Thursday, August 18, 2011

Eric Hobsbawm and History in the States and Over the Water

Randall Stephens

I've been reading Tony Judt's collection of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. One chapter in particular, "Eric Hobsbawm and the Romance of Communism," struck me. (That piece originally appeared in the New York Review of Books in 2003.)

Judt covers Hobsbawm's incredibly long, productive career:

At the age of eighty-six, Eric Hobsbawm is the best-known historian in the world. His most recent book, The Age of Extremes, was translated into dozens of languages, from Chinese to Czech. His memoirs, first published last year, were a best seller in New Delhi; in parts of South America—Brazil especially—he is a cultural folk hero. His fame is well deserved. He controls vast continents of information with confident ease—his Cambridge college supervisor, after telling me once that Eric Hobsbawm was the cleverest undergraduate he had ever taught, added: “Of course, you couldn’t say I taught him—he was unteachable. Eric already knew everything.”

It all got me thinking about the influence of historians on the continent, the UK, and this side of the Atlantic. I do recall reading Hobsbawm in graduate school, but, I believe, only in a seminar on Modern Europe. Does that towering historian--born in 1917 and still kicking--still rank as one of the most influential historians in the United States? Does his work on 19th-century history, social banditry, and liberal capitalism still drive historical debates?

Judt's essay also made me wonder about the canon of history books in the US and in Europe. What are the key differences in method, style, and interests in the Old and New Worlds? What have been the most critical 10 works of history published since 1970 in the states and in Europe? Have American historians and their European counterparts reflected on the differences that still shape the field?

1 comment:

mmbennetts said...

I can't speak for the US, I haven't lived there in twenty years, although I have reviewed books (originally published in the UK) which were being published there. However, I have to say that here in the UK, the whole approach to history has changed dramatically over the past forty years and whereas previously a history was probably the result of reading everyone else's books and research on a subject and then synthesising it and interpreting it for oneself, more or less, today there is an emphasis on returning to the original sources, the original artefacts and reconstructing--even when it sinks one's most favourite theories--the events.

A prime example of this is Adam Zamoyski's "1812", which reexamines Napoleon's fatal march on Russia in light of the Polish and Russian sources, most of which have been unavailable to Western historians since 1918 or so. What Zamoyski found was a tale which contradicted that told by Napoleon in the Bulletin of 16 December 1812 and subsequently embroidered by him in his memoirs. According to German, Polish and Russian accounts of the time, the entire army did not perish during the retreat from Moscow; over half the army had died of dehydration, dysentary and/or starvation before they ever crossed the River Nieman into Russia. And that's only for starters.

Equally, the increasing use of forensic science to examine the bones found in mass graves--whether from a Tudor battlefield or a Napoleonic grave outside Vilnius is radically altering our understanding of what really happened as opposed to what the winners would like us to believe happened.

Another prime example though of the re-examination of sources is Judith Herrin's "Byzantium", which throws out the entire justification for the Crusades as being papal disinformation and a cover-up.

So, lots going on over here in terms of history.

The findings of the Inshore Squadron about Trafalgar are another of the sources first method. David Starkey's "Six Wives" is another...and he's very big and very popular over here--and probably should be credited with the huge rise in interest about the Tudors.

Also, there are the Horrible Histories for children--that's massive over here. And on telly too. So history is more hands on and, er, smelly.

But for someone whose historic reach is as wide as Hobsbawm's I think you'd have to look at Norman Davies. Probably "Europe".