Tuesday, 6 November 2012

It’s the story silly: Edward Thompson and narrative

Thompson’s critics argue that his unique narrative style further imposes biased principles onto his historical subjects. It is widely known that Thompson’s initial academic interests were primarily in literature, and his inspiration to become a historian largely has been attributed to his admiration for William Morris, a nineteenth-century politician and historian. Like Morris, Thompson did not object to painting a very lofty and glossy picture of a utopian socialist future. Thompson also agreed with Morris that a socialist revolution would not only entail an economic change but an alteration of peoples’ mind-sets that would embrace the benefits of a socialist system[1].  Thompson’s ideological development as a Marxist historian was shaped just as much by Dickens’s Hard Times as Engel’s The Housing Question[2]. Thompson abandoned his extensive activism for historical writing in the 1960s, because he felt as though a revelation of a past development of working-class consciousness would be equally if not more fruitful to his leftist endeavours. Thompson’s friend Robert Palmer called Thompson’s Marxist beliefs ‘a communism driven less by economic necessity and the logic of determinative forces than by moral passion and desire.’[3] Thompson’s most famous work, The Making of the English Working Class, heavily reflected this fervour with his appreciation for Romantic literature.

While many historians admire Thompson’s writing style in The Making of the English Working Class, Renato Rosaldo is critical about the implications of his writing structure. Rosaldo describes historical writing as a practice that must both remain true to the historical evidence and create a narrative to explain the evidence. Though these components are two distinct entities, they cannot be adequately separated. Facts without an accompanying story are nothing more than a chronology; however, the historical narrative must remain consistent with the information, or else it is simply fiction[4]. Rosaldo then claims that Thompson tells his story in a very ‘melodramatic’ fashion, as to present the history in such a light that the reader would sympathise with the working class. Rosaldo uses the character of Thomas Hardy, the leader of the Correspondence Society in London in the 1790s as an example; Thompson portrays Hardy as a man who was persecuted by the ‘evil forces’ of the state. Nevertheless, this interpretation of Hardy’s oppression could have just as easily been interpreted as a consequence of divine fury, a ‘consequence of moral flaws,’ or ‘a quirk of destiny.’ Rosaldo believes that Thompson’s choice of this ‘melodramatic’ tone is not so much consistent with his subjects’ own perception of their situation but simply Thompson’s interpretation[5].

Rosaldo’s complaint about The Making of the English Working Class is that Thompson treats his narrative as a ‘neutral medium,’ though he has imposed his own understanding of what happened onto his subjects. By telling the history of the working class in a storybook-like fashion, Thompson takes the role of the omniscient narrator in a novel, presuming to know how his subjects really thought and felt. However, Rosaldo identifies the values conveyed in the work as those of Thompsom and not those of the nineteenth-century working class. Thus, the major lesson is that historians, particularly those who are ultimately concerned with human agency, must take care to not conflate their subjects’ perceptions and values with their own, or else they are being unfaithful in their narratives[6]. In Rosaldo’s words, the most unfortunate flaw of The Making of the English Working Class is that ‘the very identification which enables other voices to be heard in their full persuasive force as they speak to the present can at the same time muffle the distinctive tones of the past.[7]‘ Ultimately, the question is that one can never be sure whether historical concepts make history or if they are inherent within historical change.

Although it is impossible to recover a completely (or even mostly) objective account of history, Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class can be criticised because it confuses the author’s own biases on his subjects. If the tone of the work reflected Thompson’s actual relationship to his subjects, it would have been at the hefty expense of the fluidity between past and present and the complex dynamics of human interactions that Thompson wanted so much to convey. Moreover, though Thompson is nearly as guilty of this hazy conflation as Rosaldo claims. The questions posed and answered by The Making of the English Working Class are quite deliberately connected to the work of the New Left. Thompson’s very concern for making the connection present in his work in itself admits the author’s agenda for trying to find links in the Radical Tradition. Thompson never asserted that he was outside of history; he always intentionally and purposefully spoke about the past to the Present. Both in his history and in his activism, Thompson linked the past to the present, because it is the past that provides us with our cultural legacy; however, it is the duty of the present humanity to create the future. Rosaldo himself says quite eloquently that for Thompson, ‘Cultural traditions are selected, recombined and invented as an active part of class formation. Cultural traditions, understood as actively selected versions of the past, constitute and reconstitute themselves through the future.’[8]


[1] Bryan D. Palmer, Objections and Oppositions, Verso, 1994, pp. 58-59.

[2] Bryan D. Palmer, Objections and Oppositions, Verso, 1994, p. 58.

[3] Bryan D. Palmer, Objections and Oppositions, Verso, 1994, p. 57.

[4] Renato Rosaldo, ‘Social Analysis in History and Anthropology,’ in Harvey J. Kay and Keith McClelland (eds.), E.P. Thompson: Critical Perspectives, Temple University Press, 1990, p. 103.

[5] Ibid, pp. 116-117.

[6] Ibid, pp. 116-120.

[7] Ibid, p. 120.

[8] Ibid, p. 103.

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