Boorstin, Daniel J. Hidden History: Exploring Our Secret Past. New York: Harper, 1987.


Boorstin, Daniel J. Hidden History: Exploring Our Secret Past. New York: Harper, 1987.

Boorstin, Librarian of Congress, and his wife here put out an anthology of earlier writings and
investigations by Boorstin. These all focus on historiography: what does the historian have for
data and how does he or she interpret them? By focusing on a great image (fallen empire,
industrial revolution, frontier), the historian does us a service by creating a useful metaphor; at
the same time, the historian does us a great disservice by providing us with a bedazzling
metaphor, one which blinds us and hides some things. The frontier, for example, may have been
important but it was not the only factor influencing the development of this country at the end of
the 19th century.

Boorstin studies the little eddies of history to see if hidden history can be made to show how
"history" is written. Some of his insights are delightful, as when he lists the laws of survival of
historical data: there are biases such as "The Law of the Survival of the Unread," "Survival of the
Durable," "Survival of the Collected and the Protected," "Survival of Objects which are not Used
or which Have a High Intrinsic Value," "Survival of the Academically Classifiable and
Dignified," and so on. Our data are "selective." (see pages 3-23)

There are wonderful quotes: "Our past is only a little less uncertain than our future, and, like the
future, it is always changing, always revealing and concealing. We might better think of
Prophecy as History in reverse." (p. ix)

"The spread of professions brings with it the professional fallacy. George Bernard Shaw may
have gone too far when he called every profession Ďa conspiracy against the laity.' But latent in
the organization of every profession, unspoken in every professional creed is an article of faith:
the profession really exists for the sake of the professionals. Specifically, this means that law
exists for the sake of lawyers, medicine for the convenience, maintenance, and enlightenment of
doctors, universities for the sake of professors, etc." (p. 222)

There is a section on the Adams family which fills in some gaps in my own interpretation of
Henry's autobiography. "As democracy in America progressed, the capacity of the Adamses for
national leadership declined. An egalitarian nation, mostly with recent immigrants, no longer
acquiescent to genteel New England leadership, left the Adamses behind. And with them, their
Calvinistic morality, their belief in the battle of Virtue against Vice, their independence of
popular whim, their noblesse oblige. By the late nineteenth century, John Adams' talented but
bitter descendants used all the apparatus of classical learning and modern physics to document
their pessimism, to prove that what was wrong was not just with the Adams clan or with
America, but with the forces at work in the universe." (p. 29)