Common Reading 2005 - 2006

History from the Bottom Up

By Timothy Coogan

In addressing the problem of writing about the poor and invisible groups in society and the place of history itself in that context, the social historian Carl Becker nearly a century ago noted that such new approaches to historical truth meant getting at the "memory of things said and done" in human life and thought.  In pursuit of such a quest, "everyone," he declared, must be "his own historian."  Decades later a whole new generation of "new social historians" took up his call.  For example, well-known practitioners of doing "history from the bottom up," such as Howard Zinn ( Peoples History of the United States), Staughton Lynd, E.P. Thompson, Jesse Lemisch, and Herbert Gutman, all remind us that one must never divorce himself/herself from the social struggles of the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden.  As the intellectual mentor of this approach, E.P. Thompson, proclaimed in the 1950s , in doing "history from below," all kinds of evidence beyond the historical narrative ---including “the peoples' consciousness, culture, and value systems”---must equally be as crucial narratives of the peoples' struggles as explanations of social class and power.  His early call to arms was quickly embraced by American historians soon thereafter.  Thus, as Thompson’s New Social History mandate claimed in the 1960s, detailing the everyday lives and contributions of ordinary people became the clarion call to write "history from the bottom up." 

According to the New Left historian, Staughton Lynd ( in a forum entitled "Reflections on Radical History"), the honor of espousing "history from the bottom up" as a particular phrase belongs to social historian Jesse Lemisch who coined it in the early 1960s.  He first used this set of words in a pamphlet by that title he wrote for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).   Likewise, E. P. Thompson, Lynd remarks, "drew emotional sustenance less from fellow professionals than from his students, with whom he often joined in political demonstrations."  Thompson stressed how much he learned from his students.  "Within living memory," he wrote, "it seems, miners have worked lying down in eighteen inch seams, children have been in the mills at the age of nine."  In applying theory to practice he began assigning his students---thirty or forty years before this method became commonplace in America---oral histories where each student had to find an older person to talk about their youth. Dorothy Greenald, a student of Thompson's who came from a miner's home where there was only one book, later recalled that he "brought it out that your background wasn't anything to be ashamed of..."  That lesson, she says, "changed me really."  In one sense, therefore, teaching and writing "history from below" meant for Thompson and others who embraced his approach, the historian or writer of “history from the bottom up” had to continue their work "outside the walls."  This strategy called for defying the idea that intellectual work and political engagement had to be at war with each other.  As Thompson's experience shows, he did the bulk of his scholarly work during the period of his fullest immersion in working-class life.  Ironically, The Making of the English Working Class was first envisioned as a survey text for workers' education classes.  For Lynd and others, such role models as Howard Zinn and E. P. Thompson, taught him the “idea of a radical intellectual who is only incidentally an academic”; who is an "organic intellectual" in the sense that, whatever his or her personal background, he or she lives out a professional life in the midst of social struggle; who "accompanies" the poor and oppressed, not only by “thinking and writing about them, but by living near them and being available to them day-by-day."

More recently, the whole issue of “history from the bottom up” received undue attention because of the controversy surrounding the question of intellectual censorship which led to the practice of book burning. In his essay titled, "A modern book burning:  Nation shouldn't fear facing its failures" ( LA Times ,10/15/04), Steven J. Ross writes about a growing fear of a “new authoritarianism” developing in America with the burning of 300,000 copies of one single booklet.  This new kind of moral censorship against incorporating “the history from the bottom up” into American history booklets designed for high students and their parents set off a fierce debate across the nation. According to the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lynne Cheney--and the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney--the standards failed to recognize the achievements of America's traditional heroes and focused instead on the accomplishments of “women, minorities and radicals like Harriet Tubman.”  The booklet in question, which used the ideological guidelines of the National Standards for History, she argued, thus undermined the positive side of American history. This particular text, she declared, should not be distributed to the students and their parents. In using the National Standards for History as a guideline for targeting this booklet, she claimed that its “negative focus” undercut more important themes in American history such as successful entrepreneurs and political leaders. As such, she found the negative references too one-sided and "un-American." Others, like Ross, however, saw the problem quite differently. What he and other critics of Cheney’s actions wanted to know is why the advocates for book burning felt so much loathing toward this little booklet. "What was so horrible?” he asked, “about the National Standards for History that any reference to them would merit the mass destruction of several hundred thousand volumes of knowledge?"  In response, she argued that the standards failed to recognize the achievements of America's traditional heroes and focused instead on the accomplishments of “women, minorities and radicals like Harriet Tubman.”  As she put it in 1994, "We are a better people than the national standards indicate, and our children deserve to know it."  With such an attitude she thus ordered the Education Department to destroy more than 300,000 copies of the notorious booklet that had been designed to help parents and children learn more about our nation's past, the good as well as the bad. This vicious attack on those practicing “history from the bottom up” led her growing chorus of critics to compare what she did to not just the South’s prohibition of slaves learning to read and write, but more; they claimed what she had perpetrated in advocating new forms of book burning was reminiscent of the terrible May 1933 Nazi sympathizers in Berlin who burned 20,000 "degenerate" books, many because their authors were Jews and anti-fascists. In this new round of ideological warfare, Cheney’s critics saw a fearful connection and recalled that it wasn’t that long ago that books by such authors as Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht and Franz Kafka, to name just a few, were targeted by the Nazis because their writings were “dangerous” and un-nationalistic in scope and content.

Yet what Lynn Cheney was really attacking more than anything else was the prominent place that "social history," especially the espousal of "history from the bottom up" had assumed since the 1970s.  She argued that those social historians who practice that approach in teaching pay far too much homage to how "ordinary" people helped contribute to the shaping and building of America and far too little attention on the role of famous white men, political parties, and industrialists.  To such charges, social historians have argued that there are two American histories worth knowing:  "the history of the nation and the history of its people."  As Ross has pointed out, those who teach "history from the bottom up" believe history of the nation's peoples is a history composed of all kinds of different histories:  "the history of rich and poor; of employers and employees; of men and women; of blacks, whites, Asians and Indians; of Protestants, Catholics and Jews."  In this respect, he claims---and thousands would concur---"good historical writing tries to help us understand the full contours of the past, paying equal attention to our triumphs and tragedies."  More importantly, he insists, "historians should not be afraid to hail the heroic figures of the past, but those should also include the less-than-famous men and women who struggled on behalf of democracy."  But so too should historians pay close attention to the uglier accounts of the past: thus, historians "should never avoid dealing with the dark stories of our past--such as slavery, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and McCarthyism." 

Like Ross, others no doubt would agree that "destroying books that disagree with one's vision of history will never take us closer to truth and freedom."  We need to listen to and heed the advice and warnings given to us by both Jefferson and Madison; that mixing the affairs of church (ideology) with the affairs of the state (secularism/free speech) is a matter of grave concern and consequence.  Allowing that basic separation to erode would do irreparable damage to the body politic and severely injure our republic.  As our founding fathers well understood so long ago, democracies are imperfect; "they only grow stronger by learning from the mistakes of the past."

The struggle over who should control what history a nation’s population reads or has access to is one of the key metahistorical problems all writers face. Such moral issues must be considered when the student of the Holocaust intends to do research and write up the stories of survivors. In addition to such interrogations, other "tests" need to be used and implemented in analyzing the evidence of the past victims.  Equally significant is paying attention to what rules must be adhered to when listening to and interviewing Holocaust survival testimonies.  These and many other kinds of queries must be employed in order to rigorously maintain and practice "history from the bottom up."  In other words, we need to be clear on what is necessary in order to do this kind of historical inquiry and investigative work. We need to know how to interrogate the past so we can unearth or recover the voices of the "inarticulate"---those who do not leave behind correspondences, public papers, whose thoughts must be teased from court records---and to retrieve the insights of those who talk more than they write, that is, engage in oral history. 

A good example of how such techniques as "history from the bottom up" can be applied to the writing of Holocaust experience or related topics connected to that wrenching episode of European history is Marion Kaplan's book, Between Dignity and Despair:  Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) which focuses on the German Jews "social death" in the 1930s.  After its release, reviewers glowingly wrote that her study was "an accurate portrayal of the results of hatred."  Kaplan's book, wrote one enthusiastic reviewer, "wonderfully fills the gap between history from the "top down" and "history from the bottom up."  She explained that in writing her book she wanted to retell the stories of heroism and tragedy of ordinary folks who lived under Hitler's Third Reich.  Thus her study deals with the everyday events of their lives (stories of hiding and rescue) under the Nazi Regime.  She shows the importance of and incredible courage and strength Jewish women evinced but also clearly insisted that unlike other Holocaust accounts, hers does not study those who suffered in the concentration camps, but rather the "ordinary people" who had to cope with their new situation as Jews living and surviving under the Nazi regime. 

Some of the websites and works worth checking out include the following:

On the phrase "history from the bottom up" see this citation that attributes the coining of the term to social historian Jesse Lemisch in the 1960s:

On Carl Becker, see the following:

On sensitivity toward history from the bottom up, see for oral history:

On the New Social History's mandate to write "history from the bottom up," see:

For the influence of E. P. Thompson (and thus Herbert G. Gutman) see:

For updated use of the term "history from the bottom up," see on the movement against war in Iraq:

Metahistorical Questions for MAUS Readers


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