John Burrow's A History of Histories.

Reading between the lines.
April 14 2008 7:29 AM

The Mirror of History

What hinders historians from discovering the strangeness of the past?

John Burrow's A History of Histories.

Given how fiercely cultural conservatives defend the importance of a single "Western canon," it is more than a little ironic that different parts of the West have such different versions of it. True, the canon everywhere tends to start with the same Greeks and Romans, but thereafter, things get trickier. Consider, for instance, what competing accounts of "Western" philosophy and literature say about the 19th century. Where the French highlight Auguste Comte and Victor Hugo, the British give pride of place to John Stuart Mill and Charles Dickens, while Germans speak of the age of Hegel and Goethe. The multinational canon that dominates survey courses at universities like Columbia and the University of Chicago is actually a peculiarly American phenomenon.

When it comes to canonical works of history writing, national differences are all the more striking. Before the 18th century, nearly all historians wrote exclusively about their own countries, and in most of the world, most of them still do (America, with its immigrant heritage and global reach, is again an exception to the nationalist rule). So not surprisingly, when looking back on the "history of history," German historians loom largest for the Germans, French ones for the French, and so on.

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In his whimsically titled A History of Histories, British historian John Burrow seems at first to avoid this tendency. He offers the book as a survey of history writing in general, or at least the part of it that falls into the "European cultural tradition." He starts with Herodotus, dwells lovingly on Thucydides and the Romans, and only gets to his first British subject (a sixth-century monk named Gildas) on Page 175. In his sections on the 19th century, he gives ample space to the German school and an entire chapter to the United States. Yet in the end, the book still shows just how hard it is to think about history outside a particular national framework.

For one thing, Burrow's gestures toward the world beyond Dover go only so far. His chapter on the Enlightenment looks almost exclusively at British historians, despite the significance of continental contemporaries like Voltaire. Moving on to the 19th century, the book has almost as much on the eccentric if brilliant Thomas Carlyle as on Jules Michelet, Leopold von Ranke, and Jacob Burckhardt—three giants of historical scholarship—combined. Burrow gives extensive treatment to Victorian medievalist William Stubbs, a hero mostly to his own countrymen, while barely mentioning France's Marc Bloch, perhaps the most admired medievalist of modern times. Taken individually, any of these decisions are defensible. Put together, they emit a strong whiff of "Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off."

More broadly, the themes that Burrow sees as central to his story are often peculiarly British ones. The British are not the only people to have seen history as the "story of freedom," but they are the ones who have most closely identified this story with the progress of parliamentary institutions. Burrow gives a chapter and a half to parliament-centric "Whig History," while disposing in a brisk seven pages of France's influential "Annales school" (co-founded by Bloch), which sought to place social history at the heart of the discipline.

Burrow's perspective is not just British, but a very old-fashioned sort of British. In his account, women do not have much of a place in history, either as its writers or its subjects. He gives no more than a few lines to any female historian, and dismisses all of gender history in (literally) two words. Nonwhites get similarly egregious neglect, as does the whole vast subject of the history of slavery, race relations, and genocide. (Jewish history, meanwhile, seems to end with Josephus.) You don't have to worship at the shrine of political correctness to look aghast at this shrinking of the "European cultural tradition" to stories of white men told by the same. At the conclusion of his book, Burrow hails the men he has written about, in Burkean tones, as "a kind of community of the dead and the living." In his pages, it often looks more like a kind of exclusive British club.

This narrowness is a pity, because within its bounds, Burrow has written a lucid, enjoyable survey that achieves miracles of concise summary. He is particularly good on the ancients, whom he plausibly credits with inventing most of the worthwhile elements of the historian's art, beginning with rigorous standards for weighing the reliability of evidence and for determining cause and effect. He also points out that despite writing mostly about wars fought by their own societies, ancient historians had a sustained interest in the diversity of human customs and beliefs that anticipates the ethnographic turn taken by modern social history. Here, Burrow's arguments are provocative and acute.

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