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THE NEW HISTORY
[Address by Edward Eggleston, editor, author (born in Vevay, Ind., December 10, 1837; died at Joshua's Rock, on Lake George, N.Y., September 2, 1922), delivered at his inauguration as President of the American Historical Association, held in Boston, December, 1900.]
MEMBERs of the AMERICAN HISTORICAL Association, FELLow STUDENTs of History:—I thank you to-night for your preference in choosing me to the Presidency of the Historical Association. It is one of the honors of my life. I remember hearing Mr. Lowell apologize for reading an address—he had been accustomed to speak off-hand. He said, “I have suffered a loss of the memory of names. It is the first falling of the leaves of memory.” I, who have been wont to speak without notes for more than forty years, must come here to-night with Lowell's beautiful apology on my lips. Since a little more than a year ago my memory cannot be depended on for names, and I too am forced to plead “the first falling of the leaves of memory.” Let me begin without further introduction. Let me speak the things in my heart. Let me bring myself along with me, as Wendell Phillips said at Harvard. I propose to speak to you mainly of the New History. All our learning takes its rise from Greece. No other superstition has held so long as the classic. For five hundred years nearly every historical writer has felt it necessary to touch his cap in a preface to Herodotus and Thucydides. They are certainly models of style, no one contradicting. A man like myself, on whose Greek the rust of thirty-five years has fallen, may be permitted to shelter himself behind so great a Grecian as Professor Jebb. In the following keen words he makes retrenchments on Thucydides: “It is a natural subject of regret, though not a just cause of surprise or complaint, that the history [of Thucydides] tells us nothing of the literature, the art, or the social life under whose influences the author had grown up.” . . . “Among the illustrious contemporaries,” says Jebb, “whose very existence would be unknown to us from his pages are the dramatists AEschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes; the architect Ictinus; the sculptor Phidias; the physician Hippocrates; the philosophers Anaxagoras and Socrates.” . . . “If Thucydides had mentioned Sophocles,” continues he, “as a general in the Samian war, it may be doubted whether he would have noticed the circumstance that Sophocles also wrote dramas, unless it had been for the purpose of distinguishing him from a namesake.” Jebb qualifies his statement by urging that Thucydides sought to do only one thing, to write the history of the Pelopennesian war without permitting the intrusion of anything else. But Thucydides must have had the notion that war was the most important thing in the world and that all the art and eloquence of his time were, as he calls them, merely “recreations of the human spirit.” Add to this that nearly one fourth of Thucydides' history is made up of speeches imitated from the epic poets and that most of them were the work of the author. His history is a splendid piece of literature, but it is not a model for a modern writer. The reductions on Herodotus are essential. His credulity alone is an impairment to his character as a historian. Neither from Herodotus nor from Thucydides can we learn to write history in the modern sense. Their histories will remain, as Thucydides said of his, “a possession forever.” But it would be strange if we had not learned anything of the art of writing history in a cycle of nearly twenty-four hundred years. Let us brush aside once for all the domination of the classic tradition. Let us come to English letters. One of our early examples is one of our best. In English literature Sir Walter Raleigh is in a sense both Herodotus and Thucydides and something more, as became a modern. The title of his fragment, “The History of the World,” repels many people, but it were well if his incomparable work were not neglected. What is most admirable in it is its keen modern interest in the little details of life which are a part of what I call the New History. Occasionally it rises into the grandest style. As an instance of felicitous detail, how there lingers in the memory his treatment of the coracle, the little boat made of a bull’s hide stretched over a frame ! He seizes on a passage of Lucan's and renders it exquisitely and almost literally:
“The moistened osier of a hoary willow
I have seen in use on the western bays of Ireland the same little boat, there called not a coracle, but a curragh— the original form of the word, no doubt. It was usually occupied by a priest being rowed from island to island to hear confessions. The bull's hide had gone out and a stout canvas had taken its place. But the veritable bull'shide boat of Lucan was in use in our Southern colonies down to the Revolution, and this classic mode of conveyance is yet seen on the Western frontier.
Another instance of Raleigh's delightful particularity is seen in his caution about misunderstanding the speech of savages. All who have seen the ancient maps of North Carolina will remember Win-gin-da-coa as its name. This was the first thing said by a savage to Raleigh's men. In reply to the question, “What is the name of this country?” he answered “Win-gin-da-coa.” It was afterward learned that the North Carolina aborigine said in this phrase, “Those are very fine clothes you have on.” And so North Carolina carried a fashion-plate label to unsuspecting readers. With such little incidents Raleigh diversifies his history, and with great passages like his apostrophe to Death he carries it to its loftiest climaxes. Its eloquent by-passages of one kind and another remain to fructify the imagination of later ages. Never was a falser thing said than that history is dead politics and politics living history. Some things are false and some things are perniciously false. This is one of the latter kind. In this saying Freeman expressed his whole theory of history-writing, and one understands the point of Green's remark to him: “Freeman, you are neither social, literary, nor religious.” A worse condemnation of a historian could hardly be made. Politics is the superficial struggle of human ambitions crossed occasionally, but rarely, by a sincere desire to do good. History must take account of politics, as of everything else, but let it remember that politics is in its very nature bold and encroaching, a part of the fierce struggle for existence—a part of the fierce striving for power which is so unlovely. It often sails under false colors and it will deceive the historian unless he is exceedingly vigilant. It likes to call itself patriotism. Lincoln, all ready to carry through a great measure by means that were doubtful—this one an office that one something else—looked at the work of his hands with disgust. “Hay,” he said to his private secretary, “what we call patriotic statesmanship is nothing but a combination of individual meannesses for the general good.” There is doubtless some admixture of real patriotism in politics. But what is patriotism? It is a virtue of the half-developed. Higher than tribal instinct and lower than that great world benevolence that is to be the mark of coming ages. Of all countries in the world we need to be cured of politics. We elect everything from a township trustee to the President of the United States. Every man, if he were an intelligent voter, under our system would be required to canvass every year the merits of whole yards of aspirants for petty office. Why not elect one in a city, a State, and the nation, and leave him to study the yards of aspirants and to appoint? Buckle's famous and much-controverted principle that the origin of all movements is to be sought in the people and not in the leader is as true as it is false. Now and then a movement gets head, it has no apparent leader or it gains one who carries it safely to its goal. Such was the