The eccentric historian who changed British postwar culture.
The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
Historical research to this day remains unorganized, and the historian is expected to make his own instruments or do without them; and so with wooden ploughs we continue to draw lonely furrows, most successfully when we strike sand.
—Lewis Namier, Crossroads of Power
During what he called the Nazi era, and in its thoughtful aftermath, Lewis Namier (1888–1960) was a figure of immense prestige in British academic and intellectual life, to the point that many of his fellow historians were able to call their country civilized simply because it had given him refuge: They didn't have to like him. Born Lewis Bernstein in Poland, of Russian heritage, he was a Jewish refugee in search of a homeland. To his adopted country, Britain, he devoted microscopic attention. The mark of his historical method was to study the written records of Britain's representative institutions right down to the level of the names on the electoral lists, an approach which yielded a body of meticulous factual material that tended to overwhelm the conclusions he drew from it, thus making his major books hard to enjoy now. His journalism, on the other hand, was, and remains, a model for acerbic style and pointed argument.
Namier's knighthood makes him sound like an establishment figure, but his professorship at Manchester between 1931 and 1953 tells the truth about how the Oxbridge mandarinate preferred to keep him at a distance. (In their own defense, they could say that his frustrations stimulated his productivity: a classic argument of the genteel anti-Semite. A better defense was that another Jewish academic, Isaiah Berlin, scaled the heights of polite society.) Namier simply lacked charm. But he could write English prose with an austere beauty. The influx of talented Jewish refugees was one of Europe's most precious gifts to Britain in the 20th century, but Namier's career, which dramatized the story in almost all its aspects, reminds us not to be sentimental about it. A gain for the liberal democracies was a dead loss for the countries left behind.
Coming to English as a second language, many 20th-century political refugees wrote it with mastery. But the exiled European writer who really got the measure of his adopted tongue, with the least show and the most impact, was Namier. Early to the field, he arrived in England in 1906 as a refugee from the pogroms in Poland. His stylistic achievement has never been much remarked because he was not thought of as a writer. He was thought of as a historian—which, of course, he was, and a renowned one. He would have been a less renowned historian, however, if he had not written so well: As with all truly accomplished prose styles, his was a vehicle for emotion and experience as well as for a sense of rhythm and proportion—the grief and hard-won knowledge of a lifetime are dissolved into his acerbic cadences, and his neatness of metaphor epitomizes the gaze long grown weary that misses nothing. You can see his alertness in the single sentence quoted above, a poetic climax that drives a prose argument deep into the memory. The line of thought is a trek into pessimism: He is really saying that the historian's research tools work only when the work they do is not worth doing. But by the distinction of his style, he exempts himself from the stricture, and by implication he exempts anyone else who can see the problem. So there is a game being played here, for high stakes. Hence the drama.
Namier was always dramatic, although in some of his central work, he tried his best not to be. With his capital piece of original research, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, he piled up impeccable credentials. The book was a hard grind to write and proved it by being a hard grind to read. But even here, with the air full of dry dust, he was establishing a dramatic principle: He was talking about the individual people who made up a class. He was doing the exact opposite of what the Marxists did, which was to talk about a class as if it formed its individual people. Though a convinced determinist, Namier had no time for big ideas. He hardly had time for the arts and sciences, about which he was unusually dispassionate for one of his background.
Namier brought his gift for drama to its fullest flower in his incidental writings that dealt with the diplomatic and political prelude to World War II and the issues raised by the war itself. It is meant neither as an insult nor as a paradox to say that he did journalism the favor of writing it like a journalist. Fifty years later, his buttonholing immediacy remains a shining example of what journalism can do. Contributed to the whole range of British upmarket publications—the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman, the Listener, etc.—his pieces were collected into a row of books that constitute some of the most vivid higher journalism in English since Hazlitt, although behind them is a far greater depth of learning—an extravagance of mental impulse for an arresting economy of effect. Writing at the time, he couldn't always be right, but he was never less than pertinent, and he faced the task of matching with his style a sadness that shrieked to heaven. In 1942, he was saying—saying without crying, and God alone knows how—that the Jews would have to be withdrawn from Europe after the war and go to their new home. He couldn't yet be certain, or didn't want to be certain, that Hitler and Himmler had concocted a radical new way of withdrawing them from Europe, but his fine essay is certainly written in the context of that terrible possibility. Though Namier never wrote a single book about the Holocaust, its significance permeated all his work from the moment he got wind of it.
Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.
Reprinted from Cultural Amnesiaby Clive James © 2007 by Clive James, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company Inc. This material may not be reproduced, rewritten, or redistributed without the prior written permission of the publisher. Photograph of Lewis Namier © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis.