The French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie discusses J.H. Hexter’s book reviews

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie

  • On Historians by J.H. Hexter
    Collins, 310 pp, £6.95, September 1979, ISBN 0 00 216623 2

To write a review of a book of reviews is no simple task. It is like looking at a mirror in a mirror, as in The Lady from Shanghai, where the revolver shots are lost, finally, in the splintering glass: by dint of looking at themselves in mirrors which reflect other mirrors, neither the gunman nor his human target any longer has much idea of what exactly is going on. It was in this doubting frame of mind that I approached J.H. Hexter’s On Historians, a collection of major book reviews. The moment I began reading the list of contents I was made aware of my own provincialism. Of the seven historians studied in the book, I was familiar with only three: Fernand Braudel has been my mentor for more than quarter of a century; Lawrence Stone guided my first steps into the maze of Anglo-American historiography; Christopher Hill accompanied, a long time ago now, the infant squawks of my early Marxism, which today is much eroded. Though if I still preserve some traces of my belief in that doctrine, I owe it to the high abilities of such ci-devant Marxist historians as Hill.

The other heroes of Hexter’s book, Carl Becker, Wallace Ferguson, Hiram Hayden and J.G.A. Pocock, were, I have to admit, infinitely less familiar to me. Thus it is thanks to Hexter that I have learnt that around 1930 Becker was a relativist, just as Raymond Aron was to become one on our side of the Atlantic a few years later. In the aftermath of the crisis of 1929, Becker came to acknowledge the truism that historical research only answers the questions one has prepared in advance to put to it. The 18th century can be made to display its mysteries, but the historian who uncovers them has his roots chronologically in the 20th century, and in the problems specific to our own epoch. I shall add, with all the respect which is Becker’s due, that that is either an assertion so obvious as to be trivial, or else an affirmation that is only half true. ‘Our own epoch’ is not alone in posing for the historian questions relating to the exploration of the 13th or 14th centuries. Similarly, a document from some past epoch resists a good many of these questions, and shows them to be anachronistic, half-baked or banal. And so, not content with dispensing answers, our good old document starts posing questions in its turn. (Ten years after this, around 1940, in his alarm at the cynicism of the Nazis, Becker moved back towards an absolutism of values; and became more and more impermeable to the relativism which, on the eve of the Roosevelt era, had so strongly attracted him.)

Hexter’s article on Becker is also a timely reminder of what every American historian knows, but most European historians do not know: that the annual meeting of the American Historical Association is surely the most formidable job exchange for historians in the world. But it is also a place where ideas are exchanged, over and above the learned communications on specialised subjects. The presidential address even, which in a French institution of the kind would all too often become bogged down in somewhat empty generalities, remains, thanks to men like Carl Becker, a serious intellectual occasion. For which bravo, Messieurs les Américains.

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