Departure and Arrival Times

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • The History Men: The Historical Profession in England since the Renaissance by John Kenyon
    Weidenfeld, 322 pp, £16.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 297 78081 6

It takes courage to write a book with the scope attempted here. Omissions of central themes, issues and historians are bound to occur, disagreements bound to arise. Reviewers have already called attention to the absence of the Franco-Scottish link in the Enlightenment, the skimpy treatment of Romanticism, the neglect of Lecky and new-wave social science, the scatological treatment of Thomas Carlyle. Other omissions may be added. Frederic Maitland is not very well realised, which is strange given the historians (Kenyon among them) who believe in his greatness. Maitland’s relationship with Leslie Stephen and avid interest in Meredith’s novels would appear to be precisely the kind of detail Kenyon enjoys. Some room might have been found for Sir Henry Mame’s genius, even while debating whether he fits the category of historian. Much better use could have been made of Robert Brentano’s amazing essay on ‘The Sound of Stubbs’, which gets an endnote. But such lists are unimpressively easy to compile and doing so is a sort of Actonian party game, though one encouraged by Kenyon’s general tone and approach.

True, the discussion teeters on the edge of academic voyeurism. How useful are anecdote and backchat as a means of understanding the process of historical recovery, of knowing the mind behind the history? Kenyon is indecisive on this point. He dislikes ‘loose talk about getting under people’s skin, looking at things through their eyes’, even while adopting an approach which allows this to happen. Certainly we do not, as individuals or as a profession, gain in dignity by it, but neither are we humiliated. This is not an unsettling work. Issues and ideas are never pushed very far towards irony and dilemma. Once past the expectation that The History Men is a treatise on historical theory, or an essay in the sociology of institutions, the reader begins to enjoy the chatty, natural flow of Kenyon’s conversation. His book has some of the pleasant and useful qualities of G.P. Gooch’s History and Historians in the 19th Century. (Who now reads Gooch? He is not even conspicuous by his absence.) His trendy title, for which he has been taken to task by two reviewers, is apt. He is discussing men and at least two women who write history. Larger historiographical themes interpenetrate – puritanism and gentry, literary history, the search for documents. Kenyon is not (the disclaimer is his) writing about causality, method or the characteristics of historical explanation and philosophy.

The names of contemporaries blend with those of the past. The result is piquant. It is odd to think of Geoffrey Elton, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Lewis Namier as one thinks of Edward Freeman, Samuel Gardner and Edward Gibbon, humanised and distanced at the same time. Vanity and virtue, foolishness and brilliance rub shoulders. One imagines one has heard it all before, but the cumulative effect cannot be denied. Kenyon obviously knows a great deal. The immense variety of names, the excursions into biography, the miscellaneous facts and encounters, old debates and arguments have a solid human interest. No doubt that is partly Kenyon’s intention: to prick the bubble reputation and expose the cant about conceptual breakthroughs.

The History Men began as a series of articles for the Observer. A new first-year course at Hull provided a further impetus: ‘I was reminded of how little students know about historians they commonly read ... It seemed worthwhile to try and place historians in their professional background, and to show how our thinking about the past reshapes itself in their hands from generation to generation.’ But of course; and some undergraduates find this process of unmasking somewhat wrenching. History writing is a highly vulnerable cultural activity. History itself must be reconstructed from flawed, incomplete and misleading materials. The historian himself is flawed. He has biases, predispositions, subconscious motives, ideological preferences. The history he writes makes no sense without theories or at least hypotheses or, less grandly, just a point of view. External influences assault him. The opinions of teachers and peers, the debates swirling about him, the events of his time, traditions of thought, commonplaces and platitudes force themselves into his writings. Next the undergraduate must learn that there is something called the sociology of thought. Accustomed to thinking in heroic terms, he now learns that historical writing is organised. It is a profession, a career. Historians are ‘trained’, they are influenced by ‘schools’, they contribute to a ‘field’, they undergo a long period of apprenticeship in which they are expected to satisfy their masters. They write articles followed by monographs. They ‘revise’ or ‘challenge’ accepted viewpoints (they also appear to invent ‘accepted’ viewpoints, but that is a detail). They can then graduate to other forms of historical discourse: the survey, the textbook, the collection of documents, the review of the literature. The more professional the task of writing history, the greater its propensity to insulate itself from outside influences, the more responsive it is likely to be to internal traditions and self-imposed boundaries of thinking. In a sense, insulation permits objectivity – and we assume our undergraduate is relieved at last to hear that some degree of objectivity is possible.

Poking behind the historian has been fashionable in the 20th century. Tearing away his disguise is the revenge that the generations following Lord Acton have exacted on all sages and authorities. Voltaire tried but could not bring it off. The Enlightenment depended upon history. The illuminati, always on the verge of despair, needed to believe in forces and movements greater and more irresistible than tyrants and agents provocateurs. And 19th-century Britain, as it was reshaped by industrialism, city culture and empire, also needed reassurance and a sense of national purpose. Clearly history and historical writing do not perform that function any more. We do not venerate sages or tolerate experts for too long, nor are there historical trends with which we care to identify. Are there even trends? Here again Kenyon is indecisive. While disparaging social science, he still thinks ‘tentative predictions in short-term situations’ are possible; and while probing behind history to the people who write it, presumably to provide us with examples of how to do our work better, he also pronounces the past to be dream and conjecture. Small wonder that the undergraduate, now in his second year as clever as Macaulay’s schoolboy, is sceptical when we try to recover a wisp of our vanished authority by telling him that if all historians lie, they do not all lie equally well. There are degrees of truth, and honesty can actually be measured. Admittedly, there is something irresolute about speaking of the historian as if he were a headmaster, preoccupied with the detection of error and prevention of improper conduct, especially when the cause is the rowdy newcomer from another discipline.

Where the issues threaten to become sticky, Kenyon does not linger. He will often close discussion by resorting to obiter dicta. These are less good than his biographical and factual excursions. A condescending dismissal of economic and social history as ‘a wonderful advance’, now ‘stripped’ of its ‘hampering Marxist bias’, appears in the conclusion. But Marxist historiography plays no part at all in the account he gives. One must assume that ‘economic and social history’ means everything from Sir John Clapham and Max Weber to the theory of mental states, the study of working-class culture, anthropology, demography, political sociology and social psychology, urban history, the study of the family, and the history of science and technology. Would Kenyon’s irritation with Butterfield be quite so pronounced if he had remembered to salute The Origins of Modern Science, arguably the most important of Sir Herbert’s books? This was a major work, fascinating in its complexities and in its rendering of scientific discovery in terms of the mysteries of personality and culture – fascinating even in its non-sequiturs.

The strictures on the new social science, the put-down of scientific pretension, is understandable but too simple. Academic faddism is irritating, but it is also more than an expression of frailty, although the temptation to reduce it in this way is considerable. It is also a feature of that very professional culture which Kenyon leads us to, a culture high on originality and multiplicity of outlook. The building-up of academic sub-fields, no doubt promoted in part by competition for resources, does have the virtue of altering perspectives in the long run. One part of Kenyon certainly understands this, but his treatment of the subject is unfinished because it is not thoughtfully blended with his successful illustrations of pettiness, bigotry and rivalry.

Whatever name we care to give to analytical or ‘scientific’ forms of history writing – structuralism, functionalism, mentalities – it cannot be denied that for the practitioner of history they have been enormously liberating. The freezing of chronology, which Burckhardt was among the first to achieve in modern times (Thucydides managed it only in his famous introduction or ‘archaeology’), was intellectually exhilarating. Beneath the messiness of everyday affairs, the never ending exchange of trivia, there lay an order of things, a set of cultural and institutional assumptions, no doubt subject to the laws of decay and corruption but in the interim furnishing us with a grasp of motive and cause. Well before Burckhardt the detection of pattern, recurrent or progressive, provided a similar sense of breaking through those narratives where the explanatory force lay in the clash of personalities and such contingencies as war, divine agency, famine and disease. The search for the higher generalisation has been a constant; and if today, after Arnold Toynbee’s failure, it can only be a search for theories of the middle range, that hardly invalidates the attempt. There is no history without detail, but neither is there history without generalisation.

However crucial analytic forms of writing have been for keeping history a part of high intellectual culture, historians continually dream of a wider reading public. They perpetually invoke the example of the great Victorians, who occupy about half the pages in The History Men. They suffer from a form of romantic schizophrenia. They yearn for a buried self that cries out for release. They are somehow incomplete without a great public to whom great deeds should be related. Hence the confusion over exactly how to respond to market forces (represented by publishers) which occasionally push the academic historian out beyond the edges of departments and colleges. Dr Johnson’s ‘Only a blockhead would write, except for money’ may have carried more truth in an age of declining aristocratic patronage, but in any profession there remains a tension between loyalty to colleagues and service to the public, or between career and calling, a certain guilt about the proper connection between reward and mission.

This is a weighty topic. Kenyon does not deal squarely with it. His movements are slippery. Contemporaries are invoked as stalking-horses. Other voices are used, and when he talks about ‘readable’ history, for example, which must imply questions of role and audience, he does so obliquely, impersonally: ‘It is not clear why an academic monograph on, say, Politics and the Appointment of Justices of Peace 1675-1720 should be more readable than one on The Interferometry of Reversed and Non-Reversed Spectra.’ But Kenyon finally commits himself – is it fair to say without real intellectual engagement? Having noticed the peacockery of new social-science history, he now, strangely (since we have not really been prepared for it), denounces ‘the sheer feebleness of so much popular history and historical biography since the death of Trevelyan’ (he means Churchill, C.V. Wedgwood, the Pakenhams and Barbara Tuchman). And in this mood he goes on to identify the leading issue facing the historical profession today as ‘the real divide’ which ‘is still between the popular and the academic historian, between the artist and the scientist’.

This isn’t satisfactory, especially in the context of an attempt to show the relationship between the historian and culture. It is misleading to suggest that the divide is somehow the same as it was in the late 19th century. All of the terms, categories, frames of reference and assumptions about literature and art, and about the differences between them and science as modes of understanding and expression, have now undergone a century’s transformation. We are well beyond discussion about Victorian narrative history, ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’, positive fact v. intuition. Of course all readers enjoy a good story, especially when it is charged with suspense or contains a great cast of characters and spatial and temporal qualities of epic proportion. The monumental story relies upon classical formulae. Characters are flawed, jealous and ambitious. Accident plays a major part in the action. Events spin out of control, and human affairs remain inherently tragic. Some individuals face destiny with dignity, others transcend circumstances, and many succumb. An odyssey is still the most comprehensible method of depicting causality. There is no uncertainty about departure and arrival times. In the hands of a Garrett Mattingly, epic is a great genre. The whole is satisfying in the same paradoxical way that tragedy is.

The greatest 20th-century artists have often eschewed narrative, at least the narrative of orderly sequence, or they have provided alternatives to it. Fabrice’s confusion on Napoleon’s fields does not match the psychic disintegration of Christopher Tietjens in the Great War. Virginia Woolf’s characters cry out for connection. Pirandello’s are unable to tell the story that is strangling them. Absurdity, disconnection, survival, small-scale ambition are the staple ingredients of 20th-century art. Prose and form naturally accommodate themselves to these responses – perhaps the price of that ‘authenticity’ which Lionel Trilling discussed and Richard Sennett deplores. Even John Burrow, to whom Kenyon pays a handsome tribute, shows these influences. The prose of the much celebrated A Liberal Descent is not routinely ‘readable’. It is often intricate and elusive like G.M. Young’s. It explores levels of meaning in a dialogue with the past. It is wholly 20th-century.

Kenyon alludes to the obscurity of much literary criticism. The charge is not unjust, but once again historical circumstances have to be taken into account. Obscurity is itself a response to major cultural changes, to new ways of ordering experience and coping with tragic and threatening circumstances. Nor can the problem be the influence of science on historical writing, for historical writing has benefited from the scientific ideal and continues to do so. We may be less confident about laws and causes, but we still look for origins, patterns and linkages. We believe that some evidence is better than none, and we follow Weber’s dictum that modern man is most free when acting rationally. And scientists do wish to be ‘readable’, to write lucid papers expounding elegant theses. None of this is meant to excuse academic prose. It is merely intended to point out that both audience and writer have changed in the 20th century and that the question of ‘popular’ culture in the age of universal schooling and mass – if not universal – higher education is not the same as it was in 1890 or 1910.

What then are the issues or the special demands on today’s historian that it would be appropriate to discuss after reading Kenyon? As a start, I suggest five. Each involves the question of audience and communication. First, there is the nature of professional commitment, the resolution of tensions mentioned earlier. What exactly does ‘service’ mean? Second, there is the problem of technology, the control of a bewildering mass of information. The individual historian suffers from a data overload unmatched in the past, leading him to adopt what Burrow calls the ‘cross-section’ approach, which more than anything else has hastened the death of conventional narrative. For the historian who is drowning in sources and materials, conclusions and fresh generalisations are hard to come by. Third, there is the difficulty of retaining a sense of the whole, and without it the historian will succumb to the temptation of making simple analogies by dissection. This is related to a fourth problem: relevance, or how to make history important, even ‘popular’, but not subservient to the present or to current fads and ideologies. Subservience to the past, in the form of Victorian ‘literary narrative’, may also be undesirable. Finally there is the problem of making the teaching and writing of history part of general education. Irreverent or not, undergraduates, as Kenyon notes, still enjoy learning history. As there is no end of recruits to the profession, we can continue to spin tales long into the night. But we shouldn’t push our luck.