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What is History Now?

What Is History Now? Edited by David Cannadine (Basingstoke and New York: 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), political history (Susan Pedersen), religious history (Olwen Hufton), cultural history (Miri Ruben), gender history (Alice Kessler-Harris) intellectual history (Annabel Brett) and imperial history (Linda Colley). While a short review cannot give each chapter individual attention, it can be broadly stated that some contributors expound 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, 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 tension between the quest for objectivism 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 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 of historical writing means that practitioners can barely keep abreast 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 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 in 1988, that the historical discipline has lost its cohesion--"as a broad community of discourse, as a community of scholars 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 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 and D.C. Watt (eds), Studies in International History (London, 1967), 33.

Doug Munro

Victoria University of Wellington
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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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