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The rejection bin of history

Forty-seven years ago, two of the greatest names in American historiography laid out a plan for a grand, multivolume summation of American history. Why is it still only half finished?

THE LITERARY EDITOR of the Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Schwarz, recently leveled a sweeping indictment against American historians. Some 47 years ago, he pointed out in the magazine's October issue, C. Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter, two of the greatest names in postwar American historiography, laid out a plan for a multivolume history of the United States. The series, to be published by Oxford University Press, would be a grand summation of their generation's understanding of American history, combining high politics with social and cultural history and bridging the widening chasm between professional historians and intelligent lay readers.

Yet nearly a half-century later, only five of a projected 11 volumes in the Oxford History of the United States have been completed. (The best-known, by far, is "Battle Cry of Freedom," by James McPherson, about the Civil War era, which was a major bestseller.) And, Schwarz wrote, "not only are the Americans unconscionably tardy; their entries conspicuously lack the intellectual refinement, analytic sharpness, and stylistic verve" of similar books done for Oxford, about England, by British historians.

The charge about quality is idiosyncratic -- the five books collectively have won two Pulitzers, a Bancroft Prize (a prestigious award among historians), and many good reviews. But the tardiness is irrefutable. Hofstadter died in 1970, Woodward in 1999, and the series is still only half done. Have American historians simply lost the ability--or the taste for--telling the American story on this scale?

The Oxford project has just hit another snag. With great fanfare, the publisher, in its spring 2007 catalog, announced a new volume: "Leviathan: America Comes of Age, 1865-1900," by the prolific University of Texas historian H.W. Brands. ("Here is a sweeping history of the U.S. in its epoch of greatest change," reads the catalog copy.) But this month, Oxford's executive editor, Susan Ferber, told me that "Leviathan" won't be published in the series after all. Citing private negotiations, neither she nor David M. Kennedy, a professor at Stanford and general editor of the series, would say why the book has been quietly yanked from the series, or whether Oxford will publish it at all. Brands did not respond to requests for comment.

People involved with the series give a number of reasons for its glacial progress. At nearly the moment it was getting started, for instance, women's history and "bottom up" social history were just catching on. "The palette of subjects thought to be appropriate subjects for academic inquiry just exploded," Kennedy says, and the difficulty of writing overarching narratives "went up exponentially." Some scholars who were assigned books simply couldn't find the time to master the new literature.

Unavoidable personal issues and tragedies also intervened: The author originally slated to write the volume on the Civil War, Willie Lee Rose, suffered a stroke in 1978.

And though Woodward had the demeanor of a courtly Southern gentleman, he wasn't shy about rejecting manuscripts that didn't fit his vision. These manuscripts are a longstanding subject of academic scuttlebutt. Morton Keller, a historian emeritus at Brandeis, acknowledges that he was tapped, early on, to write about the period 1875 to 1900, but that Woodward deemed the resulting draft to be too much about government, and not enough about society. Harvard University Press eventually published the effort as "Affairs of State: Public Life in Late 19th-century America" (1977), softening the blow.

Woodward also took a pass on a manuscript by the Berkeley emeritus professor Charles Sellers, on the 1815-1850 era, apparently, say scholars familiar with the episode, because it focused too exclusively on economic development. Oxford published it, apart from the series, as "The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846." (A more amusing theory about that book, passed along by two historians close to the series who didn't want to be identified, is that Woodward was put off by some pages on public panic about masturbation in the 1800s. Sellers says that rumor is new to him, but otherwise declined to discuss any disagreements with Woodward.)

Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, onetime students of Woodward and Hofstadter, became so immersed in the first decade of the period they were assigned they never moved on, eventually co-writing, "The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800" (Oxford). Having not taken us through 1815, as they'd been assigned to do, their book was not suitable for the series.

Other prominent scholars, including Stanford's George M. Fredrickson and Yale's John Lewis Gaddis had contracts to write for the series but found themselves pulled away by other interests, and withdrew after several years. Apart from the McPherson Civil War book, the series so far includes "The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789," by Berkeley's Robert Middlekauff, "Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War," by Kennedy; and two books by James Patterson, who teaches at Brown: "Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974" and "Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush vs. Gore." (Patterson chalks up his fast pen in part to time he spent as a cub reporter at the Hartford Courant, in the late 1950s.)

Writing long, comprehensive, narrative histories carries little prestige within the academy these days, and this too seems to have had something to do with the delays. "The idea that you can sum up the scholarship of a previous generation in one volume just doesn't hold anymore," says Gordon Wood, a Brown historian who doesn't quite share that view. Wood has been working for a decade, off and on, on a book for the series, on the period 1789 to 1815. He says the end is in sight.

It may finally be. Susan Ferber, the Oxford editor, says the project has picked up some fresh momentum recently. She has three manuscripts on her desk -- chapters from Wood, a draft of "What Hath God Wrought: America 1815-1848," by Daniel Howe, an emeritus professor at UCLA; and a thematic volume on foreign policy from 1776-2004, by George Herring, an emeritus professor at the University of Kentucky.

New blood has been brought in as well. Bruce Schulman, of Boston University, has been at work on the 1896-1929 volume for a few years, while Fred Anderson, of the University of Colorado, and Andrew Cayton, of Miami University of Ohio, have just been asked to take the story from 1672 to 1763. (That leaves just one book to be assigned, on the 1600s and earlier.)

Anderson's and Cayton's plans include a retelling of the history of the post-Plymouth Rock, pre-Revolutionary era -- usually treated as a dull stretch -- as a high-drama competition among the English, Spanish, and French empires for control of North America. In this new narrative, Anderson says, the subsequent Revolution becomes a "surprising climax": Just as one empire wins the continent -- they lose it.

"The British couldn't face the price of victory any more than we could face the price of 'victory' in Iraq," Anderson says. That's a fresh interpretation, one that could potentially capture the imagination of the ordinary readers Woodward and Hofstadter longed for, so many years ago. Now comes the test that has vexed so many, in this star-crossed academic series: finishing the book.

Christopher Shea's column appears biweekly in Ideas. E-mail

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