Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820

By Mark Salber Phillips | Go to book overview

Preface

THERE IS A story I like about an avid fisherman who spent every spare moment down on the public dock engaged in his favorite sport. Sometimes other fishermen joined him, but most days he had the waterfront to himself. On one particular day, however, he soon noticed that he was not alone. Up on the boardwalk overlooking the dock, a man was leaning on the railing watching him fish. Time went by, but the bystander showed no signs of leaving. Naturally, the fisherman grew irritated at being watched in this way. Still, there wasn't a lot he could do about it, so he did his best to keep his mind on the fish. Finally, at the end of the day (which really had not gone too badly, despite everything) the fisherman gathered up his catch and his tackle and made his way up to the road. As he passed by the stranger, the fisherman gave him a brief nod and asked civilly, “Fish much yourself?” “Oh no, not me,” the other man replied; “I'd never have the patience!”

Among other things, this story appeals to me as a sort of metaphor for the way many historians see their relationship with students of historiography. Professional historians generally see themselves as skillful fisherman, and though they certainly have no objection to swapping a few good stories now and again, they are sometimes puzzled by colleagues who actually seem more interested in watching than fishing. Nor has it helped that in recent decades a good deal of writing on historiography has been inspired by the unfamiliar methods of literary criticism, so that the activities of the anglers and the language of the watchers seem further apart than ever before. In fact, for nearly a generation now students of historiography have effectively divided themselves into two camps. On one side stand those who approach the subject primarily as a problem in intellectual history; on the other we find those for whom historical writing is at bottom an act of imagination to be understood in literary (and especially narratological) terms. Valuable work has been done on both sides of this methodological divide, but it has not proven easy to marry the two approaches. In the first camp we can locate all those whose interest in historiography lies primarily in the opportunity it gives to study the expression of political or philosophical ideas, as well as those who approach the subject in light of the history of scholarship.1 Historians of this school have often been

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1
Among many other important works of this character, see Felix Gilbert, Machiavelli and Guicciardini (New York: Norton, 1984); John Burrow, A Liberal Descent (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981); Joseph Levine, The Battle of the Books (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991), and Humanism and History: Origins of Modern English Historiography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987); John Pocock, Virtue, Commerce, and History (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985), and The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987); Philip Hicks, Neoclassical History and English Culture (New York: St. Martin's, 1996); Laird Okie, Augustan Historical Writing (Lanham, Md.: University P of America, 1991); Daniel Woolf, The Idea of History in Early Stuart England: Erudition, Ideology, and the “Light of Truth” from the Accession of James I to the Civil War (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990); David Womersley, The Transformation of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988); and Colin Kidd, Subverting Scotland's Past (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993). Karen O'Brien, Narratives of Enlightenment: Cosmopolitan History from Voltaire to Gibbon (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997) unfortunately reached me too late for me to make any detailed use of its findings, but readers will find a number of points of convergence.

-ix-

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