Imperfect Histories: The Elusive Past and the Legacy of Romantic Historicism

Imperfect Histories: The Elusive Past and the Legacy of Romantic Historicism

Imperfect Histories: The Elusive Past and the Legacy of Romantic Historicism

Imperfect Histories: The Elusive Past and the Legacy of Romantic Historicism

Synopsis

Imperfect Histories puts "imperfection" at the heart of a theory of historical representation. Ann Rigney shows how historical writing involves dealing with intractable subjects that resist our efforts to know and to shape them. Those who write history, she says, engage in an ongoing struggle to match up what they find relevant in the past with the information and interpretive models at their disposal. Chronic dissatisfaction is at the heart of historical practice. This is especially evident in the various attempts made over the last two centuries to write an "alternative" history of everyday experience.

Focusing on historical writing in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, Rigney analyzes a wide range of works by Walter Scott, Jules Michelet, Augustin Thierry, and Thomas Carlyle. She shows how the attempt to write an alternative history brought historical writing into a close yet fraught relationship with literature. The result is a new account of that relationship as it took shape in the romantic period and as it continues to influence contemporary practices.

Excerpt

This book might well have been called “Reflections on the Curate's Egg” in memory of the unfortunate cleric immortalized by Punch. The idea that something may be “very good in parts” even if those parts cannot be discretely disengaged from the context in which they occur is laughable when applied to the test of fresh food; but, as I hope to demonstrate, it should be taken seriously as a way of describing our attempts to represent the past. Compromise, failure, provisionality, dissatisfaction: these are usually accepted as unfortunate but inevitable features of history writing. I argue here that such shortcomings are not a mere by-product of history but one of its structural and distinctive features. It is chronic imperfection that distinguishes history from literature, at the same time as it brings history into a close and competitive relationship with literary texts. In what follows, I work out the implications of this idea through an analysis of a select number of episodes in the evolution of historical writing in England and France from 1780-1860.

My analysis shows that many of the issues with which theorists of history and cultural historians are grappling today are not temporary offshoots of what is loosely termed “postmodernism, ” but an ongoing and evolving part of the inheritance of romantic historicism, which opened up the domain of history to include potentially all aspects of experience. This left historical research and writing with the task of setting priorities and of chasing after the history-that-got-away in search of hitherto hidden aspects of the past. The attempt to fill in what others had left out in a democratiz-

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