Plumb, J. H. (1911– )

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Plumb, J. H. (1911– )

Plumb, J. H. (1911– ), British historian. Though an historian by profession, J. H. Plumb nevertheless holds the rather unusual notion that history, or as he prefers to call it, The Past, deserves to be put to rest once and for all. In his book on the subject, The Death of the Past, Plumb argues that not only has technological innovation diminished the past's ability to provide guidance to modern industrial societies, but, more significantly, that people have always tended to rewrite the past to suit their own ends—be it a priest who seeks to confirm a particular religious belief, a king who needs to justify his rule, or a mere "commoner" who wants to add a few illustrious members to an otherwise undistinguished family tree. This "created ideology with a purpose," as the author defines conventional history, is what has made freedom and economic prosperity such rare commodities, for those in power have always manipulated the past at the expense of the "little guy."

Of course, Plumb does not advocate doing away with history and historians altogether. According to William Appleman Williams of the Nation, Plumb believes the modern historian should attempt to "defuse" the power of the past "by removing the ideology of the historian and thereby transform what has been an instrument of social control into a tool of human improvement." In order to "cleanse the story of mankind," as Plumb himself states, the historian must "try and understand what happened, purely in its own terms. . . . [He must] see things as they really were, and from this study. . . . attempt to formulate processes of social change which are acceptable on historical grounds and none other." But the ideal historian has to do more than just uncover and explain historical events; Williams reports that Plumb also expects him to make "positive statements about human life" while developing "principles about social living" with the ultimate goal of demonstrating that "the condition of mankind has improved" throughout history.

Few observers criticize the spirit behind such a cause, but most doubt that what Plumb proposes is possible. Though a Times Literary Supplement critic, for example, calls The Death of the Past a "stimulating, courageous, and frequently learned book" which "deserves to be pondered by all who teach or value history," William H. McNeill, himself a historian, comments in the Saturday Review that the distinction Plumb makes between "history" (what really happened) and "The Past" (what the chroniclers say happened) "strikes me as completely false. What Professor Plumb hails as a new genus, history, is merely the onset of a climate of opinion in which he feels at home. Older uses of the past he analyzes, often wittily and well, as self-serving, erroneous, naive. . . . [But Plumb's] view of man's past . . . seems quite as self-serving. . . . To claim that modern historians have a unique talisman that allows us to know things as they really were—apart, apparently, from the questions we ask and the conceptions we bring to the past—obscures rather than clarifies the real, indisputable advances that have occurred and are occurring in our understanding of mankind's history.

This little book . . . is briskly written, and abounds in arresting turns of phrase. But Plumb's brilliant style cannot really salvage a faculty idea."

The New Statesman reviewer agrees, remarking that "there is not much one can do with [such] a confession of faith except sign it, and with a good deal of mental reservation I should be prepared to sign this one. . . . [But] I have the impression that Plumb is skating on pretty thin ice." The Nation's Williams also sees "much truth in [Plumb's] analysis" but ultimately decides that following his advice "is to start down a path that will change the historian into a kind of superheated lay minister. At best, and by Plumb's own formulation, the historian becomes an advocate who offers one general answer to the questions he has raised. Plumb is trying to keep the crown on Clio's head even as he tells us that the old regime has collapsed."

Melvin Maddocks of the Christian Science Monitor, responding to Plumb's question, "Can man face the future with hope and with resolution without a sense of the past?," concludes that this "is not the final question. The final question must go beyond the morale problem to ask: Can man even function without a sense of the past? . . . Are not the very standards by which historians think bound to be a conscious and subconscious heritage of the past? . . . The Futurist is born with a love of the vacuum. He longs for a brave, new, empty world. What he hates most is the sight of footprints in the sand. But the question-to-end-all-questions he may have to ask himself is: Would I want to live in the kind of world where footprints were not at least a possibility?"