Archive for the ‘historians’ Category


The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger

23 June 2009

I seem to be on a roll with the Canto imprint reviews, though I think this is the last of the ones in my current queue.

The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger

Traditions, to coin a simile, are rather like onions: if you make a deliberate effort to keep peeling away their numerous layers, you will be left with very little by the time you finish. Fortunately, most people are not overly concerned with peeling away the layers of traditions as long as those traditions seem relatively plausible or promote a favourable history or worldview. As a result, one common means of rapidly strengthening a shaky claim to legitimacy or solidifying a sense of group identity is to actively promote ‘traditions’ that have been developed or invented in the quite recent past. On occasion, these traditions develop into something quite different than their original inventors expected. In The Invention of Tradition, Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and postcolonial African historian Terence Ranger have brought together a collection of essays about how and why different traditions are invented, what purposes these traditions have and continue to serve, and what societies can gain by taking a closer look at the origins of the traditions they cherish so highly.

The contributions in this volume take different approaches to studying the invention of tradition. Some of the essays, like Hugh Trevor-Roper’s history of Scottish Highland traditions or Prys Morgan’s account of the nineteenth-century Welsh nationalist movement, explode the myths of the supposedly ancient origins of certain traditions such as tartan kilts and eisteddfods. Both authors link the Welsh and Scottish traditions with the Romantic movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, showing how groups of enthusiastic and enterprising individuals all but invented certain ceremonies and trappings out of whole cloth — quite literally, in the case of kilts. Other articles focus more on the process through which certain traditions were invented, describing how cross-cultural misunderstandings about existing traditions (such as the durbar gatherings held by India’s Mughal rulers) led to the creation of entirely new ceremonies designed to provide a sense of continuity between the old ruling classes and the new colonial ruling classes. The books also includes contributions on the effects of invented traditions, such as David Cannadine’s essay describing changing public attitudes towards the British monarchy in response to invented royal traditions like the formal Coronation ceremony and the sale of commemorative objects for royal weddings, births, and jubilees. There is quite a lot to ponder in these essays, and the authors provide plenty of sources for further exploration and follow-up.

The Invention of Tradition, for all its depth, is an undeniably Anglo-centric book. With the exception of Eric Hobsbawm’s contribution on the invention of national traditions in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Europe, all of the essays focus on either domestic (Scotland, Wales) or colonial (India, Africa) traditions of the United Kingdom. It is difficult to say whether the book would have been ‘improved’ with a little more variety in its subject matter, or whether the more narrow focus is preferable because it allows the different essays to overlap and reinforce each other. Regardless, the collected essays in The Invention of Tradition provide an informative and thought-provoking assessment of how traditions are made and perpetuated, and how they often take on lives of their own.


The Whig Interpretation of History by Herbert Butterfield

20 November 2007

A good old classic for the ‘metahistory’ tag today.

The Whig Interpretation of History by Herbert Butterfield

When I first began to spend my time doing serious historical research, I often came across the word ‘whiggish’ used in a negative sense to describe a historical thesis or set of ideas. Since I had no idea why the word was being used in a negative sense — or for that matter, what it actually meant — I did a little poking around and found that all the signs pointed to Herbert Butterfield’s book The Whig Interpretation of History.

Butterfield’s book is a criticism of the ‘progressive’ kind of historian who sees in the past a definite and predetermined path to the present. A possible example would be a historian of the Reformation who claims that Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door in order to create Protestantism and ultimately freedom of religion for all, while also claiming that those who opposed Luther’s declaration were backwards, blinkered reactionaries who were deliberately standing in the way of reform and Enlightenment. Whig history is the history of ‘inevitable’ success, the history that judges the past by the standards of the present and reads into history a confirmation of the existing status quo. The reason why Butterfield chose the term ‘Whig’ for his classification of this kind of history is that he noticed that the most blatant promoters of this kind of fallacious historical approach saw the 19th-century Whig gentleman — the Protestant, progressive, anti-slavery and pro-reform gentleman — as the pinnacle of virtue and the natural outcome of the progression of history. Yet Whig history might well describe any modern triumphalist narrative of history…such as the kind that is often found in books about the history of how the West ‘won’ the Cold War.

My edition of this book is an old secondhand copy, Butterfield’s original text and nothing else. I think that a more comprehensive edition of this book might be improved if a short introductory essay was added to give some more perspective on which specific historians or historical theses Butterfield might have been condemning most strongly at the time. (Perhaps it’s because I felt as if I was reading Butterfield’s criticism in a vacuum — at the time, I had very little idea of who or what he was talking about.) But the book is definitely one of the classics of the historiography, the history of writing history, and as such is a must-read for anyone seriously interested in what I tend to call metahistory.


Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

15 November 2007

I reviewed David Lodge’s Nice Work a couple of months ago — here’s another campus novel to break up the steady stream of nonfiction.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

It’s a few years after the end of World War II, and a hapless young man named Jim Dixon has somehow managed to blunder into a job teaching history at a stolid and relatively undistinguished red-brick university. He isn’t particularly interested in what he’s teaching, he isn’t particularly fond of his students, and he regards his fellow staff members (particularly Professor Welch, a senior member of his Department) with something not far short of outright loathing. He doesn’t even have much interest in Margaret, the colourless girl he’s been seeing — especially not after he meets Christine, a very attractive and intelligent woman who unfortunately is the girlfriend of Professor Welch’s smarmy, artsy son Bertrand. Far from being lucky, Jim seems to have the worst luck of anyone, even if he does bring the bad luck on himself more often than not. But when he’s invited to give a public lecture on ‘Merrie England’, he has a chance to secure his teaching job for the forseeable future. The outcome of his lecture might well depend on how lucky — or unlucky — he really is.

Lucky Jim is a campus novel, a story set on a red-brick university campus (as opposed to the ‘varsity novel’ set in Oxford or Cambridge), and it revolves around the lives of the academics and their little turf wars. None of the characters are particularly likeable, though in some ways that’s part of the point of the novel. But even if the satire feels more than a little dated a half-century on — it was first published in 1954 — it is still fairly pointed in its mockery of the classist nature and the pretentious, inbred world of academia. Amis also has an ear for clever turns of phrase, and one of my favourite scenes in the whole book features the best description of waking up with a hangover that I’ve ever read.

As far as the ending goes…well, I won’t spoil it for you completely, save to say that it’s a happy ending. And perhaps it’s just me, but I found the happy ending to be rather unsatisfying. Jim gets his happy ending by chance and through a plot device that slots neatly into a deus ex machina At the least, it seems a little too much like the climax of a rather weak late Victorian novel. By the time I was about halfway through the book, I was generally rooting for Dixon not to get his happy ending. (I’m not entirely sure what that says about me, or about the novel, but it does bear mentioning.) As a classic of academic satire and one of the best-known campus novels, most anyone involved in a love-hate relationship with the academic world will be able to get something worthwhile out of it.


Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines

11 September 2007

I still agree with the opinion about academic conflicts mentioned below. Very much so.

Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines

Let me preface this book review with an opinion I’ve developed recently. In my opinion, conflicts in academia are only enjoyable (let alone interesting) when they’re witnessed thirdhand. They’re awful when you’re part of them, and very unpleasant when you’re dealing with the fallout from them, but seen from a distance (and especially after most of the participants are dead) they can be remarkably fascinating. It’s rather like watching an early nature documentary — only without the voiceover person’s nearly incomprehensible accent.

That said, the Letters from Oxford are a collection of letters written by historian Hugh Trevor-Roper to art historian and critic Bernard Berenson. Trevor-Roper was an Oxford don and former military intelligence officer who had made a pile of money with the publication of his best-selling book The Last Days of Hitler. His work on Hitler was only the prelude to his career as a historian — or rather, his career as a historian who thoroughly enjoyed attacking OTHER historians of his day and age in various published articles and letters. His correspondence with Berenson began shortly after the end of the war and continued until Berenson’s death in 1959, and Trevor-Roper’s letters to his friend and occasional host (Berenson lived in Italy, and opened the doors of his villa to an exclusive array of guests) provided what Berenson wanted most to hear: gossip, and plenty of it.

Setting aside the snippets of gossip that would probably only interest people who like reading about old scandals amongst the literati, Trevor-Roper’s Letters from Oxford contain two remarkable gems of correspondence: his farcical descriptions of Oxford University politics (not the party-political kind, but rather the kind that determines who gets the vacant Regius Professorship or other high-powered post) and a remarkably trenchant real-time analysis of the Suez crisis. It’s in these sections where Trevor-Roper’s skill with words and turns of phrase really comes through, and the art of good letter-writing shows itself most vividly. Reading other people’s letters generally doesn’t tend to be interesting — even the Letters from Oxford have their fair share of syncophantic bread-and-butter notes and an almost nonstop undercurrent of whinging over Trevor-Roper’s latest bete noire — but it’s a treat nonetheless to find a correspondence that manages to capture a vivid and occasionally intriguing picture of the foibles of the past.


In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War by David Reynolds

7 September 2007

I once had the amazing good fortune to meet Cambridge historian David Reynolds, and I think I flummoxed him a little (in the good way) when I told him straight off that I was a great fan of his work. Britannia Overruled is a classic reference text for anyone interested in studying Anglo-American relations, and Rich Relations is an intriguing look at Anglo-American relations during the ‘American occupation of Britain’ in World War II. So perhaps in keeping with his Anglo-American theme, Reynolds’ book focuses on a true Anglo-American output — Winston Churchill — and more specifically, Churchill’s impressive six-volume history of the Second World War.

In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War by David Reynolds

One of the quotations often attributed to Churchill is the pithy and somewhat flippant declaration: ‘History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it’. Brave words from any politician, but in a sense Churchill really did write the history that would later lionise his name. After the Conservative Party’s massive defeat at the polls in 1945, Churchill was left as the Leader of a tiny Opposition and faced with the need to earn some kind of income to offset the extremely high tax rates that the Labour Party had recently imposed. With reams of personal papers at his disposal — as well as a number of highly sensitive government documents that just happened to have come with him when he left Downing Street — he set out to write a detailed history of the war that had just been won.

There’s been so much written about Winston Churchill from just about every possible angle, from admiring hagiographies to damnation with only the faintest of praise. Reynolds’ approach to this study of Churchill after the war is both novel and utterly fascinating. Churchill is as much a larger-than-life figure in this day and age as he was during his lifetime…and so there’s something terribly human about a Churchill who is desperate to cut a good deal with his publishers, hoping to secure an advance on his writing to prevent having to sell his beloved Chartwell, or a Churchill who is worried that he might (A) die or (B) win the next General Election (both of which seemed to be equally unwelcome possibilities) before he can finish the next volume of his book. It’s a side of Churchill that isn’t often seen, even by historians.

Reynolds writes with equally painstaking detail about the writing process, picking through multiple drafts and identifying selections that were cut out to avoid offending living politicians or relationships with Britain’s allies, or even to conceal vital state secrets such as the truth about the codebreakers of Bletchley Park. It’s history at the nitty-gritty level, writing about the history of history being written — and in being written, how that history shapes people’s perceptions of the very immediate past and perpetuates that image into the future. It’s certainly not a surprise that the book won the 2004 Wolfson History Prize, because Reynolds proves that it is indeed possible to write a history book that can appeal to historians and ‘lay readers’ alike. As he says in his introduction, ‘…Churchill the historian has shaped our image of Churchill the Prime Minister’, and In Command of History deftly illustrates how successful Winston Churchill actually was in writing the history that would later be so kind to him.