Neglected Book

Degler, Carl, Out of Our Past (1959).

I have to confess a personal connection with this book, one that continually prompts me to return to its pages. I first encountered Out of Our Past, in its second edition, as a high school student in the mid 1970s. Degler's provocative, even aggressive arguments, his willingness to make his case without qualification and backtracking, really appealed to a teenager bored by mealy-mouthed survey texts. And the book's unabashed presentism--its conviction that history could and must speak to contemporary debates--truly inspired me. Years later, as a graduate student, I worked as Degler's research assistant as he revised the manuscript for the Third Edition, a process that only deepened my affection for the book. But OOOP repays attention from historians without any such personal ties to the book or its author. Now forty years old, _Out of Our Past_ remains at once a wise, magisterial overview of U.S. history and a deeply personal synthesis. The ensuing decades have witnessed the arrival of many competitors, reflecting advances in scholarship, new approaches, subjects, and concerns. But few, if any, have matched the interpretive force, conciseness and plain old readability of Degler's original masterpiece. Most important, current works lack Degler's vital sense of the connection between the past and the present. For the past two decades, American Historiography has largely emphasized an anthropological approach to the past. Historians treat the past as a foreign country--stressing its "otherness." The best of these books teach readers to appreciate the differences between themselves and their ancestors--even their recent predecessors--in ways of life, modes of thought, even habits of dress, eating and language. In so doing, they make clear the challenges of the historian's task and fill their pages with colorful detail and memorable Masterpiece Theatre-like moments of surprise. To be sure, those are valuable achievements. But those histories still lack a connection to the present, a sense of how the unfolding drama of history actually led Americans to where they are at the beginning of the 21st Century. They make no effort to draw lessons or uncover guides to the present; indeed, they shun that very enterprise. Degler's book embraces that task; it returns consistently to the question of how Americans arrived where they are today. The text selects and emphasizes events, personages, and processes with this objective in mind. Other topics, many of considerable historical interest, receive little or no attention because they possess no such vital link to the present. Today's historians can learn much from this book. They certainly cannot fail to be provoked, irritated, amused and often persuaded by its arguments.

Recommended by Bruce J. Schulman, Boston University

Professor Schulman is the author of From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt: Federal Policy, Economic Development, and the Transformation of the South, 1938-1980 (1991), Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism (1995), and The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics. In 1989-90 he was director of the History Project in California, a joint effort of the University of California and the California State Department of Education to improve history education in the public schools. In 1993, as Associate Professor at UCLA, Schulman received the Luckman Distinguished Teaching Award and the Eby Award for the Art of Teaching. In September 1997 he became Director of the American and New England Studies Program at Boston University.