The History Man

Richard J Evans's book is not so much a defence of history as of one school (left, populist, socially conscious) against another (conservative, elitist, high political)
November 20, 1997

Does history need defending? And is that the same as defending historians? Richard J Evans, the new professor of modern history at Cambridge, is sure that it is and has written a book to vindicate both his vocation and his profession. In Defence of History is at once a primer and a polemic. It is intended to replace the classic works by EH Carr (What is History?) and GR Elton (The Practice of History) which have been used to introduce sixth-formers and undergraduates to the subject for a generation. Evans has largely succeeded in this aim. Although his prose lacks the mandarin self-assurance of Carr and the pungency of Elton, his scope is wider and, of course, he is far more up-to-date. Teachers of history may recommend In Defence of History to their pupils secure in the knowledge that it will convey some of the excitement generated by the perpetual ferment of historiographical ideas.

As a polemicist, however, Evans is more problematic. It is not clear what or whom he is defending history against; nor is it certain that defending the scholarly habits and practices of his own generation of historians is the same as defending the discipline of history itself. Some reviewers of In Defence of History have seen it as a tract against post-modernist attempts to subvert conventional history by treating it as merely one "discourse" among others. This is not quite how the author himself sees his task. Evans wishes to engage in a dialogue with the post-modernists because he is convinced that-although "the theory of history is too important to be left to the theoreticians"-working historians such as himself have something to learn from post-modernist thinkers such as Hayden White. True, Evans shoots down the more extreme advocates of post-modernist relativism, turning the arguments of "vulgar" post-modernism against its own practitioners to deadly effect. But nowhere does he claim to refute the whole approach. On the contrary: he cites several distinguished recent works of historical scholarship-Simon Schama's Citizens on the French revolution and Orlando Figes's A People's Tragedy on the Russian revolution-as examples of post-modernist history. By this loose definition, Evans's own books-on the cholera epidemic in 1890s Hamburg or the history of capital punishment in Germany-could be cited as jewels in the post-modernist crown.

In his impassioned conclusion, Evans proclaims his faith in objective historical knowledge. Although beset by relativists and nihilists, "I will look humbly at the past and say despite them all: it really happened, and we really can, if we are very scrupulous and careful and self-critical, find out how it happened and reach some tenable though always less than final conclusions about what it all meant." Most thoughtful people-except post-modernists-will say amen to that; indeed, it echoes the sentiments of Leopold von Ranke, the 19th century patriarch of modern historical research.

But this is to beg the question of whether historians are scrupulous, careful and self-critical in the ways in which post-modernists, and others, would like them to be. "I will look humbly at the past": this is not defending history but historians-not a group of people noted for their humility. Such an apologia substitutes rhetoric for logic. It will not impress those who call their assumptions and motives into question.

In fact, Evans reserves his sharpest barbs not for post-modernists, but for conservatives. John Vincent, the eccentric but able professor of history at Bristol, comes in for withering criticism. Evans is particularly scathing about An Intelligent Person's Guide to History, Vincent's little volume which was turned down by Oxford University Press a few years ago on grounds of political incorrectness. It was eventually published by the late Colin Haycraft, then head of Duckworth. Vincent's crime is to defend "kings and battles" as the central subject matter of historical inquiry.

Evans dismisses this as the elite view of political history. "At any rate," insists Vincent, "the past is incorrigibly male, as it is incorrigibly aristocratic, incorrigibly religious, incorrigibly unfair." Evans denies this and points out that political historians are now outnumbered by other branches of the profession, who have spent "increasing amounts of time and energy over the past few decades taking notice of that enormous majority of people in history dismissed by elitist sages as unworthy of notice." He accuses Vincent of "deep ignorance of other kinds of history than the history of British high politics in the 19th century which he himself writes."

This is damaging, ad hominem invective of a kind which Evans avoids when dealing with post-modernist opponents. In a footnote, he comes close to justifying the silencing of a scholar by the mob: "Vincent's partiality to newspapers as a source of information may possibly be coloured by the fact that he himself wrote a column in the Sun for a number of years, until student demonstrations at his own university forced him to abandon it-an event which, however deplorable in itself, would scarcely have taken place had the column been a model of impartiality." Leaving aside the question of whether it is a columnist's-as opposed to a historian's-job to be "a model of impartiality," and whether it is fair to dismiss the case for greater use of newspaper sources by referring to Vincent's own column, this passage is also remarkable for its omissions. The campaign against Vincent at Bristol University-ultimately successful-which included colleagues as well as students, is one of the great scandals of recent academic history. The fact that Evans alludes to it in a book aimed at a lay audience, without giving any context, casts doubt on his own claims to be "self-critical" or "scrupulous."

This defence of history proves, on closer examination, to be something rather different: it is an attempt to propitiate the gods of academic orthodoxy, now demanding a ritual obeisance to interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation. It is also a defence of one school of history (left-liberal, populist, socially conscious) against another school, less fashionable but no less respectable (conservative, elitist, high political). Right-wing history is not necessarily less pluralist in subject matter than history of the left, although Evans implies that it is. Intellectual history, for instance, is inherently no less elitist than political history; economic history can be (and is) practised by Thatcherites as well as Marxists. There are even socialist historians of high politics.

There are as many answers to EH Carr's question-what is history?-as there are historians. But historians rarely acknowledge the fact that history is not their exclusive property. History no more belongs to historians than politics does to politicians. In Defence of History stakes the claim of the profession with eloquence and economy.

But in the empire of the empirical there are many potentates, and the book no longer necessarily holds sway as the most enduring means of conquest, let alone the academic lecture or seminar. Thanks to television, Alan Clark's interpre-tation of the history of the Con- servative party will impress itself upon the popular-and even the elite-consciousness far more deeply than will the countless monographs of professional historians. "New Labour"-originally a propaganda tool-now has a historiography of its own, one which has been shaped far more by politicians and journalists than by academics.

It is not history that needs defending, but professional histo-rians. Their influence has been challenged, not just within the academy, but by those who are looked down on by many professional historians as amateurs or popularisers. The most striking fact about historians such as Simon Schama, Theodore Zeldin or Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is not that they have absorbed post-modernist literary techniques but that they are writing popular history in an accessible style almost exclusively practised, until recently, by non-academic historians. It is not clear whether Evans belongs to this camp, but he gives no credit to those who practise his craft outside the university. And so, for all its infectious enthusiasm, In Defence of History remains the swansong of a golden age of academic supremacy. The don as hero is implausible in the age of the graduate proletariat. Evans may genuinely believe that he has written in defence of history; but he has merely defended the History Man. In defence of history

Richard J Evans

Granta 1997, ?15.99