Peter Novick Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Peter Novick 1934-

American historian and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Novick's career through 2001.

Novick, a professor of twentieth-century American and European history at the University of Chicago, has published three works of acclaimed historical scholarship during his nearly four decades as a professional historian. His first work, The Resistance versus Vichy: The Purge of Collaborators in Liberated France (1968), concerns the mass executions of Vichy collaborators—those supporting a facist government ruled by Marshal Phillipe Petain—in France following World War II. Novick's second book, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (1988), is both a social history of historical scholarship as an academic field and an intellectual history concerning debates over objectivity in historical research. The Holocaust in American Life (1999) traces developments in the American perspective on the Holocaust since World War II, and puts forth a controversial argument asserting that the Holocaust has been over-memorialized in American mass culture.

Biographical Information

Novick was born on July 26, 1934, in Jersey City, New Jersey. He served in the United States Army from 1953 to 1955, and earned a bachelor's degree in history from Colombia University in 1957. While in graduate school, Novick taught as a lecturer at Rutgers University from 1961 to 1962, and at Colombia University from 1961 to 1965. Novick earned a Ph.D. in history from Colombia University in 1965 and began his career as a professor of history. He taught as an assistant professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara from 1965 to 1966. He then began teaching twentieth-century American and European history at the University of Chicago, working as an assistant professor from 1966 to 1969, an associate professor from 1969 to 1987, and as a full professor since 1987. Novick received the 1969 Clark M. Ansley award, presented by Colombia University Press, for The Resistance versus Vichy, and the 1989 Albert J. Beveridge prize, from the American Historical Association, for That Noble Dream.

Major Works

In The Resistance versus Vichy, Novick examines the events that took place in France in the years following World War II, during which collaborators with the Vichy government were purged by Liberation forces. Novick estimates that anywhere from ten thousand to one hundred thousand Vichy collaborators were executed in France between 1944 and 1949. That Noble Dream explores the history of historical scholarship as an academic discipline in the United States, creating both a social history of the discipline and an intellectual history of the concept of “objectivity” among historians. Novick discusses developments in the field of history from the late nineteenth century to the late twentieth century in terms of historians' “objectivity.” He traces a series of fluctuations between periods when a majority of American historians believed that history can and should strive for objectivity and periods when a majority believed that relativism should be the guiding principle of historical scholarship. Novick divides the first century of American historical scholarship into four distinct periods. In the first period, he asserts that the professionalization of the field of history in America began in 1880, when the American Historical Association (AHA) was founded. During this phase, which lasted until 1917, most American historians assumed an ideal of scientific objectivity in their research. In the second phase—from the end of World War I in 1918 until the beginning of World War II in 1939—Novick asserts that American historians adopted a stance of relativism. He describes the 1930s as a period of stagnation, conformity, and prejudice in the field of American historical studies. The third phase in Novick's history, encompassing the 1940s and 1950s, was characterized by a renewed faith in objectivity among American historians. In the wake of World War II, the historical profession experienced a revival in status, as well as a trend toward greater equality in the hiring practices of history departments. Novick dates the fourth period of American historical study from the 1960s to the present. According to Novick, the social and political upheavals of the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War era lead to a renewed questioning of history's claim to objective scholarship. Increased awareness of underrepresented groups—such as women, African Americans, and other ethnic minorities—led to a splintering of the field of history into a series of sub-fields, including African-American studies, women's studies, ethnic studies, and the scholarship of the New Left. While Novick describes the current state of historical scholarship as chaotic, in which all claims to objectivity have been delegitimized, he offers no alternative theory or methodology for bringing greater unity to the historical profession.

The Holocaust in American Life concerns the developments in American conceptions of the Holocaust since World War II. According to Novick, during World War II, the United States government downplayed the plight of European Jews under Adolf Hitler's regime for fear of alienating American popular opinion against the war effort. In the post-war era of the late 1940s and the 1950s, Novick asserts that the Jewish experience in the Holocaust continued to be largely unacknowledged by the American public. He notes that, during this period, the term “Holocaust” had not yet been widely applied to the Nazi extermination of European Jews, and those who had lived through internment in concentration camps had not yet been termed Holocaust “survivors.” American public conceptions of the Holocaust, however, changed radically during the 1960s and 1970s. Novick points to two major phenomenon which significantly altered the American perspective on the Holocaust. The first was the highly publicized Adolf Eichmann war crimes trial in Israel during the early 1960s, which brought to light the extent of the Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews. The second was the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, which concerned American Jews who feared the annihilation of the state of Israel. These concerns spurned Jewish-American organizations to raise awareness of the Holocaust as a means of garnering American support for the state of Israel. Efforts to memorialize the Holocaust in American popular culture increased throughout the 1980s and 1990s, culminating in the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in 1993. Novick believes that the Holocaust has actually been overemphasized in American culture, arguing that American sympathy for the Holocaust victims and survivors has been manipulated by prominent Jewish organizations in order to preclude any criticism of Israel's policy toward the Palestinians. Additionally, while memorialization of the Holocaust has been employed as a means of strengthening Jewish identity, Novick feels that it has ultimately drawn focus away from the theological elements of the Jewish religion. He also contends that this overemphasis on the Holocaust has drawn attention away from other oppressed groups in American culture, such as African Americans and Native Americans.

Critical Reception

While many critics have found The Resistance versus Vichy to be a bold and well-researched work of scholarship, others have argued that the book offers scant original historical analysis. Critics of That Noble Dream have almost unanimously concurred that the work raises several important questions regarding the field of historical study, though a number of scholars have disagreed with Novick's conclusions. Reviewers have commented that one of the greatest strengths of That Noble Dream is Novick's social history of the academic historical profession. David Noble asserted that, “No other scholar has made such a marvelous contribution to our understanding of the history profession during its first century.” Many critics, however, regarded Novick's intellectual history of the “objectivity question” as a central weakness of the book, claiming that Novick does not adequately address the subject. Some took issue with Novick for failing to adequately define his use of the term “objectivity,” while others asserted that Novick oversimplifies the debate among historians over objectivity versus relativism. Critics were divided on Novick's assessment of the current state of the historical profession. Some agreed with Novick that the field is in a state of crisis. Joseph M. Levine, for example, commented that That Noble Dream “is useful and timely, for it reminds us that the historical profession is indeed in crisis, that its traditional convictions about the point and purpose of history have been challenged and cannot be left to stand in their original formulation.” Others, meanwhile, asserted that historical scholarship remains unified by basic theoretical and methodological values. Novick was criticized for his scant and oversimplified treatment of women historians, as well as developments in women's history. Hilda L. Smith observed, “It is not merely that [Novick] presents a brief and inaccurate understanding of women's history; he also provides an inadequate understanding of women in the historical profession.” Linda Gordon concurred, “Novick's treatment of women's history is so scandalously misinformed that it becomes disrespectful. … Novick misses not only the rich theoretical debates within women's history … but he also misses the academic politics.” The Holocaust in American Life has garnered a mixed critical reception. Many critics agreed that Novick's historical narrative of the development of American conceptions of the Holocaust since World War II is well-researched, insightful, and accurate. Many, however, strongly disagreed with Novick's conclusion that the Holocaust has been over-memorialized in American culture. A number of reviewers asserted that Novick fails to comprehend the significance of the Holocaust itself. Steve Hochstadt, for example, commenting on the strengths and weakness of The Holocaust in American Life, observed, “A valuable, insightful, and solidly documented analysis of the use of the Holocaust by a significant segment of American Jewry is woven together with a superficial, distorted, and tendentious presentation of the Holocaust itself.” Several pointed out that Novick's perspective is too narrow, failing to take into account the broader cultural and historical contexts through which Jews and non-Jews understand the Holocaust. As Jeffrey Herf commented, “The problem with The Holocaust in American Life is not that all of Novick's criticisms are wrong, but that he makes them without sufficient nuance and balance. He would have written a much better and more convincing book had he examined the host of other and equally plausible and not at all pejorative reasons for the emergence of the Holocaust as a theme in American life.” Some reviewers, however, agreed that Novick offers an important critique of how memorialization of the Holocaust has been manipulated by prominent public figures and national organizations to promote specific political agendas. Lawrence Baron, for example, observed, “Novick's analysis of Holocaust commemoration should not be misconstrued as a form of Holocaust denial, but rather as a warning against reducing the Holocaust to trite lessons that enhance Jewish identity or advance a variety of contemporary causes.”