Great-Man Historiography

In my research and teaching, I have tended to resist explanations dependent on individuals as historical agents. There are clearly two theoretical impulses behind this. One is the poststructuralist critique of the individual subject, though I am hardly a strict constructionist. The other, probably more influential in my thinking, is the Marxian tendency to look to structure and historicity. "Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past."

But set aside the arguments from principles. I want to use a specific example. Rereading Memo From Darryl F. Zanuck, I came across this memo from the producer regarding Jesse James (1939):
I am definitely convinced that the entire location trip was, to a great extent, a financial mistake.... Everything I have seen has been fine, but there is nothing in the way of scenery or background that we could not have photographed near here at far less expense and trouble.... I blame no one but myself for not actin on my original hunch, and realize that in the history of our industry there has never been a successful location trip that lasted longer than two weeks. (17-18)
This from a producer who would be one of the advocates for location shooting in the postwar years. What makes this quote so juicy to me is that Zanuck is probably the best case for a "great man" agent of Hollywood history. He's one of the central producers Thomas Schatz uses for his Genius of the System argument: someone with both supreme managerial power and intimate involvement in storytelling and aesthetic decisions. And many developments at 20th-Fox can be explained as the result of Zanuck's decisionmaking.

But what changed between 1939 and 1946? Zanuck clearly changed in his attitude toward location shooting, but his personal change of opinion is merely a proximate cause, the ultimate cause being a shift in the historical context. The economics and professional practices of the film industry changed in the 1940s, and along with them a discursive shift informing the desirability of location shooting.

Now, structural explanation can have its own distortions, and there are times when particular local histories flesh out our bigger understanding. I would not avoid explanation by individuals entirely. But these need to be argued for, not assumed.


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