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Return of the Narrative

In Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis’s novel of the frustrations of life in a provincial university, the title character, Jim Dixon, strives to complete what he hopes will be a career-defining article: ‘The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485’. Amis has fun with its ‘funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems’, symptomatic of the humanities’ embrace of the hermetic. And so it may have seemed in 1954. But as Jo Guldi and David Armitage observe in their passionate new polemic, The History Manifesto (Cambridge University Press), just a decade or so later ‘a conscientious supervisor might have discouraged an essay on such an absurdly ambitious and wide-ranging theme’. Ever greater ‘focus’ – a ‘disappointing word’ according to the authors – became central to university training, with a calamitous effect on the historical profession’s engagement with the public.

Guldi, a young scholar based at Brown University, and the Harvard-based British historian Armitage blame such reductionist self-indulgence on the short-termism endemic in Western societies, with their permanent election campaigns and quarterly business cycles. More specifically, they point the finger at the ‘inward turn’ taken by academic historians around forty years ago.

Although it has been the task of historians since Herodotus to tell ‘arching stories of scale’, they stopped doing so, at least in the academy, and were instructed instead to get their hands dirty in the archives and embrace the obscure, the marginal and the specialised. The mastery of ‘discrete’ archives was fused with soixantehuitard political protest and the growth of identity politics. As Geoff Eley has admitted, his generation of historians broke with what Guldi and Armitage call the ‘corrupted organs of international rule’, which had placed great value on the long view. The result, in a rapidly expanding academy, was ever more PhDs on ever more esoteric themes. In the United States the number of completed doctorates rose from 8,611 in 1957 to 33,755 in 1973. To stand out one needed to be increasingly ‘focused’. In 1900 the average period covered in a PhD was about seventy-five years; by 1975 it was around thirty. The micro-history developed on the Continent and mastered by the likes of Carlo Ginzburg had a temporal scope that was lost when transposed to the Anglophone world, where obscurity became the hallmark of quality, a conviction reinforced by such influential guides as Florence N McCoy’s 1974 US textbook for young historians, Researching and Writing in History, which urged them to emulate the specialisation of a society run by experts.

Such distancing from the public, a profoundly undemocratic act despite (or perhaps because of ) its roots in the Left, denied the history of history. Thucydides makes it clear in the opening to his account of the Peloponnesian War that history should prove useful and that it should be possible to draw lessons from the story he tells. Roman historians, though less idealistic, still thought of their discipline as a magistra vitae. History, according to J R Seeley, was a ‘school of statesmanship’ (an encouraging recent development is the number of British politicians publishing histories – Daniel Hannan, Jesse Norman, Tristram Hunt, Kwasi Kwarteng, among others). Yet only military history, literally a matter of life and death, remained wholly committed to a long-term view. The task of writing historical syntheses in other fields and for a wider public was neglected; it is notable how many of today’s best (and bestselling) historians – Michael Burleigh, Judith Flanders, Amanda Foreman, Tom Holland and many others – operate outside the desiccated towers of academia.

Things are changing. New fields, born of frustration with froth, have arisen and are thriving: cosmological ‘Big History’, strong in Australasia, seeks to take accounts of the past back to the Big Bang; ‘Deep History’, pioneered by Harvard professor Daniel Lord Smail, uses the language of genetics to push back the boundaries that divide history from prehistory; histories of the Anthropocene examine the relationship between humans and climate change in the two centuries or so since the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps the benchmark for large-scale history is Geoffrey Parker’s masterly Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, published in 2013. Such ambitious projects are as far removed from the navelgazing of micro-history as one can get and, as the historian James Vernon has said, can help ‘reestablish an understanding of the public utility of our work’. This, at least to Guldi and Armitage, will pave the way for a history ‘no longer left to experts … where remaking the future is once again something within the purview of anyone who can read and talk about stories of the past’.

Perhaps Guldi and Armitage are too pessimistic about history’s current public profile. They say it has been some time since a historian wrote a regular column for a national newspaper (what about Niall Ferguson in The Independent, Timothy Garton Ash in The Guardian and Ben Macintyre in The Times?), but they should give more credit to the generous public engagement of historians such as Simon Schama, Mary Beard and Gary Sheffield, whose embrace of Twitter and other social media they must surely approve of (not least because Guldi and Armitage are similarly engaged).

Theirs is an ‘engaged’ history. Amid the occasional earnestness one does sometimes pine, like Lord Acton, for history for history’s sake, ‘all but purposeless … to be pursued with chastity, like mathematics’. But, mirroring Schama’s call to ‘keep people awake at night’, Guldi and Armitage’s belief in ‘good, honest history that would shake citizens, policy-makers, and the powerful out of their complacency’ is a noble one, with which few are likely to take issue.

After all, their demand for ‘new narratives capable of being read, understood, and engaged by non-experts’, using digital technology, fusing the micro and the macro and harnessing the ‘best of archival work’, is hardly controversial. That such an argument has to be made at all is indicative of the state academic history has been in over the past four decades, a crisis from which we are only now beginning to emerge. Their concise, impassioned and readable study is a valuable part of that process. r o c t o b e r 2 0 1 4 | Literary Review 1

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