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Book Review


John Lewis Gaddis. The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002; 192 pp. $15.95 (paperback).

     John Lewis Gaddis' very readable and engaging book deserves a special place among that long line of books that grapple with the nature of history and the historical profession that include Marc Bloch's The Historian's Craft (1953), R.G. Collingwood's The Idea of History (1956); E.H. Carr's What is History? (1961), and G.R. Elton's The Practice of History (1967). He has done historians a great service by attempting to simplify these tasks while still making clear the complexities of what historians do and holding historians accountable for what they do and how they go about doing it. He takes a novel approach by using the metaphor of a landscape painting (in this case Caspar David Friedrich's The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog) to talk about the subject and perspective of history (1-16).

     In succeeding chapters, Gaddis addresses both traditional and newer issues related to historical perspectives and interpretation: time and space in history, comparing and contrasting how historians and cartographers "map" their subjects (17-34); how historians reconstruct, from "structures" that have survived into the present, past "processes" to which we don't have access—what Gaddis calls the "mechanism" of history (35-52); how historians take account of (or should take account of) the "interdependency of variables" and distinguishing between a "reductionist and an ecological view of reality" (53-70, emphasis his); the relationship between the historical profession and chaos and complexity theory (71-89); causation, contingency, and counterfactuals (91-109); and, finally, the challenges of writing biography, such as trying to understand the "notoriously subjective quality we call character" (116, emphasis his) and making moral judgments (111-128). In the concluding chapter, Gaddis shares his insights on "seeing like a historian" (129-151).

     Gaddis packs so much information into this small book as to leave a reviewer with little choice but to highlight its most intriguing and stimulating propositions.

     The comedian Steven Wright once quipped that he had a "life-sized map of the world." The idea, of course, is ludicrous. So would be the goal of any historian who set out to write the "whole story" of his/her research topic. In the same way that Wright, because of scope, time, and lack of enough materials, is prevented from owning his world map, the historian, because of the expanse of history and limited (or in some cases lack of) historical sources, cannot write the "whole story" of the past. I have often commented to students that to write the "whole story" would require retelling every detail, discussing every nuance, fully explaining human psychology, etc.—and to do this in real time. Talk about a multi-volume, never-ending history! As Gaddis puts it:

     For to try to represent everything that's in a particular landscape would be as absurd as to attempt to recount everything that actually happened, whether at Waterloo or anywhere else. Such a map, like such an account, would have to become what it represented. . . (32, emphasis his)

     Such a prospect is not possible. But for Gaddis, it doesn't have to be. In his comparison of how historians and cartographers go about their work, he concludes that like cartographers, who map roads, countries, and geological features, historians have to "represent" the past rather than actually reproduce it: "Historians have always been, in this sense, abstractionists: the literal representation of reality is not their task" (17).

     The historian faces many challenges in the attempt to "represent" the past, one of which is, as raised by Gaddis, tied up with Lewis Richardson's question: "How long is Britain's coastline?" The answer to this question, of course, depends on the scale at which one measures the coastline.1 Because measurement can be "infinitely divisible" (29), Gaddis argues the historian (and the scientist at that) has "no choice but to sketch what [he/she] cannot precisely delineate, to generalize, to abstract" (29). And in their abstractions, historians combine, or should be free to combine, interdisciplinary techniques, including those of geologists and evolutionary biologists. In fact, Gaddis argues that because scientists have discovered that "what exists in the present has not always done so in the past," they "had begun to derive structures from [past] processes" and in doing so had "brought history into science" (39, emphasis his).

     Gaddis pushes the science/history relationship to its fullest extent, making the provocative argument that historians are more "scientific" in their methods than are social "scientists." This claim demands explanation. Gaddis takes to task social "scientists" (my quotes) for the inordinate importance they place on the search for independent variables. I would argue, and I believe Gaddis would concur, that this reductionist approach to trying to make sense of human societies runs into major problems, given the complexities involved in human relations and the political, religious, and economic interactions among them. After all, past and present societies are not "complicated"—the way a jet engine is complicated and can be broken into its constituent parts and understood; rather, they are indeed "complex"—involving interdependent variables that interact, sometimes in unpredictable ways, over periods of time.

     So, whereas social "scientists" are overly reductionist in their approach, historians take an ecological approach, which, in Gaddis' words, "considers how components interact to become systems whose nature can't be defined merely by calculating the sum of their parts" (55). Gaddis argues that "at least some of the methods of the natural sciences, as currently practiced, come closer to those of historians than do those of most social scientists" (111). Gaddis fleshes out this argument in a very interesting chapter in which he attempts to demonstrate how historians' approaches to their subject are analogous to the relatively new sciences of complexity, chaos, and criticality (see Chapter Five).

     Concerning the difficulties of grappling with causation and contingency in history, Gaddis cites as his "authority" scientist William Whewell, Theory of Scientific Method (1989) whose argument Gaddis understands to be "that a plurality of paradigms can converge to bring us a closer fit between representation and reality" (108). Expounding on this idea, Gaddis points out that:

     Historians are—or ought to be—open to diverse ways of organizing knowledge: our reliance on micro-rather than macro-generalization opens up for us a wide range of methodological approaches. Within a single narrative we can be Rankeans, or Marxists, or Freudians, or Weberians, or even postmodernists, to the extent that these modes of representation bring us closer to the realities for which we're trying to account. We're free to describe, evoke, quantify, qualify, and even reify if these techniques serve to improve the 'fit' we're trying to achieve. Whatever works, in short we should use. (109)

     Gaddis concedes that this approach is "pragmatic, inconsistent, and often just plain messy." "But," he continues "it is . . . good science, for what we can learn should always figure more prominently in our set of priorities than the purity of the methods by which we learn it" (109).

     Apart from my taking issue with Gaddis' use of "science" here (and elsewhere), the approach he explicates above does appeal to my own interdisciplinary sensibilities and is congruent with a world history approach, which itself is an interdisciplinary field. Like most world historians, I'm not opposed to having students read political science, sociology, anthropology, literature, view historical films, etc., in attempting to understand a given historical subject. Certainly I have no problem with assigning only historical works, and I concur with the belief that to be a legitimate historian one should learn the historical method and attempt to perfect it through teaching and practice. But I am leery of the overly confident and naïve view that doing so means he/she has perfected a "science" that alone can reveal some ultimate truth.

     Turning to another point of interest, Gaddis deserves credit for making me think a little differently about the efficacy of "what if" history. I tell my students, who are want to delve into this or that "what if" scenario, that many historians stray away from questions of alternate history because they deal with counterfactuals rather than with "what actually happened." On this, Gaddis remarks:

     For if the 'meaning' of history requires establishing coherent sequences of cause and effect, on the one hand, and yet nothing is inevitable, on the other hand, then it's hard to see how coherence can emerge other than from some consideration of paths not taken and an explanation of why they weren't. History is either predetermined or it isn't; and if it isn't then surely some parts of it could have happened in some other way. (101)

     If I accept the concept of inevitability to be vexing, and I do, then shouldn't I be somewhat free to consider other contingencies and why they didn't play out? Gaddis does call for caution here, saying that "the use of counterfactuals in history has got to be highly disciplined" (102). Yet, he argues that pursuing "what if" questions can be liberating: "There are always choices, however unpromising these may have seemed at the time. Our responsibility as historians is as much to show that there were paths not taken as it is to explain the ones that were, and that too I think is an act of liberation" (141, emphasis his).

     Gaddis' book will be of interest to historians and other serious students of history, and I believe high school teachers could make good use of it in their AP courses. I assigned it to a university undergraduate twentieth-century world history honors course and used it as a stepping stone to what turned out to be a very fruitful class discussion. I would certainly use it in a historian's craft/historical methods course for university history majors or in a history graduate-level course.

     One classroom activity related to some issues Gaddis raises in his book and that teachers at all levels can use would be to pull up Google Earth in the classroom—as I did during my own classroom discussion—and use the zoom tool to compare and contrast the problems of scarcity of sources, or complete lack thereof, in writing about ancient history and the often overwhelming amount of sources in writing about more recent history. I demonstrated this by zooming from the earth at a distance, surrounded by stars and empty space (representing the lack of and seeming disparate historical sources of the distant past), to closer and closer views until I revealed the busy details of St. Louis, MO (representing the depth and breadth of sources dealing with the more recent past). This activity, or one like it, will complement the interdisciplinary approach Gaddis pursues and promotes in his stimulating treatise on history, its interpretation, and its meaning.

Eric Engel Tuten is Professor of History at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. He can be reached at

1 By way of example, Gaddis uses three images of the British coastline to demonstrate how "The Bill of Portland, barely visible in the first image, shows up as a small peninsula in the second and in detail in the third. Measurements based on each would produce different results for the coastline's length, and yet all three accurately represent the same coastline. (page 28)." I have added the fourth image here to extend the point Gaddis makes in his book.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 2

(All images above obtained from Google Earth—free down-load version, 2008.)


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