Magazine article History Today

Times and Tides

Magazine article History Today

Times and Tides

Article excerpt

* There are plenty of poets, novelists and playwrights among the immortals; yet historians usually get stuck in the graveyard. History offers writers the ingredient enduring are requires: a disciplined framework for the imagination. When well presented, it has all the virtues of egghead fiction, plus better plots. Historians, however, rarely exploit its advantages. Some are self-consigned to oblivion by their neglect of the writer's only obligation, which is to write well. Others never raise their eyes to Parnassus, but stare into deep graves laboriously dug in arid specialisms. Some limit themselves to communication with fellow-enthusiasts in deliberately hieratic jargon, while others have strictly professional ambitions which leave them with no time or temptation to address posterity.

Even historians who deserve an everlasting monument tend to get buried in the chasm between rival expectations: readers who demand objective truth expect constant revisions and updating, while those who want self-justifying myths discard the histories written in justification of their predecessors. Most collections of popular classics, in consequence, contain no works of history at all. On past form, only a handful of historians can ever hope to be read by their great-grandchildren's generation. To survive for centuries seems an almost unattainable dream. In English, the longevity of Gibbon is unique. In other literatures it is almost unparalleled.


Great history, like great writing in other genres, is written along the fault-lines where experience meets invention. For most of the last 100 years, it has been the care -- indeed, the pride -- of professional historians to avoid such treacherous terrain. Experience has been treated as a source of subjective -- as if an historian's experience were not itself part of the past and a store of source-material as valid as any other. Fancy has been feared as a muse of fiction unable to guide a writer to historical truth. Yet without an exercise of the imagination no historian can hope to evoke the past, to reconstruct the thoughts and feelings of the dead or sketch a counterfactual argument.

Now imagination has been rehabilitated. History no longer apes the sciences, while science itself imitates the arts. Meanwhile, a new humanism has emerged, relishing texts as evidence of themselves. A new antiquarianism has arisen, which ransacks middens and treasuries for instructive objects. Historical writing, in consequence, can freely stimulate the tactile senses as well as appeal directly to the mind. Historians are getting out of the archives into the open -- walking in the woods, strolling in the streets, retrieving the past from landscapes and cityscapes. The avant-garde are incorporating oral research and personal experience into their work. The best effect of these trends is that there are now again history books that are works of art as well as of scholarship. Historians lucky enough to be writing today, and bold enough to exploit the opportunities, have a chance of shelf-life after death.

Readers of History Today may like to nominate history-books which they think will still be read in a couple of hundred years' time. The best works of A. L. Rowse will be on some people's lists for their defiant individuality, swashbuckling style, crushing command of evidence and vivid sense of place. Rowse is now well into his second enfance terrible. In a typical judgement in his recent reminiscences, Historians I Have Known, labelled by its author `a generous book', he dismisses Margaret Gay Davies, author of The Enforcement of English Apprenticeship, as a `prissy academic'... weevilling away at some uninspiring subject -- I cannot remember what' to produce a work of `marmoreal perfection'. In the historians' graveyard, many who will never rise to immortality are indeed oppressed by the weight of such sepulchral works.

I have been working to develop some of the themes found in my recent book Millennium (1995); in particular, to challenge a conventional view of world history as a sort of cultural snooker, in which the benefits of western civilisation have cannoned into the remotest pockets of the world. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.