ADVERTISEMENT
The Review

Understand the big ideas and provocative arguments shaping the academy. Delivered on Mondays.

From: Len Gutkin

Subject: The Review: Fact and Metaphor in '1619’

The most recent issue of Harper’s features an essay by Matthew Karp, an associate professor of history at Princeton, called “History as End.” It’s an extraordinary essay, and everyone interested in the central role academic historians have played in public discourse over the last several years should read it. Taking as his partial occasion the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project,” Karp’s goal is to analyze what he referred to in a conversation with me as “a sort of quasi-originalism within liberal and liberal-left approaches to the past today.”

There have been at least two major points of contention with respect to “1619.” The first involved Nikole Hannah-Jones’s claim that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” which many historians dispute. The second turned on the project’s characterization of the year 1619 as America’s “true founding.” Eventually, the “true founding” language was struck online, and “the colonists decided” was changed to “some of the colonists decided.”

But the Magazine’s chief editor, Jake Silverstein, “insisted that no real concessions had been made,” as Karp puts it. “Revealingly, he noted that the idea of 1619 as America’s ‘true founding’ was always a ‘metaphor’ — a metaphor of national birth — and that its impact was undiminished by the changes.”

Karp’s essay is concerned with the ethical and practical merits of the governing metaphors we use to think about history. “In one sense,” Karp writes, “Silverstein is right to suggest that the real stakes of the controversy run deeper than any specialist debate about the 1770s …The question, as The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has written, is not only about the facts, but the politics of metaphor.”

The master metaphor of “1619" is genetic: “racism as part of ‘America’s DNA.’” This biological figure of origination, meant to be clear-eyed and disillusioned, ends up trapped by determinism, “a prisoner of its own heredity.” The interest of Karp’s essay has less to do with facts than with figures. Maybe what we need is not more history but more metahistory — more reflection on the relationship of history to myth, to fantasy, to figuration, to narrative, and to the needs and desires of the present.

Read on for a conversation with Karp.

The Latest

A Conversation With Matt Karp

I spoke with Karp about his recent Harper’s essay, “History as End,” and about the role of the politically engaged historian now. Here’s some of that conversation.

On the factual questions, you’re more or less on the side of the liberal historians who take issue with some of the claims in “1619.”

On certain concrete questions, my reading of the historiography — on, say, the role of slavery in the American revolution — I’m more persuaded by the interpretations of somebody like Christopher Brown in Moral Capital, who really doesn’t find that British antislavery was getting a lot done in the mid-1770s that would have pushed the American colonies to react to it.

But at the same time, you say that Jake Silverstein is on to something when he insists on the metaphoricity of “1619’s” framing. Should historians engaged with the public be talking more about what might be dubbed the “facts versus frames” debate in American historiography? Or is that a morass from which they would never emerge?

The thrust of the essay doesn’t want to contest the facts, it wants to contest the metaphor. In that sense, I do think that this is something historians should consider too. I don’t want to abandon our methodology — using sources to say, “The colonists didn’t think that Britain was about to abolish slavery in 1774.” That’s important. But, at the same time, I think to let the metaphorical questions simmer, to leave them entirely to people outside the profession, would be a mistake. These are important.

My problem is not with the facts in every case; it’s really with the metaphors.

You’re a historian on the left. There’s a sense that the default political affiliation of professional historians is sort of centrist liberal. How do you see yourself with respect to that tendency?

In this recent round of the history wars, the authority and respect which mainstream liberal politics accords historians derives from this intense interest in history. If you don’t have a deep faith in your ability to shape the future, you turn to hold the past responsible. You prosecute the past. This is Wendy Brown’s argument from the ’90s. For liberal discourse, this has been a way of reckoning with the impenetrable gridlock and hopelessness of our politics.

That means a lot of historians are on TV, in op-ed pages, and so on. For the most part their function has been, objectively, to defend mainstream liberalism, and to some extent the Democratic Party, against the right, which, as I talk about in the piece, has had its own kind of trajectory in talking about the past: from traditionalism to rank cynicism. In that fight — about school curriculum, about banning texts from classroom — I’m with the liberals. This is an important struggle, and liberals and leftists should be in the same boat.

But I do think there’s a danger in the dominant mode that the discourse has gone in, in “1619" but also in Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste. Liberal historians have volunteered to accept these originalist metaphors, which I think are troubling. The critique of origins is pretty old and distinguished — Marc Bloch in the ’50s wrote about the “idol of origins,” confusing ancestry with explanation. I think the discourse of original sin, and all of the biological and genetic metaphors that “1619" works with and that a lot of historians have adopted as well are mythical origin stories rather than historical beginning stories.

That’s an intellectual dead end because it doesn’t explain change, struggle, progress, and defeat. It’s also, to me, a fundamentally reactionary way of understanding the past. It has this sort of glacial conservatism about it, this kind of motionlessness, that I think is problematic on a lot of levels — not just intellectually but for any project that seeks to effect change.

Recommended:

  • At The New Yorker, Ian Frazier on Janet Malcolm, who has died at the age of 86.
  • “Gore, dragon guts, and Christological references": at The New York Review of Books, Catherine Nicholson on two new books about The Faerie Queen.
  • “They’ve tried long and hard but nothing they’ve said … has quite made the grade.” At Aeon, Chris Daly on the questions philosophy can never stop asking.

I’m always hoping to hear from you — write to opinion@chronicle.com.

Yours,
Len Gutkin

Len Gutkin is a senior editor at The Chronicle Review. His first book, Dandyism: Forming Fiction From Modernism to the Present, was published in February 2020 by the University of Virginia Press. Follow him at @GutkinLen.