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What is History Now?

What Is History Now? Edited by David Cannadine (Basingstoke and New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. xiv plus 172pp. [pounds sterling]19.99stg.).

What is History Now? emerged from a two day symposium in November 2001 at the Institute of Historical Studies, in London, to mark the fortieth anniversary of E.H. Carr's "seminal-cum-perennial" What is History? The greater part of the book comprises essays on the current condition of some of the compartments in Clio's mansion--social history (by Paul Cartledge Paul Cartledge is a Professor of Greek History at Cambridge University, and a fellow of Clare College. A world expert on Athens and Sparta in the Classical Age, he has been described as a Laconophile. ), political history (Susan Pedersen Susan Pedersen may refer to:
  • Susan Pedersen, a historian at Columbia University
  • Susan Pedersen, an American Olympic silver medalist in swimming
), religious history (Olwen Hufton Professor Dame Olwen Hufton, DBE, B.A., Ph.D., FBA, F.R.Hist.S. (b. 1938) is one of the foremost historians of early modern Europe and a pioneer of social history and of women's history. ), cultural history (Miri Ruben), gender history (Alice Kessler-Harris Alice Kessler-Harris is the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History at Columbia University, in New York City. She specializes in the history of American labor and the comparative and interdisciplinary exploration of women and gender.

Kessler-Harris received her B.A.
) intellectual history (Annabel Brett) and imperial history (Linda Colley Linda Colley (born 1949) is a British historian, widely known for her 1992 study Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, which explored the development of a British national identity following the 1707 Acts of Union. She is currently Shelby M. C. ). While a short review cannot give each chapter individual attention, it can be broadly stated that some contributors expound ex·pound  
v. ex·pound·ed, ex·pound·ing, ex·pounds
1. To give a detailed statement of; set forth: expounded the intricacies of the new tax law.

 on the state of the art (eg. political history), others plea for new approaches (eg. imperial history), and others again make universalizing claims (eg. gender history--and one wonders why its practitioners feel constantly obliged to resort to the exhortionary mode). While the resulting publication makes no claim to being a successor to Carr, its editor clearly intends it as more than just another collection of chapters on the conventional sub-divisions of the historical discipline. David Cannadine's stated aims are threefold: "to celebrate and re-evaluate Carr's original publication"; to account for the diversification of the practice of history in the last forty years; "and to create a volume which might reach the sort of broad public audience for whom history rightly remains (as it should, and as it must) an essential element in educated citizenry, public culture and national life" (p.vii). To varying degrees these objectives are realised.

Carr and his works were not universally admired. In life and death he has aroused some hostile denunciation DENUNCIATION, crim. law. This term is used by the civilians to signify the act by which au individual informs a public officer, whose duty it is to prosecute offenders, that a crime has been committed. It differs from a complaint. (q.v.) Vide 1 Bro. C. L. 447; 2 Id. 389; Ayl. Parer. , for example Arthur Marwick's tirade in the Times Literary Supplement (November 16, 1984). Richard J. Evans's contextualizing prologue "What is History?--Now" makes the case that Carr's canonical text justifiably remains both a referent and a touchstone. Evans's discussion of some of the changes to the historical profession in the intervening years is superb in itself, and it provides much of the glue that holds the subsequent chapters more or less together. Something that Evans might have taken up explicitly is the question raised by Carr's biographer, Jonathan Haslam, that Carr may not have been serious in What is History?--in the sense that his views on relativism in history-writing were at odds with the objective determinism that typified the history that he wrote himself. (1) Evans concedes that Carr never resolved the contradictory strands in his thinking and practice (pp. 15-16)--and indeed there is an irresolvable ir·re·solv·a·ble  
1. Irresoluble.

2. Impossible to separate into component parts; irreducible.
 tension between the quest for Verb 1. quest for - go in search of or hunt for; "pursue a hobby"
quest after, go after, pursue

look for, search, seek - try to locate or discover, or try to establish the existence of; "The police are searching for clues"; "They are searching for the
 objectivism objectivism (b·jekˑ·ti·vizˑ·  and a recognition that the historian is a social phenomenon. Whether or not Carr was "serious" remains unanswered; although one may feel that this is a question that Haslam, having raised it in the first place, should have answered himself.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's epilogue "What is History Now?" is also firmly based around Carr. The other contributors attempt the same with mixed results, and at times the effect is a bit strained. There is the suspicion in some cases that Carr would not have rated a mention had the essay in question been a discrete journal article. But not always. Linda Colley neatly rounds off her chapter--a timely plea that imperial historians became more comparative in their approaches--with the observation that Carr denounced the parochialism of British historiography. Yet the chapter on religious history displays this very insularity; it confines itself to Western Europe Western Europe

The countries of western Europe, especially those that are allied with the United States and Canada in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (established 1949 and usually known as NATO).
 and has nothing to say about overseas missionary activity, or about E.H. Carr for that matter.

More indirectly than directly, more negatively than positively, What Is History Now? demonstrates new developments in, and diversification of, the historical discipline since Carr left off. In his editor's preface, Cannadine is not altogether upbeat about some of these developments, pointing out that the exponential growth Extremely fast growth. On a chart, the line curves up rather than being straight. Contrast with linear.  of historical writing means that practitioners can barely keep abreast Verb 1. keep abreast - keep informed; "He kept up on his country's foreign policies"
keep up, follow

trace, follow - follow, discover, or ascertain the course of development of something; "We must follow closely the economic development is Cuba" ; "trace the
 of the literature in their own field, let alone others. The rise of so many subspecialisms, moreover, has tended to produce often mutually hostile in-groups unable and unwilling to relate to each other. And too much of what passes these days for historical scholarship has little literary merit Literary merit is a quality of written work, generally applied to the genre of literary fiction. A work is said to have literary merit (to be a work of art) if it is a work of quality, that is if it has some aesthetic value.  and even less appeal to a lay readership.

It is not unfair to suggest that some of these strictures can be applied to What Is History Now? The very diversification that it illustrates lends support to the lament, famously expressed by Peter Novick Peter Novick is an American historian, best known for writing and The Holocaust in American Life.  in 1988, that the historical discipline has lost its cohesion--"as a broad community of discourse, as a community of scholars Noun 1. community of scholars - the body of individuals holding advanced academic degrees
profession - the body of people in a learned occupation; "the news spread rapidly through the medical profession"; "they formed a community of scientists"
 united by common aims, common standards and common purposes, the discipline of history has ceased to exist," (2)--while the standards of readability of the individual chapters are variable. Evans and Colley write with clarity but the chapters on cultural history and intellectual history will simply not engage the public readership which the book avowedly purports to embrace. Take this sentence, for example: "One way of avoiding these residual but fundamental problems of the relation between discursive and non-discursive realms--between text and context, between words and actions--has been to extend to the domain of textuality Textuality is a concept in linguistics and literary theory that refers to the attributes that distinguish the text (a technical term indicating any communicative content under analysis) as an object of study in those fields.  beyond what have traditionally been regarded as as 'texts' to cover all forms of cultural activity." (p. 124) It is difficult to imagine that, a la Macaulay, its author would have been given a vote of thanks "for having written a history that working men can understand."

Is it a case that no idea, however difficult, cannot with sufficient effort be clearly expressed? Or is it more the case that some subjects require a specialized vocabulary and other modes of expression that distance the uninitiated reader? Or should one join A.E. Freeman in half wishing that history had a specialized language, "just to frighten away fools?" (3) These are old questions, and ones not helpfully addressed in the book. Fernandez-Armesto maintains that "[h]istory is the most open and accessible of academic disciplines. Everybody can do it ... It requires no special training, except in modest skills which anyone can easily and quickly pick up without help." (p. 152) Excuse me, but this is nonsense. Any attempt to write decent history with that sort of grounding will not survive the experience--and in any case Fernandez-Armesto contradicts himself on the following page with the assertion that today's historians need to be scientifically educated. What is becoming increasingly evident is that a culture of reading is on the wane and history is now entering the public arena more through the medium of film than of print. Evans (pp.10-12) and Fernandez-Armesto (pp.158-60) usefully discuss some of the issues and one regrets the lack of a separate chapter on the subject in a book that is explicitly concerned with history now.

Two cheers for What Is History Now?. While the quality of the individual chapters is uniformly high, as one would expect from the ensemble of heavies that Cannadine brought together, the book itself does not impart much of an overall impression. Perhaps it attempted too much, or else the three stated objectives were not always compatible. I am generally hesitant to say that a given book should have been something else or been done another way, but in the present case I cannot avoid the feeling that the same territory would have been better covered in a single-authored volume than by way of an edited collection. And who better to do it than Cannadine himself, whose breadth of interest and range of competencies, not to mention his accessible and engaging prose style, mark him out as the obvious candidate?


1. Jonathan Haslam, The Vices of Integrity: E.H. Carr, 1892-1982 (London, 1999), 192.

2. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity" Question and the American Historical Profession (Chicago, 1988), 628.

3. Llewellyn Woodward, "The Rise of the English Historical Profession," in K. Bourne Bourne, town (1990 pop. 16,064), Barnstable co., SE Mass., crossed by Cape Cod Canal; settled 1627, inc. 1884. Bourne Bridge (1935), across the canal, made the town an entry point to Cape Cod and a resort and commercial center.  and D.C. Watt (eds), Studies in International History (London, 1967), 33.

Doug Munro

Victoria University of Wellington
This page is about a New Zealand university. For other universities with 'Victoria' in their name, see Victoria University (disambiguation).

Victoria University of Wellington, also known in Māori as
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Munro, Doug
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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