Sunday, 6 July 2014

What is a historian?

I’m not sure whether it’s envy or snobbery or simply a desire to maintain their historical hegemony that leads ‘academic’ historians to lay waste to the work produced by ‘popular’ historians.  Sir Max Hastings appears to have borne the brunt of this in recent months with the publication of his highly readable and eminently successful—in terms of books sold—history of the outbreak of the First World War.  Yet it has been dismissed as ‘broad-brushed and judgemental’ in a review in the Times Literary Supplement and of failing to take account of the research that has, in the last half century, deepened our perceptions of the war.  Christopher Clark, author of Sleepwalkers published two years ago, went further saying that Hastings ‘is not a historian.  He is a man who writes about the past.’  In an excellent review in The Spectator on ‘First World War, the battle of the historians’, Simon Heffer examines the ways in which historians have written about the war have changed and why.  When discussing popular history he writes:
‘In taking our history more seriously, and demanding from historians evidence that prevents the presentation of fact from being recast as simple assertion, we have moved on from the Arthur Bryant school that still sets the model for populist history.’
While there is much about Bryant that I find distasteful—his pro-appeasement views and admiration for Nazi Germany in the 1930s highlighted by Andrew Roberts in his Eminent Churchillians who described him as ‘ a supreme toady, fraudulent scholar and humbug’—and the overtly patriotic stance of his writings, I was perhaps fortunate to have been brought up reading his King Charles the Second, first published in 1931 and his three-volume biography of Samuel Pepys, perhaps his best works, rather than his somewhat vacuous general histories.  J. H. Plumb was equally critical of Bryant arguing that his failure to achieve professional recognition was his lack of intellect.  Although professionals historians were frequently negative about his best-sellers, Bryant's histories were explicitly praised by prime ministers Baldwin, Chamberlain, Churchill, Attlee, Macmillan, Wilson, who awarded him a knighthood and made him a Companion of Honour in the 1960s, and Callaghan and Thatcher.  Despite this he was remarkably successful selling over two million copies of his forty plus books, many of which are still in print, and he was a columnist for the Illustrated London News for almost half a century.  But was he a historian and what does that actually mean?
Although being a historian has become more sophisticated, its primary characteristics have not really changed since Herodotus and Thucydides—it is a recounting by the historian of what happened in the past grounded in contemporary sources and  it should be communicated to an audience orally or in writing.  More problematic is the view that historians produce a ‘true account’ of the past.  In reality, this is never possible and interpretation is a third characteristic of being a historian—of course, there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ interpretations, a case not of whether you agree with a particular historian’s views or not but of the degree to which those views are based on a close analysis of the available sources.  While assertion and polemic have long been a feature of historical writing—historians from Bede to Macaulay have all been guilty of it—but that does not necessarily make them ‘bad’ historians.  Their literary populism is the key to their success and explains why we still read Bede and Macaulay and don’t read other historians.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Can you call someone a historian whose work has a political objective? There seems to be a lot of that about at the moment.
I'm also interested in your question at the level of "local historian". I feel entitled to call myself that because I've done a great deal of original research in several areas and written it up. However, the scene locally is dominated by a clique of men who have long since ceased to do any research and don't welcome those who do.