A.J.P. Taylor Is History: He Made Us See World War II Anew-And Merits Another Look Himself

By Stove, R. J. | The American Conservative, September-October 2013 | Go to article overview

A.J.P. Taylor Is History: He Made Us See World War II Anew-And Merits Another Look Himself


Stove, R. J., The American Conservative


Seldom is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography considered an ideal place to seek pathos-laden anecdotes, but one can find them there. In the DNB's article on Sir Arthur Bryant--for decades among Britain's most popular non-fiction authors--there occurs such an anecdote in which Bryant, sometime after World War II, was introduced as "our greatest living historian" to A.J.P. Taylor. The alarm felt at these words by Taylor, who had long believed this title to repose safely with himself, may be readily envisioned.

How stands either man's reputation in our time? Bryant died in 1985 and now is almost unread, his books retailing for derisory sums on eBay. Nobody would have predicted such oblivion to overtake Taylor, who outlived Bryant by only five years but had made himself a public figure as the largely pre-television Bryant had not. While the phrase "media whore" had not attained common usage in Taylor's lifetime, it accurately--if nastily--describes Taylor's addiction to the studio arc lights, his gift at lecturing learnedly in prime-time schedules for half an hour without a single written note, and the sheer demotic fame of his bow tie. Yet Taylor has been forgotten to an extent that middle-aged denizens of former British colonies find almost beyond belief. (This neglect has occurred despite his having inspired no fewer than three biographies since his death, much the best of which is the 2006 production by Nottingham University professor Chris Wrigley.)

As late as 1980, undergraduates on the campuses of Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand could not attend classes in post-1789 European history without confronting Taylor's achievements head-on. Today, students in these same lands can become post1789 European history majors--can even achieve doctorates in the field--without noticing the smallest indication that Taylor existed. It should, moreover, be stressed that Taylor's American readership was always comparatively small, though he did score a long New York Times obit on September 8, 1990. The temptation is, therefore, to dismiss Taylor as of purely local interest.

That temptation must be resisted, on two grounds. First, Taylor found himself caught up in geopolitical struggles that curbed his Little Englander cussedness. Periodically he drew from these struggles fallacious conclusions; periodically he drew correct conclusions for fallacious reasons; but he stayed sufficiently engage--in the best sense of that ambiguous adjective--to ensure that even at his worst he warranted public attention. The second reason for taking Taylor seriously (not solemnly, nor literally) is that he wrote remarkably well.

Not for the first time, Evelyn Waugh had it right: "We remember the false judgments of Voltaire and Gibbon and Lytton Strachey long after they have been corrected, because of their sharp, polished form and because of the sensual pleasure of dwelling on them." A man who writes nonsense that he can verbalize as memorable nonsense will forever retain at least artistic interest. Obvious risks attach themselves to assessing any historian by the yardstick of how many column-inches in the quotations dictionaries he occupies. Still, Taylor's tally in this sphere is impressive.

Some quips, at random, from Taylor the gadfly:

"Human blunders usually do more to shape history than human wickedness."

"Like most of those who study history, he [Napoleon III] learned from the mistakes of the past how to make new ones."

"Nothing is inevitable until it happens."

After Prime Minister Anthony Eden had just issued a self-exculpating memoir called Facing the Dictators: "Eden did not face the dictators; he pulled faces at them."

"In other countries dynasties are episodes in the history of the people; in the Habsburg Empire peoples are complications in the history of the dynasty."

If we discovered these maxims with no clue regarding their origin, we might well assume their creator to have been unduly fond of after-dinner speechmaking and hostile to doing the hard scholastic yards. …

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