The Writing Of History

PrintPrintEmailEmail

There remains a very important institutional difference between the position of history (and so the writing of history) in England and America. Fewer boys and girls, many fewer, go to high school in England than in America, though that is less true than it was. Fewer, very many fewer, go to college in England than in America and that is not really changing. And both in school and college there is more concentration on one field of study, so that although the “history specialists” in an English school or the history honors candidates in an English university will concentrate on history much more than in American schools and colleges, the other students may, for all practical purposes, do no history at all.

This means, in turn, that fewer textbooks are produced, there is a much smaller market, and such as are produced are designed for this semi-specialist market. That in turn means that the general English public, whose appetite for history is real and growing, is more commonly served by amateurs than is the case in America. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Think of the historical writings of that gifted amateur, Sir Winston Churchill! But it affects the supply of historical writing because it affects the effective demand.

How does it affect the quality? In general there are fewer neglected areas of American history, local or national, than one can sometimes find in English historiography. The necessities of the Ph.D. (so often, and so often rightly, deplored) insure that few subjects will be left unturned—to mix a metaphor. True, the result often recalls the Oxford parody on Nebuchadnezzar:

Sighed as he chewed the unaccustomed food, It may be wholesome but it is not good.

But even the grittiest thesis which does throw light on some hitherto neglected area, era or person, is valuable.

Although, as I have insisted, American history is the staple of American historiography, there is certainly more scholarly writing, at an advanced level, in America on “foreign” themes than in England. Partly this is due to the simple fact that there are many more trained historians. Partly it is due to the fact that American universities attract more specialists from other countries than the handful of English universities can afford to do. Partly it is due to the presence in the American population of all European ethnic groups which may, and often do, produce students of the ancestral land. But again, it is not only a question of numbers or origins. “Foreign” history in England is both more and less foreign than in America.

The character of the English polity, the growth of the British Empire, force the English historian to pay some attention to the outside world. He cannot understand the origins of Parliament without understanding feudalism in general and French feudalism in particular. Joan of Arc in one way and Napoleon in another are more “part” of English history than any foreigner is of American. English armies have burned Pékin and Washington, taken Manila and Havana, failed to take New Orleans and Buenos Aires, exported institutions, cotton goods, settlers to all regions of the globe. So, in one sense, an English historian cannot be parochial; in another, he is tempted to be very parochial indeed. He has to know more of the outside world than an American historian did until very recently. He may know it from an oddly English angle. (Thus a very distinguished scholar indeed, in a life of Napoleon, gave more space to the Battle of the Nile, at which Bonaparte was not present, than to the Battle of MontThabor where he was.) And perhaps as the Empire dwindles, as the sense of power diminishes, this parochialism will dwindle too. But the English will still queue up to see a Roman temple, and the Americans will still see history instrumentally, as something being made under your eyes, as a tool and not as mere around for reflections on the vanity of human wishes.