Message-ID: <>
Date: Tue, 19 Jan 1999 10:53:26 -0600
From: Carrie Borowski <clborow@MAIL.ILSTU.EDU>
Subject: position paper #2
Comments: cc:

Summary and Analysis of Peter Novick's Nailing Jelly to the Wall

By Carrie Borowski, History 296, Position Paper #2, 19 January 1999

The introduction to Peter Novick's lengthy book deals primarily with the topic of objectivity and how it relates to the discipline of historiography. More specifically, Novick refers to this idea of historical objectivity by analyzing American professional historians over the past century. According to Novick, the concept of objectivity is anything but stagnant. It has been in constant evolution since its introduction into American historical scholarship. “The book recounts how the idea was elaborated, modified, challenged, and defended; the ways in which the idea furthered (and some ways in which it retarded) professional historical scholarship; how other values and agendas of historians have sometimes complemented, and sometimes contradicted, the goal of pursuing objectivity” (Novick, 1).

The idea of objectivity in history is a concept that has been constructed with time and seems to always be a term in dispute. Although there is a certain objectivist's creed (that of the historian in the role of a neutral and disinterested judge), Novick claims that objectivity is a confusing and contested term. This fact is illustrated by Novick's use of the phrase “nailing jelly to the wall”. “Nailing jelly to the wall” is a term that implies the difficulty of dealing historically with a term like “historical objectivity”. There is no truly accurate way in which to study the history of historians. There are too many factors that fog up one's study.

Novick does not take a strong position for or against objectivity in his book. Instead, he leaves the argument open for interpretation. He does not offer a solution to the problem; rather he relates points that will stimulate others in this subject. The lack of a central thesis in his book mirrors his thoughts on the concept of historical objectivity. According to Novick, historical objectivity cannot be written down because the term is constantly adapting and adopting new principles.

Novick's book is divided into four sections, each dealing with a certain time period in the American historical profession. Basically, part one begins with the founding of the American historical profession and part four reaches current thought in the historical profession. Throughout these four time periods, Novick is able to analyze the concept of objectivity and how it has been altered in different points in American thinking.

I found the introduction to Novick's book extremely interesting. Although he does not take a definite stance on the subject of objectivity, I believe that this allows me to approach the subject more critically than I would if someone was defining the term for me and advocating its place in historiography. I found Novick's article and Scott's articles followed similar guidelines. They both left their respective subjects open to interpretation. Also, both deal with abstract concepts that cannot be easily dictated to others. Scott is basically questioning the principles of the so-called “objectivist creed” in historical research. She does offer some sort of solution to objectivity by taking into consideration other factors in research. She attempts to denaturalize certain historical concepts that seem to have always been there such as gender. She claims that these concepts have been produced over time and are based on social conception. We need to understand where the concepts came from.

Novick is advocating the same sort of argument for the use of the term “objectivity”. He claims that we need to study its evolution throughout American professional history in order to better comprehend its current meaning.