Historian's Book On The Holocaust Is His Latest Stab At Upsetting The Apple Cart
Most sentences don't stand a chance with Peter Novick. Carelessly uttered thoughts, casual asides that lack logic, are doomed. Weak-minded, muddled opinions? Novick eats 'em for breakfast. Meandering musings should just give up and go home.
That intensity can make the University of Chicago professor a bit difficult to talk to sometimes -- he's apt to pounce upon the slightest offhand remark and deconstruct it right before your startled eyes -- but it also makes him absolutely essential to our culture.
Novick, 65, is the author of a new book that is doing precisely what serious books ought to do: kick up an intellectual fuss, challenge us to look at familiar things in new and invigorating ways.
Not everyone will agree with Novick's conclusions in "The Holocaust in American Life" (Houghton Mifflin). That doesn't matter. What matters is that Novick's work forces us to justify our assumptions, the nice, dutiful ones we tend to express in cliches and epigrams, the ones about which we really haven't thought too awfully hard or long.
Nobody gets by with that around Novick.
In two conversations, first last fall as he was putting the finishing touches on his manuscript, and later as he was reading and responding to reviews of the published work, Novick sat in his office and traced the thought-road that led him to "The Holocaust in American Life."
"I knew I'd get some static and controversy for this," Novick said recently, easing into the first of umpteen Marlboro Lights. The "this" is, briefly, his daring to question the symbolic primacy of the Holocaust for Americans and, especially, for American Jews.
He also knew, however, based on the response to his earlier books, that there are "careful readers who take what you have to say seriously." Novick has been lauded for "That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession" and "The Resistance vs. Vichy: The Purge of Collaborators in Liberated France."
Probing the Holocaust was another matter entirely. Still, propelled by what he identifies as "curiosity and skepticism," he set forth.
In the late 1980s, Novick recalled, "I became aware of how omnipresent the Holocaust had become in our culture. I started musing about it."
Historians, after all, are in the memory business: Along with telling us what happened, they also want to figure out why some past events seem to resonate more than do others. Such hierarchies don't just pop up; they are responses to complex cultural forces that, more often than not, leave footprints.
While nowadays the Holocaust unquestionably is "the touchstone of moral and political discourse," as Novick states in his book, it wasn't always so. Just after World War II, the Nazis' systematic murder of millions of Jews was not a fact widely known or discussed in the United States.
By the 1970s and '80s, things had changed. The Holocaust was the subject of so many memoirs, novels, scholarly studies and movies that it had come to be almost universally regarded as the worst evil of which humankind was capable -- and, when it came to the survivors, symbolic of the most heroic spirit that humankind could manifest.
Yet the elevation of the Holocaust to a sacred place in American history was odd because, as Novick reminds us in his book, it wasn't American history at all: "The Holocaust took place thousands of miles from America's shores. Holocaust survivors or their descendants are a small fraction of 1 percent of the American population, and a small fraction of American Jewry as well."
Much of "The Holocaust in American Life" is spent figuring out how the Holocaust moved from margin to mainstream.
Novick, though, wasn't finished. He had another, tougher question: Was that shift altogether positive?
"I wanted to ask, 'Is the centering of the Holocaust in our consciousness as terrific an idea as everybody seems to think it is?' Predictably, the reaction to asking that question is divided between those who say, 'Right on,' and those who are scandalized and outraged."
But aren't there lessons to be learned from the Holocaust?
"If I believed in the lessons of history -- and I'm dubious about the lessons of history as a concept, anyway -- I would think that the Holocaust is a bad source of lessons because of its extremity. It doesn't seem to be a plausible source of lessons for the things we confront everyday in actual lives."
Reaction to "The Holocaust in American Life" has been, as Novick predicted, all over the map. Most reviewers recognized its brilliance and boldness; some quibbled with his conclusions. To the reviewers who, in Novick's estimation, misinterpreted him, he has fired off cordial but firm responses. Several have been published by the offending publications.
For Novick, a New Jersey native who has taught at the university for more than three decades, and whose Jewish family came from Russia at the turn of the century, upsetting the apple cart is a crucial part of his job.
"They don't just pay me here for the teaching I do. I produce scholarship." That is, he never lets us get too comfortable with our empty platitudes. Ideas -- and the people who carelessly espouse them -- had best be on their toes around Novick.