Dur d’être un américaniste européen

En 1958, David Pinkney, le célèbre historien américain de la France du milieu du XIXème siècle, s’interrogeait dans le premier numéro de French Historical Studies, sur le peu de poids des historiens américains de la France (David H. Pinkney, « The Dilemma of the American Historian of Modern France », French Historical Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1958), pp. 11-25. Accessible sur J-Stor : http://www.jstor.org/stable/285914). Pourquoi des gens intelligents, travailleurs et bien formés dans les séminaires méthodologiques des meilleures universités américaines n’étaient-ils pas capable de produire plus d’œuvres marquantes sur l’histoire de France ? Pourquoi donc si peu d’entre eux arrivaient-ils à se faire un nom parmi les historiens français ?
On l’aura compris, cet article pose en miroir la question qui nous occupe souvent, nous spécialistes des Etats-Unis, et plus généralement tous ceux qui se donnent, pour sujet de travail, des zones géographiques autres que celle où ils résident (les fameuses areastudies. La question est particulièrement douloureuse pour les spécialistes des Etats-Unis car ce pays est en plus doté d’une extraordinaire puissance scientifique, au fond un peu comme l’était la France des années 50 dans le domaine de l’histoire.

Après avoir évoqué des questions de tradition historiographique pour expliquer ce manque de reconnaissance, Pinkney en vient à des considérations plus pratiques et matérielles, qui sonnent étrangement contemporaines à nos oreilles, au-delà des quelques éléments datés et charmants que l’on y trouve aussi.
Ecoutons-le, ou plutôt lisons-le. (Extraits)
Le principal problème / différence qu’il évoque est, bien entendu, l’accès aux archives, essentiellement en terme de temps :

« The American historian, who ordinarily must combine the not always compatible careers of scholar and teacher, simply does not have sufficient time to do the documentary research in French archives that is the first essential to original scholarly production. A major work of scholarship requires long periods of research in archival collections, often scattered about France and the Continent. Few Americans have time or money to meet the requirement. The French reviewer of an American’s book published in the 1930’s commended the author’s use of certain archives but pointed out that he had neglected significant sources in Series K of the Archives nationales, in the Bibliotheque nationale, in Portugal, in a number of Spanish centers, and in several north Italian capitals. « The author, » he concluded, « has not made the tour of Europe that his subject requires. . . »
Indeed, who can make the tour even of France? An unmarried, independently wealthy man might get to France every summer for two or three months of research, but few are in that mobile situation. »

Il y a ensuite le manque de soutien financier :

« A grant-in-aid every three to five years for a summer of research is all most of us can hope for, and a summer of research will at best yield enough material for an article or a chapter. […] A sabbatical leave of a semester or a year is much more helpful; if one is fortunate, he may come home with enough material for three or four chapters, although if he is working in virgin soil he may spend half his time locating sources, and those found may be disappointingly unproductive to the time-pressed American. At this rate of collecting materials the research for a book will require at least two sabbatical leaves and two or three summers. Writing will usually demand another year of uninterrupted work-ordinarily another sabbatical, and filling gaps and checking sources may well require yet another trip to France. From the beginning of a research project to completion of the manuscript the elapsed time will often amount to fourteen or fifteen years, a handicap to sustained enthusiasm for any subject. »

Il y a aussi probablement, selon lui, des facteurs idéologiques, ou organisationnels qui empêchent les déplacements de recherche, et nous ne les connaissons que trop bien :

« Even when the financial obstacle is passed, university and family responsibilities reduce the scholar’s mobility. Most university and college administrators regard teaching as the faculty’s chief responsibility and will grant leave for research only if teaching duties may be taken care of in the teacher’s absence, and that is not always possible. If one is fortunate enough to receive a sabbatical leave or a fellowship permitting one to go abroad, the financial and psychological cost of taking one’s family on the archival tour may be prohibitive, and to go alone for a year is usually a practical impossibility for the father of a growing family.
The French scholar living in France, on the other hand, can spend a lifetime working in archives without the major problems of expense, transportation, time, and family responsibilities that confront the American, who must live and earn his living three to five thousand miles from France. The Frenchman can cover in two or three years what an American might do in two sabbaticals and two or three summers spread over ten or more years. And when he begins to write and inevitably finds gaps in his collected materials or suddenly sees significance in some sources passed over lightly on first examination the Frenchman need only take the subway across Paris or make a short train journey out of town to fill the gap or to review his sources. […]
Our inability to use the archives as they must be used is the primary obstacle to our equalling our French colleagues (or our compatriot historians in American history) in productive scholarship […] These are, however, less obstacles than handicaps, and handicaps can be overcome. Except for a few subjects the obstacle of inaccessibility cannot. Technological change offers no prospect of removing it. Air transportation brings France tantalizingly near, but high costs of travel remain now as effective a barrier as distance was in the past, and in this age of science we can expect no outpouring of travel funds for historical research. Microfilm and other forms of mechanical reproduction may bring some sources to us, and by replacing or postponing note-taking they certainly can save time for the American researching in France, but except perhaps for some few topics in early modem history or intellectual history for which the sources are relatively few they can never supply on this side of the Atlantic the source materials for a major work of original research. The scholar must still go into the scattered archives and find the sources pertinent to his problem. My dismal conclusion is that the American academic scholar, unless he is freed of the usual limitations by independent wealth, has little chance of making a significant original contribution to the existing body of factual knowledge of French history beyond his doctoral dissertation, and few books produced at that immature stage of a scholar’s career will be of major significance.

Alors, face à cette situation, que faire ? Baisser les bras ? Non, et c’est ici que l’article prend un autre tour, qui peut amener à discussion et débat parmi nous :

« Some subjects in intellectual history can, I believe, be written largely from printed sources available in this country or readily obtainable here, and if sources that can be used only in France are essential, they are likely to be concentrated in a few collections and capable of being used in a relatively short period of research. Arthur Wilson’s volumes on Diderot are admirable examples of the significant work that can be accomplished by an American scholar in French intellectual history. […] In France the American’s detachment from political and personal conflicts of the time may be an advantage in obtaining sources; important private papers denied to French scholars have on one occasion at least been opened to an American. […] Intellectual history, too, attracts few historians, and fewer still are competent to write it. We shall have, I fear, for one book like Lord’s Origins of the War of 1870 or Wilson’s Diderot a dozen monographs in other fields based on some but not enough archives. We shall probably applaud most of them among ourselves, but few, if any, will pass the test of French recognition.
Should not, therefore, the second choice in the historian’s dilemma be more seriously considered? Is not the interpretative book or the re-examination of an important subject in French history, based on the published work of French and other researchers, supplemented by some original archival research, the form in which American scholars can make their most important contribution to French history? These are practical undertakings. French monographs and learned journals can be obtained in this country. A trip or two to France, covering a year or a few months more, to examine the original sources on disputed, obscure, or neglected points are possible. Such projects, moreover, enable the American scholar to use fully the one great advantage he has over his French counterparts-detachment and impartiality. He can be detached from the emotions of French political, social, and religious conflicts and from the stereotyped points of view that the official French educational system commonly imposes on its students. He can see French history in a dispassionate way that no Frenchman can. He can have insights that a lifetime of research in the archives would never produce in a Frenchman.
The principal conclusion I draw is that we, American historians of modem France, should stop deluding ourselves with the belief that we can make contributions of original research to French history comparable to Labrousse’s La Crise de l’économie française à la fin de l’Ancien régime et au début de la Révolution, Godechot’s Les Institutions de la France sous la Revolution et l’Empire, or Girard’s La Politique des travaux publics du Second Empire. Every American scholar should certainly as part of his training attempt to produce a monograph based on thorough research in archival sources, and directors of graduate study should be careful to guide students into topics narrowly enough defined that the researcher can penetrate to the very bottom of his subject and really make a definitive though small addition to the body of historical facts. The objection of French scholars that Americans go into research projects just deeply enough to discourage other researchers but without ever completing them is a valid complaint. Graduate professors should conscientiously avoid for their students topics that cannot possibly be adequately explored in the usual year in France.
After the doctoral dissertation the most profitable direction of scholarly work, particularly for those who eschew diplomatic and intellectual history, is toward the re-examination, based on a combination of monographs and original research, of significantly broad topics in French history. To this task the mature American scholar can bring his detachment, his perspective based on knowledge of many national histories, and his freedom from the limitations of French official history. Here his contribution can be made. Here his reputation as a historian and the reputation of American scholarship in French history can be firmly and proudly established. »

Jean Kempf