THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Professor Mike Wallace
Title: The Big Apple … Now and Then
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind … and I can’t imagine that anyone who has watched this program for very long since it went on the air more than 45 years ago has any question at all about my being a New Yorker.
To be sure, The Open Mind is seen each week in many other places around the nation — at times, outside of it, too. And I teach in New Jersey, have worked in Georgia, lived as a boy in Arizona, and even commuted to Hollywood for 20 years.
Yet I’m Manhattan born and bound … and proud of it … and that’s part of the reason I’m particularly pleased today that my guest is Mike Wallace, Director of the Gotham Center for New York City history here at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where, in fact, we record The Open Mind.
For my guest won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 as co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, published by Oxford University Press … and is working by himself now on a second volume that will take the Big Apple through the 20th century.
Of course Our Town has perhaps never been besieged more than since terrorists’ infamous attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001 … but I wonder if my guest doesn’t find the historian’s perspective to be something of a source of comport and hope. Is that true?
WALLACE: Yes, I think so. One of the problems with not having a historical sensibility is that you’re trapped in the present. And you’re prey to all kinds of anxieties because you think you’re disconnected from time. And you’re not really. History is alive, well and working its way through the present. So that’s one thing, it reminds us of continuities. And the other thing is, it lends a sense of proportion. It’s a bit hard because some people will say, “well, who cares what happened in 1776?”. But you mentioned that, you know, this is a particularly besieged place right now.
Well, in 1776 it wasn’t just besieged, it was invaded by the largest amphibian landing in the history of warfare up to that time. In the course of their invasion, the British managed to burn much of the city to the ground and then 90% of the population fled and the place was occupied for seven years. Now THAT’s … that’s …
HEFFNER: That’s tough ….
WALLACE: [Laughter] So, and you know, we’ve had other remarkable jolts in our times. So, you know, when people ask if this is the first day of the rest of our lives, that the whole world has changed … and you hear this a lot … I have to say, well, you know, this is not to gainsay that this is a terrible, terrible blow and we’re going to have to work very, very hard to overcome it. But it also is a city that is 8 million strong, it has 400 years of history behind it, and something that colossal has an enormous amount of inertia, it just does not get knocked off its pins quite that quickly. And to the degree that an historical sensibility can restore that sense of perspective, then it’s nice that historians have something to contribute. Especially as few of us are terribly good at bucket brigades or lifting steel girders off of sites.
HEFFNER: You know I was delighted when I discovered that you and I had studied with and under Richard Hofstader …
HEFFNER: … and I have to assume that we share a perspective, given the fact that he was such a determined, and such a strong-minded historian … what is that perspective, I’ve been trying to figure it out?
WALLACE: [Laughter] Well, let’s see, I mean Dick was particularly interested in, in putting things together and for me that was the great inspiration. He took all of the range of possible kinds of discourses, intellectual history, cultural history, psychological, economic, political as his purview, and better than that he wove them together and then also, second inspiration for me, made them accessible. He was a masterful writer. And he aimed at a general public. And I’m afraid that much of our discipline has lost its way, understandably to some degree. There are real hard theoretical labor that sometimes requires theoretical language to sort out.
But, you know, history is a profession that was a craft that was all about telling stories to a large scale audience. And Dick did that and very few others of his generation were as, you know, eloquent as he was. So I was inspired, and quite literally because the last project he … well, technically the last project he worked on was the book that he and I did together on the history of American violence that came out in 1970, but he had embarked already on what he projected to be an 18 year enterprise of six years each for three volumes of an entire history of the United States. And then, as you know, he died horribly young of leukemia before he’d barely gotten it off the ground.
So I said to myself, then a young graduate student, “oh boy, if I’m ever going to do anything like this, if I’m ever going to try to get a grand synthesis, a overview of history, I’d better start now.” Because you know if I wait until I’ve done this monograph and that monograph and worked my way up, as is the tradition, I could get hit by a bus.” So, I did. Pretty, pretty soon after that, in the early seventies I began working and got my colleague Ted Burrows involved in what was going to be a three volume history of the United States. And it was going to be the same level of analysis that Gotham is at. Then it was going to be a story the same way, only in those days, we were going to have it totally foolproof girded with footnotes. So it was going to be, you know, academic as well. So, we worked on that for several years and we had hundreds and hundreds of pages of manuscript and we hadn’t gotten out of the 17th century. Because we were setting New York in a national and global context, which is, I think the only way to tell its story. And then we realized this was going to take about 11 lifetimes, we only had two to spare, so after despairing for a while, we then decanted that enterprise into what, in our naiveté seemed like a more manageable enterprise, the history of New York City. But now in, again, a national and global context. So that all of that work wouldn’t go to waste. So I like to think that Dick would have approved of this kind of combination of both synthesis of many areas of history and keeping an eye on a general audience.
HEFFNER: In the years since I was a practicing historian, I’ve often had the opportunity or the responsibility for hiring people for, let’s call them intellectual jobs. Jobs where they had to use their minds. When I started Channel 13 in New York as a public television … as the public television station, I avoided picking people who had studied media …
HEFFNER: And I very, very much concentrated, focused on people who had studied history.
HEFFNER: … because I think of it as the synthetic subject. Are you of the same mind?
WALLACE: Well, I am. One doesn’t want to be parochial about this …
HEFFNER: Why not?
WALLACE: … and anthropologists will, will, you know, state claims. But I think that a lot of disciplines, what they’re about is taking a slice in time. A sociologist studies the balance of, of social sectors. And you know a cultural anthropologist looks at the range of dynamic cultures. But what they all do is in two dimensions, for the most part. And the trick is, I think, to add in that dimension of time. And to understand these same kinds of questions, but how in fact they change. And if you don’t include the element of transformation, you don’t think about how you move from here to here you can develop all too easily … in economics, for instance, a very static picture of how the economy works. So, to the degree that historians do that, then I think they have a particularly important contribution to make.
HEFFNER: The journalist and the historian …
HEFFNER: … what’s their connection?
WALLACE: Well, I, I was over at The Times for some reason a while ago and they gave me a copy of Gotham and asked me to sign it. And I said, “To The New York Times, where would historians be without it?”. And it’s, you know, there’s a lot of truth in this notion that it’s the first draft of things. You have to be very careful because, you know, you can fall prey to the notion that if it’s in the pages of The New York Times in 1894, it’s gospel writ, which is nothing of the sort. Journalists have their filters, their, you know, frames of analysis through which they see the world and don’t see something and see other things. And then there are constraints that publishers impose. But none the less, these are the people who are on the front lines and there, you know, the best of them are the ones, I find, who think historically. And who understand that what they’re doing is their capturing a moment of time, but to catch it in depth, they have to have some sense of what the forces were that moved into this moment and therefore are moving through it.
HEFFNER: In terms of the journalists you know …
HEFFNER: … you read, you watch ….
HEFFNER: … do you think they have the sense of the responsibility of the historian?
WALLACE: Ah, well …
HEFFNER: Should they?
WALLACE: … well, first it’s very difficult. I mean, for instance, right now, in, in the course of this current crisis, I’ve been asked a lot by various media people and I’ve spent a lot of time helping them on background, as well as, ;you know, for quotation and such. And I think that’s a responsibility yet again I feel for them. You know the problem comes up and they have to have a story by tomorrow. And they want some historical perspective, but, you know that’s something that takes time. It’s like any skill, it’s like any craft, you have to spend time garnering that information. So, I think a partnership between historians and journalists is something that should be more built-in. I think if you had resident historians, for instance, at great newspapers and at major media outlets, who were jack-of-all-trades, who were connected to the profession, so that they could say, “oh, I don’t know the answer to that, but I can find somebody who does”. Not for particular bits of information, but for context. For setting these events in, again, some kind of longer sweep of history. I, I don’t think most journalists, in the real world, have time to do that which is why I agree with you … to the degree that you can find people who were trained in history, then you’ve got a leg up on that. So it’s not easy. But I’m afraid also you’re up against the culture of the profession, the media profession, which I have to confess I don’t think pays sufficient attention to history, except for, you know, a few great institutions. The pressures of the immediate are simply too overwhelming.
HEFFNER: Now, you mentioned before the, the prism through which the reporter reports …
HEFFNER: … sees what he has to report and then reports. The historian?
WALLACE: Oh, historians definitely have their own prisms. Historians … for instance you can look at the history of the history profession. Like anything else. And if you do that you see simply in the last fifty years, I mean our era has witnessed a tremendous transformation, both in an expansion of the range of questions that people ask, and an expansion in the subjects of history to which they pay attention.
I mean let’s remember that until fifty years ago, women were simply not in the equation. I mean there was Betsy Ross sewing away in the text book. Nor were Blacks except for a few happy darkies and George Washington Carver. Now, it’s not just that you suddenly discover that you’d left out 60% of the population, I mean you throw in the immigrants, whom you hadn’t paid too much attention to. You only looked really at statesmen, at generals, at, you know, legal profession, at bankers and so forth. The people who, unquestionably were very powerful. And shaping because they had that power. But there was a blind spot, you know. It wasn’t just that you left out cumulative 90% of the population … it’s that … it’s not … you don’t just add them back in. In the beginning you did that, you added a few extra chapters on women, you added a few chapters on Blacks, you know. But then you realized that it puts different questions on the agenda. I mean with women come the questions of consumption, of shopping, of, you know, gender relations, which in fact you now discover permeate even those guys up at the top. And that Teddy Roosevelt, there’s a dimension that you can add to an analysis of his Presidency, if you’ve realized that he’s, you know, this ferocious, macho guy who’s got his own frames. So, to the degree that we … history of media, history of journalism, that wasn’t on the agenda, except for a few little very narrow things on the history of journalism. So, we’ve expanded the house of history. And I think that that’s all to the good. I think it’s one of the great accomplishments of our generation.
HEFFNER: Do you think we’ve yet accomplished the … brought ourselves to the point where people read Gotham and know that is not history, that is Wallace’s picture …
HEFFNER: … view …
WALLACE: Mmmm. Mmmm.
HEFFNER: … of what happened in the past. And that history ….
WALLACE: I sure hope so. I sure hope so. In fact we said it, Ted and I in the Introduction, we said that all history is a construction and that this particular story represents our selection of data and our “take” on how those various pieces of information fit together. It reflects our silences, as well as our presence. So, yes, I think that’s the case. And I think what you have to do is to be honest about that. To lay out a story, to say, “this is our take on it, and we’re putting it on the table for your consideration.” And also, it’s very important, for the consideration of the professional. So the profession is a collective body that represents a check. If there’s a checks and balances system in the intellectual world, it’s in the world of the craft itself. So, if you make things up, the cardinal rule … if you get things wrong … in terms of dates, you know, I mean the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 12th. And if you think it is, you’ve got a problem. So, there’s that kind of cross-checking thing. And then there’s, to some degree, how it resonates with people. And, you know, to that extent our take of New York and this moment represents who we are, our experiences, the kind of questions we ask and are concerned about. And fifty years from now, a hundred years from now they may well be asking very, very different kinds of questions.
HEFFNER: Whatever your intentions and however you and your partner phrased your warning …
HEFFNER: … do you think most people understand it, take it to heart, either in print … history as print … or history as film … or television.
WALLACE: Maybe film is, in fact, even easier for people to understand.
WALLACE: That it’s a construction. Because this is a generation that’s very skilled in media analysis.
HEFFNER: Oh, come on now, do you think that, that Stone’s JFK was understood …
WALLACE: Well …
HEFFNER: … as what you’d call “construction?”.
WALLACE: I, I think … well, for one thing there was a tremendous amount of discussion about it, you know. And there’s media commentaries on film. And people are tuned to that. And you get it even on your TV, little clips, you know, the two guys with their thumbs up or down or whatever. So a lot of discussion that people are used to in that field. Whereas in history they are less prepared for it. And I think … and it’s funny … I mean Hofstader had the same … I mean he wasn’t concerned about it, and I’m not really concerned about it, either, because you can only do what you can do. But to the degree that you write well, to the degree that you present a plausible narrative, to the degree that you don’t and we decided … we had to make a decision about this. We had to make a decision in this book that we were not going to say, even in footnotes, “Well, here we’re following Jones and we think Smith is just off the wall.” And “here our analysis borrows from X.” That’s an academic approach, and it’s important in academia. Here we just laid it out like a seamless narrative and so it is true, that to the degree that it’s done well, and apparently people liked this, then it’s just like a good story, and it’s got a compelling sense of truth. But I think if it doesn’t resonate with people’s own understanding of the way the world works, then there’s a dissonance there.
HEFFNER: Yes, but don’t you help make that understanding of the way the world works?
WALLACE: Yes. And, and that’s what critics do, you know. I mean that’s what, that’s how reality is constructed. I mean I’m not large on a lot of what gets called post-modern stuff. But I think the common notion that they’re saying that there’s no, you know, absolutes, is both right and wrong. I think in, in any field … in history, in art criticism … in anything, what you do is you’ve got a contention between different interpretations of beauty, of history, of truth. I don’t think there is, in fact, an absolute that you can appeal to. I mean witness now … I mean the President says, “this is good versus evil”. But needless to say there are millions of people who don’t see it that way. Or if they do they flip the equation. And they say “we’re freedom fighters, we’re not terrorists.” But it is our responsibility to make the best case we can that says, “this is our conviction” and we have to act on it, because we can’t act on anybody elses. We can be aware that there are conflicting approaches.
HEFFNER: Then why do you, in this wonderful little book of essays “Mickey Mouse” history. Why do you take after, let’s say, Ronald Reagan when he becomes the historian as President?
WALLACE: Mmmm. Because that’s our obligation. Our obligation is to say, you have laid out a narrative, you have laid out your understanding of what the history of the United States is all about. How, in fact, it shapes our range of choices in the present. If, in fact, I believe that the story that you’ve constructed is seriously skewed, it departs in too many places from contact points with reality, that’s easily provable … and in Reagan’s case that was particularly easy, he was out there in outer space.
HEFFNER: No, he wasn’t in outer space. He was in Hollywood. He knew.
WALLACE: But did he know … I mean this is the great question. I had a radio program … a series on radio in the eighties, early eighties and one of the first shows that we did talked about, “Does Reagan really believe what he’s saying? Or is he just on some kind of cinematic autopilot?” And it was very hard to distinguish between those things. Anybody who could, you know, honestly believe that he liberated the concentration camps, and so forth. So I, I think he’s easy, but I think there are a lot of other people that aren’t so easy and that’s a conflict. That’s what life is about. It’s a conflict to determine meaning and to the degree that you can make a persuasive case, and that people, in fact, support your approach to things … then you have a larger share in that population of defining the nature of reality in truth to that matter.
HEFFNER: Doesn’t that tend to make people nervous … when I quote Beard …
HEFFNER: As saying that all recorded history is an act of faith, I can see my students certainly not resonating positively to that. What do you mean “act of faith?”, it begins to become a little voodoo-ish.
WALLACE: Well, our generation wouldn’t say “faith”, they’d said “fiction”. And the debate would be between whether or not history is, in fact, distinguishable from fiction. Because, again, as you said, and I agree, it’s largely a construction by the historian. It’s the questions the historian asks. And it’s the nature of the evidence that he or she assembles and it’s the way that’s woven together to tell a story. However, one, you can’t cheat, you can’t make up fact, and two …
HEFFNER: Who said?
WALLACE: … that’s the rules of the history game. You know …
HEFFNER: Not the rules of the journalist game, of the history game. Right?
WALLACE: Of the history game. I mean ideally, I can’t speak for another craft here … ideally it’s the rules for the journalism game, too. I mean if you make up facts, then you are going to be called into question by your peers. You’re going to be known as a shoddy reporter. You know you blew the last 18 times, we don’t listen to you on the 19th time.
HEFFNER: But, it’s the way you stack up the facts, isn’t it? It’s the way you put something in front of them, behind them …
HEFFNER: … the perspective that you take.
WALLACE: Absolutely, and there, if your facts are straight, you’re less vulnerable. Now you’re vulnerable only to disputations on the strength of your argument, the degree to which its congruent with your listeners sense of the way reality works. So I mean … I, I think that there are distinctions. I mean I, I don’t want to say that, you know, any historical analysis is as good as any other. I don’t believe that. But I have to, in the end, believe that the one that makes most sense to me is the one that I’m going to put my chips behind.
HEFFNER: How do you feel, and I really mean feel, about “faction”, the mixture that is so common today of fact and fiction.
WALLACE: Mmmmm. Well, I did … it makes me nervous. As a professional it makes me nervous. It, it does make it hard for people to have a sense of any kind of solid ground. There’s a blurring of things. It’s fine as an entertainment form. I’ve got no problems with that as an entertainment form. As long as it’s sort of properly labeled. And I, I don’t think … you know, I don’t think most people are that easily fooled. I’m not sure …
HEFFNER: You said that to start with and I guess, going through the mass of Gotham and Mickey Mouse history, I don’t agree with you …
HEFFNER: … there’s one big point where I don’t agree with you. I think quite to the contrary. We are more easily fooled …
HEFFNER: … because we know less and less. There are fewer of those pegs upon which we can really hang our hats.
WALLACE: Well, I mean, I won’t do serious battle with you on this. No, I mean it’s alarming. To the degree that the database seems to be shrinking. On the other hand, you also have to keep that in perspective. If … if you asked 50 years ago, what, what most Americans knew about their history, I suspect if you gave them the kind of test that they give to people now, I suspect they would fail miserably, too.
HEFFNER: As miserably?
HEFFNER: As miserably?
WALLACE: It wouldn’t, it wouldn’t surprise me. You know, and, and we … some of it is just, you know, our age. I mean we look back and these kids that I teach, I mean Vietnam, that could be the Punic Wars as far as they’re concerned. But, they weren’t alive then. So there’s a fundamental divide between people who lived through an experience, people who are in one generation contact, so that their family, their members can tell them, you know they get a direct connection. But after that, you’re on your own. And there part of the problem is now that you have such a tremendous potpourri of sources of information. If anything, I mean in the old days you had a few text books, that were cleared by the Texas State School Book Depository. And that’s what you read. And you wrote it down. Now you’re in Internet-land, you know. You can, you can tap into a staggering array of information. I think that’s the problem. And I think to the degree … I don’t know … I was talking with Max Frankel at The Times, he’s a friend of ours. And he was saying that in the future, the future of newspapers, the future of news media is going to be the ability of some, that have established credentials over time, and have developed an audience, to, in essence, certify things and that there will be a believability because something comes from this source that there won’t be if you just pluck it off of the Internet. Now whether somebody is now ten years old is going to be able to make that kind of distinction, given the massive flood of data, I don’t know. But I suspect that that generation will work out filtering systems (critical faculties, critical facilities … you know, they may be MTV commentators of something like that. But I, I think every generation manages to do something. I’m a little optimistic.
HEFFNER: I was just going to say, where do you get your optimism?
WALLACE: [laughter] Well, I guess, I guess from people that I meet. I guess from students … and they … I may have a little unusual crowd at John Jay because there are a fair number of grown ups in the classroom. But, while many of them know very little in terms of an empirical data bank, they are street smart. You know, they’ve got some sense of how the world works now. And if you can take that kind of analytical reasoning and then show them how, in fact, you’ve applied something like that in the past, you can get a grip on things or even get one that’s satisfactory to you at least.
HEFFNER: I’ll go along with that possibility and say it’s impossible to continue because we’ve come to the end of our time.
WALLACE: Oh, my goodness, so soon.
HEFFNER: And thanks so much for joining me today on The Open Mind …
WALLACE: My pleasure.
HEFFNER: … Mike Wallace… And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send four dollars in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, F.D.R. Station, New York, New York 10150
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.