History in a Democratic Age

Article excerpt

HISTORIAN JOHN LUKACS TALKS WITH NEH CHAIRMAN BRUCE COLE ABOUT HISTORY AND ITS HEROES. LUKACS HAS WRITTEN A DOZEN BOOKS, AMONG THEM HISTORICAL CONSCIOUSNESS, THE PASSING OF THE MODERN AGE, AND FIVE DAYS IN LONDON, MAY 1940. HIS MOST RECENT IS CHURCHILL: VISIONARY. STATESMAN. HISTORIAN.

BRUCE COLE: You've written about a variety of subjects: the intellectual history of the past five hundred years, the history of the Cold War, the city of Budapest, the rise and fall of Europe, the history of the United States. What draws you to a given topic?

JOHN LUKACS: There's a simple answer to this: whatever interests me. Professionally, sometimes, this is a handicap. Other historians may say, "What is he doing on my turf?" Yet I can only say: whatever interests me. If something really interests me, then I'm writing not for money, not for reputation-but because I can't help it.

COLE: While you're researching one topic, does that spark off ideas on another that leads to a book, maybe not immediately, but somewhere down the road a bit?

LUKACS: It often does spark an interest. During research, you often find what you're looking for, but very often you find other things too that, for the reason of economy, you don't want to include in the same book.

COLE: Yes. Right.

LUKACS: It may just lie fallow. It might result in an article. Who knows, it might even lead to another book.

COLE: You've observed that you cannot separate history from the historian. How did you become a historian?

LUKACS: This goes back to a very different world, and to a very different time. As you know, I was born in Hungary. I was interested in history, but it was not until I entered the university that I decided that I was going to get a degree in history, a degree not quite the equivalent to an American Ph.D., but by and large similar. That's how I became a historian.

COLE: As a child you were interested in history?

LUKACS: The other day I was just thinking about this. I started to read novels and literature, I would say, in my early teens. When I look back, I was always interested in the kind of literature that has much history in it-- not the historical novel as such, but novels that described a time, a place, and people, how they were, what they were thinking, how they and their places were at a particular time.

COLE: I understand. Besides your writing, you've had a long career as a college professor. Is there a relationship between your teaching and your research and writing?

LUKACS: Absolutely. I always wanted to write. Frankly, when I got my first teaching position, I said, "All right. This will enable me to write." I think that I was a responsible and a reliable teacher, but my teaching ambitions were secondary. I was not interested in moving from college to college to college up the academic ladder.

Then, halfway through my teaching career which has almost covered half a century, I discovered that my teaching had very much helped my writing and even that I have been especially fortunate to teach in a good little undergraduate college. If I had been appointed to a large university and taught graduate students, I don't think I would be as good a writer. I had to talk to undergraduates about complicated things simply but not superficially. It taught me a great deal about economy of expression.

COLE: Well, that's certainly characteristic of your books: you make complicated events and situations crystal clear. So you find that when you're in the classroom, you need to get to the essence of what you're talking about and present it in a way that is fathomable to an undergraduate?

LUKACS: Yes. I have to use my words carefully, and this is what writing is all about. I have shocked many of my historian colleagues by saying that history consists of words, that the words are not just the packaging of the facts. In our minds the facts do not exist apart from the words with which we express them. …