What is progress?

William Doyle

  • What is history? by E.H. Carr, edited by R.W. Davies
    Macmillan, 154 pp, £25.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 333 38956 5

I never knew E.H. Carr. I never heard him lecture, even on the radio. But I once saw him in Cambridge, and that was memorable enough. The History of Soviet Russia, begun when he was in his fifties and finished in his eighties, would have been enough to make him a legend, and no doubt he would regard it as his monument. But those 14 forbidding volumes, whatever the importance of their subject, seem destined always to be more talked about than read. Like some Titan rocket, they will probably be remembered in the history of historiography for boosting into orbit a disproportionately tiny payload. But it is the payload that matters, and I suspect that already Carr’s name is chiefly known among students of history for the shortest book he ever wrote. What is history? made its controversial appearance in 1961. I was an undergraduate, and I remember how we all bought and devoured it. The extraordinary thing is that students have continued to do so ever since. It is a remarkable achievement for a book written at an age when academics have normally retired. In the late Sixties elderly prophets sometimes did appeal to the young. One thinks of Marcuse, whom Carr befriended. But his vogue passed, while Carr’s has not. His reflections on the nature of history are as much in demand as ever, as this new edition testifies.

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