Frank B. Freidel Jr. wasn’t naming names, but sometimes historians make history sound downright dull. Of course, there are the historians who would be a pleasure to read no matter what they’re writing--literary stylists like, say, Arthur Schlesinger and Samuel Eliot Morrison.
And it’s not that he’s demanding eloquence, Freidel added. “My writing is not scintillating. My writing is readable. . . . I’m a craftsman, not an artist.
“But some historians, for example, engage in this historical quantification. They give you all these figures. I would say ‘the nation was overwhelmingly for the issue,’ then cite the statistics in a footnote. I’m not for great style, eloquence. I’m saying just look at your writing, not even worry about every word you write.”
Outside of academic circles, Freidel’s sentiments about historians and their need to communicate may hardly have people shouting with excitement. (There may, however, be a general murmur of agreement.) But in academia, Freidel apparently comes across like a missionary spreading the long-awaited gospel. Indeed, USC’s English Department was so overjoyed that a historian had finally dared speak out against dull, rambling writing that it awarded Freidel an honorary doctor of literature degree at the school’s 102nd spring commencement last week.
Within academic circles, Freidel, 69, is a man to whom people listen. It’s a reward of impeccable credentials: former Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford University, former Guggenheim Fellow, former president of the Organization of American Historians, Charles Warren Professor of American History emeritus at Harvard University, co-editor of the Harvard Guide to American History, author of seven books, writer or co-author or editor of dozens more books, chapters and articles and, since his retirement from Harvard, Bullitt Professor of American History at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he now lives.
The Public F.D.R.
His current project, besides teaching, is a biography of Franklin Roosevelt as a public figure. It’s a separate entity from the eight volumes on Roosevelt that Freidel has been writing since 1952. (Four volumes, taking Roosevelt through the New Deal, are completed.)
For USC’s history department, the arrival of Frank Freidel on campus was a source of pride. He was one of theirs, an alumnus of USC’s history department with a bachelor’s degree in 1937 and a master’s in 1939. He also wrote for the student newspaper, the Daily Trojan, and was a student correspondent for The Times. Freidel naturally made note of this at the chic little luncheon hosted in his honor by history department chairman Mauricio Mazon in the secluded patio behind Doheny Library--though quipping that when he studied here, the school was more into “Methodist theology” and “Doheny (library) had no books in it.”
(Historians apparently can’t resist historical anecdotes and references, even in the most casual conversation. Observe Freidel’s crew cut, which he’s had since 1955 and acknowledges that it’s become a trademark, but was initially cut that way “because I have unruly hair.” Then the added intelligence that a presidential candidate, Wendell Wilkie, also always had his hair in his eyes. To the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that this may have been why Wilkie lost, Freidel is dismissive.)
The Fun That Endures
Talk with Freidel and, for a non-academic at least, it’s like returning to another age, to a time removed from computers and high-tech, freeways and fitness. Freidel knows about all these things. Indeed, he acknowledges, computers and video tape recorders are very helpful teaching tools. But in this life, what’s really exciting, what’s really vital, what’s really fun--is history.
Historians, as Freidel describes them, are “the last great generalists. . . . They can explore the past in any way they see fit.”
For Freidel, it is pure delight to discover an anecdote about Franklin Roosevelt and bees during research into a trip the late President made to the Northwest. Or to get so intrigued by businessman-philanthropist-presidential adviser Bernard Baruch that pursuing the threads of his life ties much of American foreign policy together. Or to have access to letters, communications, in addition to books and speeches, just so he can satisfy his curiosity that Roosevelt did not have advance information about the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Variety Is the Rule
What’s more, Freidel added, his words coming fast, there’s no more varied group of people than historians--from those who explore the social issues of a time, to the economic aspects, to psycho-history.
And to question the importance of history, its relevance as a field of endeavor . . . Freidel shook his head.
There has been, of course, a change in how history is presented, he said. “History used to be presented as a way of teaching moral lessons . . . divine destiny, that sort of thing. Historians wrote as if the glow of the hand of the Creator was looking over their shoulder. Now historians feel a responsibility to try to be objective, not only about the study itself, but about why they are doing the study.”
Ideally, ‘With Zeal’
Except, Freidel has been saying, so many historians can’t write and dry, lifeless history books hardly make it easy for professors like himself who see the ideal as “communicating with zeal to a student . . . and a wider audience.”
For some historians, in fact, it’s almost a snob issue. “I’m horrified at the tendency of some people in the social sciences who feel that if a work is going to reach the general public, it is journalism and therefore not valid.”
What about the novelized histories? Best sellers like those of James Michener, Herman Wouk, John Jakes? Certainly, they’re bringing history to the masses?
Freidel nodded. “ ‘Winds of War’ was very carefully constructed . . . a service was done by Herman Wouk,” he said. “Where there can be a danger is with books like Robert Penn Warren’s ‘All the Kings Men,’ which many people took as the life of Huey Long. But it was an examination of what could have been the life of Long. It looked at the phenomenon. It’s important when you read these books to keep the right perspective.”