Peter Novick Criticism - Essay

C. Vann Woodward (review date 20 February 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Woodward, C. Vann. “Truth and Consequences.” New Republic 200, no. 8 (20 February 1989): 40-3.

[In the following review of That Noble Dream, Woodward questions Novick's success in addressing the “objectivity question” and offers his own evaluation of historians' duty to represent the past.]

A thesis, or better a theme, does run in and out of this large volume from beginning to end. It is proclaimed in its title, That Noble Dream, borrowed from Charles A. Beard, who used it for one of two essays renouncing faith in objectivity in historiography. As developed here, the theme deserves attention on its own, and I shall return to it later. But...

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Geoffrey Elton (review date September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Elton, Geoffrey. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. Journal of Economic History 49, no. 3 (September 1989): 775-77.

[In the following review, Elton describes That Noble Dream as a “fascinating book” that provides a “splendid story” of the history of academic historical scholarship in the United States.]

Nowhere do historians go in for so much self-examination as they do in America: it is a part of American culture to examine the self. The same conglomeration of habits also accounts for American historians' exceptional willingness to listen to self-appointed guides, some of them sane but more of them not evidently so. The...

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Stephen Turner (review date September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Turner, Stephen. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. American Journal of Sociology 95, no. 2 (September 1989): 539-43

[In the following review, Turner asserts that That Noble Dream is itself a model for the history of an academic discipline.]

Academic sociology in the United States was born into an already thriving family of disciplines; it was the runt of a litter in which history and economics were the older siblings. History was the academic origin of such pioneer sociologists as Albion Small, and Giddings, for most of his career, had “history” in his professorial title. Yet, like rival siblings, the social science disciplines...

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Carl Degler (review date December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Degler, Carl. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. Journal of American History 76, no. 3 (December 1989): 892-94.

[In the following review, Degler praises That Noble Dream as “brilliant,” noting that Novick's central argument is presented with “force, understanding, and subtlety.”]

Do historians in the United States care about “the objectivity question”? Peter Novick does not think they do, but that is precisely why he has written this book [That Noble Dream] “to provoke my fellow historians” (he is a historian of France at the University of Chicago) “to greater self-consciousness of our work; to offer those...

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David W. Noble (review date December 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Noble, David W. “Perhaps the Rise and Fall of Scientific History in the American Historical Profession.” Reviews in American History 17, no. 4 (December 1989): 519-22.

[In the following review, Noble argues that That Noble Dream provides “a rich and powerful narrative” surrounding the “objectivity question” in the American historical profession.]

[In That Noble Dream,] Peter Novick has written an unprecedented and invaluable study of the idea of objectivity among American historians. Starting in the 1880s, when historians established their professional identity, he carries his narrative up to the immediate present. To illuminate what...

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Alexander Kedar (review date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kedar, Alexander. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. Poetics Today 11, no. 3 (1990): 717-18.

[In the following review, Kedar praises That Noble Dream as an excellent work of intellectual history, noting the volume's “extraordinary range of scholarship.”]

For Peter Novick, telling the story of the “noble dream” of historical objectivity [in That Noble Dream] was like “nailing jelly to the wall” (1). With much erudition and humor, Novick has achieved an impressive account that keeps a great deal of this fuzzy stuff in place. In this long, dense, and massively documented book, Novick traces the paths of the idea of...

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Robert Cuff (review date April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cuff, Robert. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. Canadian Journal of History 25, no. 1 (April 1990): 143-45.

[In the following review, Cuff argues that That Noble Dream draws on a wealth of research to provide “an outstanding book of great value” for historians and readers alike.]

Can historians be objective in their work? Peter Novick uses impressive research in manuscript collections and published historical scholarship, as well as wide reading in other academic disciplines, to describe and analyse how notables within the U.S. historical profession have dealt with this question over the past one hundred years. The result is an...

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John Higham (review date June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Higham, John. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. Journal of Modern History 62, no. 2 (June 1990): 353-56.

[In the following review, Higham compares Novick's central argument in That Noble Dream to the thesis of his own book History.]

The title of Peter Novick's big, compelling book [That Noble Dream] comes from a bleak address that Theodore Clarke Smith delivered to the American Historical Association in 1934. Responding to sledgehammer attacks that progressive scholars were making on “the ideal of the effort for objective truth,” Smith suggested gloomily that the way things were going this “noble dream”—the basic creed...

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Charles Tilly (review date July 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tilly, Charles. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. Contemporary Sociology 19, no. 4 (July 1990): 535-37.

[In the following review, Tilly asserts that Novick's central argument in That Noble Dream is problematic, due to several methodological shortcomings.]

Coolly skeptical about the possibility of historical objectivity and wittily contemptuous of the ways that aspirants to historical objectivity have articulated their claims, Peter Novick traces what he sees as the rise, fall, second rise, and second fall of the idea in American history [in That Noble Dream.] He finds little reason to hope for future reliability. While...

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Hugh Brogan (review date October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brogan, Hugh. Review of That Noble Dream, by Peter Novick. English Historical Review 106 (October 1991): 1073-74.

[In the following review, Brogan observes that That Noble Dream has much to teach historians about their own “intellectual fallacies.”]

Nothing could be more elegant than Peter Novick's performance in That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession. Taking up the theme of the nature of historical knowledge (Is it objective or subjective? Are a historian's categories determined by his researches, or imposed by him on his material?) he uses it to make intelligible the development of...

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Joseph M. Levine (essay date winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Levine, Joseph M. “Objectivity in History: Peter Novick and R. G. Collingwood.” CLIO 21, no. 2 (winter 1992): 109-27.

[In the following essay, Levine observes that That Noble Dream is both “useful and timely” for historians as a reminder of the current state of crisis in historical scholarship.]


Peter Novick's 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, and that some sort of answer may be required....

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Hilda L. Smith (review date spring 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Hilda L. “Women Historians and Women's History: A Conflation of Absence.” Journal of Women's History 4, no. 1 (spring 1992): 133-41.

[In the following review, Smith discusses Novick's problematic treatment of female historians and developments in the field of women's history in That Noble Dream.]

In That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, Peter Novick has given us a key to understanding the evolution of professional historians from the 1890s to today. By focusing on questions of objectivity, he has identified a problem that concerns each of us as historians, whether expressed explicitly in our...

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Daniel Scott Smith (review date fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Smith, Daniel Scott. “Noble Dream, Dead Certainties, Sophomoric Stance: Historical Objectivity for Adults.” Historical Methods 26, no. 4 (fall 1993): 183-88.

[In the following review, Smith compares That Noble Dream to Simon Schama's Dead Certainties.]

“Pure objectivity is a will-o'-the-wisp,” warns Simon Schama, a prolific historian of Western Europe, and “chasing it is insanity” (MacNeille 1991, 3). Implicitly endorsing the central theme of Peter Novick's That Noble Dream, a massive treatment of the professional context and political milieu of the academic study of history in the United States, Schama was commenting here on his...

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Henry Ashby Turner, Jr. (essay date summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Turner, Henry Ashby, Jr. “Peter Novick and the ‘Objectivity Question’ in History.” Academic Questions 8, no. 3 (summer 1995): 17-27.

[In the following essay, written as a summary of a talk Turner gave at a panel titled “History: “As It Really Was?” Turner asserts that a major weakness of Novick's That Noble Dream is his failure to make some essential distinctions in his use of the term “objectivity.” Turner also comments that Novick's dire assessment of the state of modern historical scholarship is inaccurate.]

Author's note: Like most of the historians I have encountered in my lifetime, I have always found what happened in the...

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Hillel Levine (review date 14 June 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Levine, Hillel. “The Decline of the Incredible.” New Leader 72, no. 7 (14 June 1999): 23-5.

[In the following review, Levine questions Novick's methodology and use of sources in The Holocaust in American Life, noting some significant omissions in his argument.]

In 1967 George Steiner, the British literary critic, predicted and also urged:

We cannot pretend that [Bergen] Belsen is irrelevant to the responsible life of the imagination. What man has inflicted on man in very recent times has affected the writer's primary material—the sum and potential of human behavior—and it presses on the brain with a new...

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Elliott Abrams (review date 28 June 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Abrams, Elliott. “Genocide on Main Street.” National Review (28 June 1999): 54-5.

[In the following review, Abrams discusses flaws in Novick's historical argument in The Holocaust in American Life, but concludes that the book offers an useful discussion of American perceptions of the Holocaust.]

The murders and deportations in Kosovo have brought with them memories of the 1930s, when Europe's Jews were subjected to the genocidal attack we now call the Holocaust. Commentators on the Balkan crisis say we must “learn the lesson of the Holocaust”; an advertisement placed by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith asks us to “respond as you wish...

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Tony Judt (review date 19-26 July 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Judt, Tony. “The Morbid Truth.” New Republic 221, no. 324 (19-26 July 1999): 36-40.

[In the following review of The Holocaust in American Life, Judt observes that Novick's account of the historical development of Holocaust-awareness in America is accurate and well-researched, but comments that Novick's treatment of the Holocaust itself is superficial.]

The Holocaust today is as much an argument as a memory. When the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and Marek Edelman, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, expressed their support for NATO attacks on Serbia recently, they did so with an explicit analogy with Hitler's attempted extermination of...

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Lawrence Douglas (review date 13 August 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Douglas, Lawrence. “Too Vivid a Memory.” Commonweal 126, no. 14 (13 August 1999): 24-5.

[In the following review, Douglas praises Novick for providing an interesting analysis of the politics of memory in The Holocaust in American Life, but notes that Novick fails to acknowledge the great intrinsic importance of the Holocaust itself.]

What is the value of preserving the memory of the Holocaust's radical evil? The most familiar answer finds expression in the shibboleth, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” Implicit in this view is the idea that memory serves as a tool of liberation: Only by vigilantly minding the past can we hope...

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David G. Roskies (review date September 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Roskies, David G. “Group Memory.” Commentary 108, no. 2 (September 1999): 62-5.

[In the following review, Roskies argues that The Holocaust in American Life fails to take into account broader cultural and historical factors that affect Jewish-American conceptions of the Holocaust.]

Must every major city in the United States boast its own museum of the Holocaust? Must every high school offer a mandatory curriculum on the destruction of European Jewry, every college campus have an endowed chair of Holocaust studies? Should a so-called Week of Remembrance in mid-April be observed, as Martin Luther King Day is now observed in mid-January? How many movies...

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Marc H. Ellis (review date 6 October 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ellis, Marc H. “Ending the Era of Auschwitz.” Christian Century 116, no. 26 (6 October 1999): 938-40.

[In the following review, Ellis compares The Holocaust in American Life to Emil Fackenheim's To Mend the World, asserting that Novick's work raises important questions about the significance of the Holocaust to current Jewish-American attitudes about Israel.]

As part of a delegation meeting in 1992 to discuss the future of Auschwitz, I walked the camp's terrible terrain with such notable Holocaust scholars as Richard Rubenstein, David Roskies and Alvin Rosenfeld. There I heard the most radical thought about Holocaust remembrance that I had...

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Norman Finkelstein (review date 6 January 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Finkelstein, Norman. “How the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 Gave Birth to a Memorial Industry.” London Review of Books 22, no. 1 (6 January 2000): 33-6.

[In the following review, Finkelstein describes The Holocaust in American Life as an “illuminating” book and discusses the implications of Novick's argument in regard to prevailing American attitudes about Israel.]

The Holocaust is more central to American cultural life than the Civil War. Seventeen states either demand or recommend Holocaust programmes in their schools; many colleges and universities have endowed chairs in Holocaust Studies; hardly a day goes by without a Holocaust-related story...

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Jeffrey Herf (review date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Herf, Jeffrey. “Explaining the Holocaust?” Partisan Review 67, no. 3 (summer 2000): 504-10.

[In the following review, Herf argues that The Holocaust in American Life offers interesting research and insights, but comments that Novick's argument is one-sided and fails to take into account other possible explanations for the continuing preoccupation with the Holocaust in American culture.]

Historians of Jewish and European history have been aware for some time that a focus on the Holocaust has advantages as well as drawbacks. The history of the Jews is by no means only or primarily a history of suffering, persecution, and victimization. Yet a focus on...

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Virginia Quarterly Review (review date summer 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of The Holocaust in American Life, by Peter Novick. Virginia Quarterly Review 76, no. 3 (summer 2000): 102-03.

[In the following review, the critic offers a mixed assessment of The Holocaust in American Life, noting that Novick fails to adequately address the questions he poses in regard to American conceptions of the Holocaust.]

Why has the Holocaust become, in the last several decades, the central symbol in reflection on human depravity and cruelty in modernity? And why has this reflection occurred centrally in the United States rather than Europe? These are the questions with which Peter Novick began his investigations into the...

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Severin Hochberg (review date December 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hochberg, Severin. Review of The Holocaust in American Life, by Peter Novick. Journal of American History 87, no. 3 (December 2000): 1099-101.

[In the following excerpt, Hochberg states that although Novick's central argument in The Holocaust in American Life is sound, he misunderstands what causes the impact of the Holocaust on American culture.]

A number of recent works attempt to explain the phenomenon of the “Americanization” of the Holocaust and the prominent role that this European event has increasingly come to play in the consciousness of American Jews and Americans in general. Peter Novick's book [The Holocaust in American...

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Jeremy D. Popkin (review date winter 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Popkin, Jeremy D. “Holocaust Memory: Bad for the Jews?” Judaism 50, no. 1 (winter 2001): 112-17.

[In the following review of The Holocaust in American Life, Popkin questions whether or not Novick sees any value in the maintenance of a distinctive Jewish identity in American culture.]

Imagine a well-meaning person—Jewish or non-Jewish—who has been moved by a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, who has waded through historical accounts and memoirs on the topic, and who then picks up Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life. How will he or she react to the discovery that a prominent Jewish American historian now condemns the entire...

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Lawrence Baron (essay date spring 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Baron, Lawrence. “Experiencing, Explaining, and Exploiting the Holocaust.” Judaism 50, no. 2 (spring 2001): 158-75.

[In the following excerpt, Baron discusses several recent books on the Holocaust, including The Holocaust in American Life, commenting that Novick's book represents a warning against using the memory of the Holocaust as a means of advancing Jewish identity or other political agendas.]

The number of Holocaust memoirs being published has increased dramatically in the last few years as more and more survivors feel an urgent obligation to document their wartime experiences as concentration camp inmates, ghetto dwellers, hidden fugitives,...

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Steve Hochstadt (review date May 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hochstadt, Steve. Review of The Holocaust in American Life, by Peter Novick. Modern Judaism 21, no. 2 (May 2001): 184-92.

[In the following review of The Holocaust in American Life, Hochstadt asserts that Novick's historical overview of American popular conceptions of the Holocaust is sound, but that Novick fails to adequately understand the significance of the Holocaust itself.]

The Holocaust in American Life has already made a considerable impact among those in America most concerned with teaching the Holocaust. Due to Peter Novick's reputation as a prize-winning historian, his pointed and scholarly critique of the way the Holocaust is...

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