Miriam Burstein on the Not-too-Hard-Working Donald Kagan: Hoisted from Ten Years Ago

Miriam Burstein: Cited by: “Dad the Emeritus Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt…

…sent me to Donald Kagan’s Jefferson Lecture. Despite Kagan’s warnings against the dangers of over-generalization, his critique of contemporary historiography was so non-specific — apparently, we’re still stuck in 80s crusades against DWM — that I had a hard time finding the ‘there’ there. I’ve already had an earful about this lecture from a classicist’s perspective, and I’ll leave his call for history as a ‘sound base for moral judgments’ to other historians.
Being an English professor, albeit of the old-fashioned literary-historical variety, I naturally pricked up my ears (eyes?) when I stumbled across some references to Stanley Fish and Paul de Man. I was a tad puzzled to discover that Kagan didn’t cite Stanley Fish and Paul de Man directly, but only from excerpts: Fish from Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals and de Man from David Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man.
When I teach my graduate students how to evaluate secondary sources, I always ask them to consider how many times the author chooses to cite primary sources that have been quoted in other works, as opposed to citing directly from the original texts. While it’s legitimate to cite a primary source ‘quoted in’ another work when you cannot access the original text (e.g., it’s a manuscript on the other side of the planet), there’s no excuse for citing easily available sources in such a fashion. How can you tell if the quotation has been taken out of context or misquoted? What if your secondary source hasn’t understood the original text?
There’s something rather depressing about reading a paean to traditional historical inquiry, only to discover that the author is generalizing about something that he apparently knows only in snippets and at secondhand. (Do historians really read a lot of Paul de Man? I wouldn’t have thought he would be even remotely useful. Conceivably, the early Stanley Fish’s reception theory might be more helpful.) Now, Richard J. Evans does a fine job of critiquing postmodern theories of history, precisely because he’s done the reading, has clearly thought about it at some length, and can separate the wheat from the chaff. No vague handwaving there. (Incidentally, Evans’ response to his critics is quite delightful.)

Originally published at www.bradford-delong.com.