognition of the less and more productive kinds of sympathy with our historical subjects.
We scholars like to pretend otherwise sometimes, but we’re no more capable of being entirely objective about our subjects than anyone else would be; we have our subjectivities, our passions, our personal connections, and they enter into our analyses whether we will it or no. As I wrote in this post on my youthful fondness for Robert E. Lee, the key is first to recognize those passions and then to push beyond them, to allow the complexities and challenges of history and culture and literature and all our topics to deepen and strengthen our ideas and work. That doesn’t mean that we end up vilifying historical figures—such simplified critiques are no more complex or meaningful than hero-worship—but instead that we seek to analyze and understand them in all their details and contexts, and see where that works takes us.
In his concluding chapter, “In Sum,” Jennings engages directly with and poignantly responds to a critique of his work on these terms:
“A good friend chides me for giving too little notice to historical persons who really did struggle and sacrifice for liberty for all. I an uncomfortable with that criticism, especially because of my own youthful experience as one of the strugglers. Yet I have written no more than what the evidence seemed to indicate, and I will not cover up; there has been much too much of that. Human animals are capable of behavior demonic as well as angelic, and sometimes both from the same creature.”
After a paragraph highlighting once more a few of his book’s examples of such seeming contradictions, Jennings pushes his ideas one crucial step further:
“It seems to me that the best service to be performed in behalf of strugglers for liberty is to talk straight—to show the complexity and ambiguities of their struggle, and to recognize humanity even where the strugglers did not. All men are brothers, and all women are sisters.”
As he does in so many places, Jennings here articules succinctly and powerfully one of the ideas for which I hope to work throughout my career. We can indeed, he argues, sympathize with our historical subjects, and more exactly with their ideals and goals, with the best of what they were and represented and connected to. Moreover, recognizing their limitations and failures as well as their strengths and triumphs allows us not only to do full justice to American histories and identities, but also to move toward a more perfect union, toward a future that carries forward and builds upon but also is not circumscribed by these histories.
What Jennings argues for here, then, is another seeming contradiction that is in fact a vital idea, and one I would locate at the heart of public American Studies scholarship: that doing our best to be objective and complete in our historical analyses can at the same time produce a genuinely progressive and practical vision for America’s present and future. By neither eliding the worst of our histories in an effort to create mythologized heroes nor cynically vilifying our figures in an effort to revise such mythologies, we can both better and more fully understand our past and find the most genuine and vital kinds of inspirations for our future.
Final Jennings-inspired post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
7/26 Memory Day nominee: Stanley Kubrick, one of America’s most talented filmmakers and an artist whose interests consistently centered on complex themes of American identity, society, and community.
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