History, Historians, and Autobiography.
What is the relationship between history and autobiography? Autobiography is, of course, evidence that historians use in attempting to reconstruct the past, even if it is evidence that often has to be treated with a great deal of skepticism. The sad case of Binjamin Wilkomirski, who either fabricated or imagined his childhood as a victim of the Nazis, would seem to illustrate how fraught a subject autobiography can be and how complicated the issues are for historians who use autobiography in their source materials. So what happens when historians write autobiographies? What do they tell us about their practice as individual historians or about history as a profession? If historians are so competent at dealing with the past might they not write more accurate and better autobiographies than other life writers? In essence, what significance or meaning can we attribute to such writing? These are the central questions of Jeremy Popkin's painstaking and thorough study.
Popkin tells a personal story to chart his own inspiration for this book. Browsing through the books in a bookshop in a small German town, his eye was caught by a German translation of a volume of autobiographical essays by several prominent French historians. He realized that he had never read the autobiographies of any of his contemporaries and had only the models of Edward Gibbon and Henry Adams as ideals. Their reflections on their calling and craft were a long way from the catalogue of minor triumphs, frustrations at the impositions on talented individuals of an impersonal university bureaucracy, and slights to colleagues and students that make up most academics' autobiographical conversation of everyday life. If there is a productive and meaningful relationship between autobiography and history, then it ought to be explored, and so Popkin decided to pursue research removed from his normal professional calling of post-1750 France and write the study.
History, Historians, & Autobiography is based on the extensive reading of as many historians' autobiographies as the author could find, all usefully listed in the bibliography. Some are by major historians of national and international importance, such as A. J. P. Taylor, who was the most well-known historian in Britain through his television appearances in the 1960s and 1970s, and came to define the public image of the profession; Philippe Aries, the great French historian of death, who revealed himself to be "an unapologetic member of the quasi-fascist Action francaise" (201); and Felix Gilbert, a German-Jewish refugee from Europe. Many will be less well known even to other working historians. The book consists of nine chapters. The first two lay the foundations for the study, examining the relationship between history, autobiography, and narrative theory. Popkin wrestles in particular with literary and philosophical studies of narrative theory, especially those of Hayden White, who makes the strong claim that factual writing is always inherently fictional and that it is almost impossible to choose between the varieties of storytelling. Popkin is, unsurprisingly, keen to refute such claims and finds more value in the work of Paul Ricoeur, who distinguishes between the fictive and the factual in his typology of narrative forms. Popkin is keen to move a stage further and argue that autobiography belongs to neither category but is a separate type of writing, neither "just the writing of history on a small scale," nor "the realm of fiction" (56).
Chapter 3 provides a survey of historians writing autobiographies. Popkin often has a deft touch and a nice line in irony. He points out that "association with the history department at Harvard has been a frequent prelude to published life writing" (82), as if careers should be read that way round. Sadly, however, his study reveals that "there have not yet been any bidding wars among publishers for the rights to a historian's memoir" (83). We also learn that historians are often rather more bold about describing their first sexual experiences than they should be, as if such information enables readers to relate to their lives, but then say little about sex later on as it is not assumed to be relevant. This is a serious point about life writing in general which could have been rather more carefully developed.
Chapter 4 analyzes the autobiographies of Gibbon and Adams as models of the genre, which "helped to secularise life writing and contributed to its elevation to the level of great literature" (118). Chapters 5 and 6 examine the personal lives of historians as represented in their autobiographies. Chapter 5 analyzes the accounts of why historians chose the career they did and comes to the rather unsurprising conclusion that "the overwhelming majority of historians' autobiographies are stories about children whose families gave them the luxury of an extended period of development while teaching them to anticipate that they would and should eventually find a well-defined career that would give meaning to their life" (121). The more serious point is that historians often see themselves as "products of their backgrounds" (149), rather than special individuals, as most people who write an autobiography do. Chapter 6 examines the careers of historians. Taylor emerges as the most outspoken and unpleasant character in this rogues' gallery, spitefully pointing out every time a rival who slighted him experienced a reversal of fortune and delivering a number of characteristic boasts: '"I have become a much more distinguished historian than ... the boys who got scholarships at Balliol when I got none"' (157). Rather more touching is the sad revelation that Monroe Billington, a historian of the American West, found it difficult to recover from the humiliation of being forced to stand down as Head of Department by his colleagues at New Mexico State University. Overall, historians tend to place greater emphasis on their achievements than their failures, and Popkin judges that turning one's life story as a historian into a "meaningful narrative" is difficult. It is all too easy to appear "smug about one's accomplishments, bitter about one's frustrations, jealous of the rewards reaped by others, or disloyal to one's discipline" (183), or just plain dull.
Chapter 7 examines historians' experiences in terms of the events they lived through and concludes that many were relatively indifferent to what they witnessed, arguing that the study of history demands a withdrawal from the world in order to comment objectively on it. Partisan involvement was often a useful learning experience which helped shape their careers, but had to be abandoned when their serious work began. There are, of course, exceptions, such as the eminent historian of Russia, Richard Pipes, who was seconded from Harvard for a time to become one of Ronald Reagan's advisers on Soviet Russia's military capability.
Chapter 8 looks at a series of Holocaust memoirs, and is perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book as it raises the key question of how much the experience of the historian in question matters and whether only those who were there actually really know what went on or whether traumatic events distort the supposedly objective stance of the historian. One central problem, as Popkin acknowledges, is that the historians who survived to write about their experiences were in no sense representative of the Jews who were persecuted by Adolf Hitler. Many were from wealthy, relatively assimilated German, Austrian, and French families, who had a chance of escape, whereas the majority of Jews who perished were easily identifiable and of Eastern European origin. The accounts of historians that do survive are often less a means of recording history than reevaluating a life now put into question. Perhaps their real significance lies not as a challenge to conventional history and its techniques but rather in exploring the limits of history's meaning.
The final chapter explores the relationship between the careers of the historians in question and their narratives of their personal lives. The most interesting sections examine the ways in which feminist historians, such as Carolyn Steedman, and transgender historians, such as the economic historian Deidre McCloskey, make sense of their lives and careers. Steedman writes interestingly about her relationship with her mother, who, in some ways, resented her daughter having the career she could never have, and her autobiography stands as a fascinating portrait of communities of women and their complex interactions. McCloskey's career is much more iconoclastic, and she had to suffer the indignity of being hauled from the podium by the police when she was addressing a scholarly audience at a conference. I am afraid I am one of those "many male academics" who will be unable to "digest the most explicit passages" on "penis-removal surgery" (274). The conclusion reiterates certain key points and argues that the central claims of History, Historians, & Autobiography are that historians' autobiographies are interesting because they point out the "importance of historical context in the narration of life stories" (282) and remind us that "autobiography is as close to history writing as it is to fiction" (281).
History, Historians, & Autobiography contributes much to scholarly debate and is often a fascinating and well-written book. I do have a number of problems with it as an academic work, however. I am not sure that it really wrestles carefully and rigorously enough with the problems of defining autobiography as a form of writing, nor with the relationship between the autobiography of the historian as a source of information about history writing and the same material as a piece of evidence about the careers and lives of historians. The two are not the same and they require subtle and scrupulous analysis to prise them apart. If they are left mixed together, then the result can be somewhat messy as an analysis of a serious historiographical subject becomes a series of gossipy anecdotes. It seems axiomatic to me that a chapter on the Holocaust and its significance for history/life writing does not really belong alongside a chapter on the childhood of historians and what made them write history. One tries to explain what history is and what its limits are; the other is about what made people follow a particular career.
There is also something rather unhistorical about History, Historians, & Autobiography. The lives in question are not contextualized or read historically. This means that we have a chapter on Gibbon and Adams as models for historians' life writing that seems to have little real intellectual purchase in the rest of the book, so that it exists in something of a vacuum. Later chapters do not refer back to this chapter in any great detail, and it is not clear that Gibbon and Adams do really serve as models for the miscellaneous collection of narratives, from the grand and profound to the myopic and self-obsessed, that follow. I am also not sure what it might have meant to write a life in the late-Victorian period or the early part of the twentieth century, and in the last ten years. Were lives always the same? Should we allow for changes? If so, when? This seems to me to be a crucial historical question and one to which I expected this book to provide some sort of an answer. Instead the lives represented are all assumed to exist in the same time continuum and to have equivalent value, interest, and status, which does strike me as problematic.
In the final analysis, I felt that this was a research project that proved rather less interesting to its author than it might have done. The resulting book has many virtues, but it does too many different things which are not thought through or brought together. It is part theory--but this analysis has little bearing on much of the discussion that follows; part about history writing; part analysis of the profession; and part gossip. The resulting product resembles an autobiography in its miscellaneous nature, especially as the author is a patient and charming guide, I would suspect much nicer than many of the people he writes about. But it does not really tell readers quite enough about autobiography, history, and truth.
University of Sussex
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2006|
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