Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Feelings, Nothing More than Feelings

Randall Stephens

In "C (for Crisis)" (London Review of Books, 6 Aug 2009) Eric Hobsbawm looks at a significant shift in historical studies. "There is a major difference," he observes "between the traditional scholar’s questions about the past–‘What happened in history, when and why?’–and the question that has, in the last 40 years or so, come to inspire a growing body of historical research: namely, ‘How do or did people feel about it?’"

Hobsbawm uses Richard Overy's The Morbid Age: Britain between the Wars to pose some questions about the change in focus: "Though this type of research is fascinating, especially when done with Overy’s inquisitiveness and surprised erudition, it presents the historian with considerable problems. What does it mean to describe an emotion as characteristic of a country or era; what is the significance of a socially widespread emotion, even one plainly related to dramatic historical events? How and how far do we measure its prevalence?"

I hadn't thought of things in these terms. But, on reflection, this change in emphasis to a national emotional experience does seem to be a major trend. Take, for example, the relatively new research on the 1960s and 1970s. Much of it, not surprisingly, focuses on the political and emotional turmoil of those two decades. Three books in particular, all sophisticated works of history, fit that pattern: Philip Jenkins, Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America (2006); Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008); Andreas Killen, 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America (2006). (I used the latter in my modern America course and it worked very well.)

Hobsbawm gives good background on the development of the "how-did-people-feel?" genre. "The pioneer, he says is, "Jean Delumeau’s history of fear in Western Europe from the 14th to the early 18th century, La Peur en Occident (1978), describes and analyses a civilisation ‘ill at ease’ within ‘a landscape of fear’ peopled by ‘morbid fantasies’, dangers and eschatological fears." In the end, Hobsbawm criticizes Overy's The Morbid Age for not doing what it set out to do. "Overy’s book, however acute in observation, innovative and monumental in its exploration of archives, demonstrates the necessary oversimplifications of a history built around feelings. Looking for a central ‘mood’ as the keynote of an era does not get us closer to reconstructing the past than ‘national character’ or ‘Christian/Islamic/Confucian values.'"

Hobsbawm's review made me wonder about other books that might fit into the genre. And it made me question the strengths and weaknesses of tracking national "feelings" or "moods."


Michael E. Woods said...

With all due respect to Eric Hobsbawm -- and that means a great deal of respect! -- I see the difference between "what happened and why" and "how people felt about it" as being much less distinct than his essay suggests. The most provocative and interesting studies of "how people felt" approach feelings not merely as effects of historical change, but also as causes. Historians have always known on some level that feelings do influence behavior, but what is different now is that scholars are beginning to address feelings in a systematic and explicit way. Historians such as Peter Stearns have been prodding us to do this for years. If we view emotions as byproducts of historical phenomena, they aren't very interesting, but if we afford them a more influential role in shaping historical change, they begin to appear much more important. This type of history is tricky to do, but are emotions necessarily that much harder to nail down than, say, political ideologies or religious beliefs?

Randall said...

Good point. I like the question you pose: "are emotions necessarily that much harder to nail down than, say, political ideologies or religious beliefs?" I think when it comes to a national emotional mood, it is tricky.