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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 2: What is history? •

What is history?

Book cover: In Defence of History

A further response to Richard J. Evans


In Defence of History

Richard J. Evans
Granta, 1997 307 pp., 15.99 (hardback)

Dr. Diane Purkiss

University of Reading

Throughout In Defence of History, Evans is eager to seem genial, pleading for mutual tolerance between literary and historical branches of study, and urging cease-fires in various long-fought battles. Perhaps this was an effort to make his critics appear surly, for as his rather peevish response to his reviewers shows, he is not quite as urbane as he wishes to seem. Moreover, one of his chief complaints, and one with which I sympathise, is that his book has not provoked the kind of debate for which he hoped. So I think it justified to look more closely at the ideas he expounds in his attempt to defend history.

The trouble is that laudable as this mission sounds, it is difficult to know where to begin or end it. What can I possibly say about Evans's collection of generally commonplace, often quite useful, and sometimes completely unexamined ideas? Presumably it seemed necessary to assert them in the face of menacing figures like myself. And yet, speaking as the person behind the unread text, it is hard to find much to disagree with here. Some of what Evans says is so obvious that ploughing through thickets of it is close to being a waste of time. And the rest is so unexamined that to reassert it seems more an act of personal stubbornness than an intellectual procedure, and so confused that at times it is impossible to tell which of two positions Evans is upholding, precisely the kind of dilemma he himself is out to discuss.

Every page of the book yields ingots of both kinds, but we must begin somewhere. For the first category, the obvious, one can hardly fail to nominate Evans's dazzling assertion that historians should write in plain, jargon-free prose. Not even Evans can find anyone to disagree with him here, though he might plead that he tactfully refrains from naming those who fail to be either plain or jargon-free. However, presumably even these benighted souls are trying to be understood, though they might be realistic about their chances of reaching a wide audience through the pages of the Journal of Agrarian History. Yet here, as often, Evans elegantly omits the salient point. For the question is not whether historians ought to write clearly, or even whether they can, but for whom, for what is clear to another economic historian may be anything but to a lay person. Is the idea just to spare colleagues pain? Or is Evans suggesting that it is part of the duty of a historian to write for a public wider than those with access to a full run of Annales? If so, should our ideal historian simply write the first project suggested by her agent that appeals to her intellectually, or should she give some thought to exactly what constituency she wants to address? Here, alas, political issues may well poke their ugly heads above the parapet. If she decides she wants to set the public right on the role of Germany in World War I or on the character and deeds of Winston Churchill - to take some recent examples - then may not her take on these issues be influenced by factors other than the objectivity sought by authentic historians? Commercial issues may also arise; World War I and Churchill - or witchcraft, or the desperate state of historiography - may be all very well, but our historian may not even be able to find an academic publisher for her book on the agrarian revolution in eleventh-century Wales, in which case it will matter little if she writes opaquely or not. Strange little studies of cod and the discovery of longitude seem easier to tackle than a history of the English Civil War from go to whoa, and this does have implications for speaking to a wider public. And will not the waters of what clarity means be muddied still further once our ideal historian is caught in the toils of proposals, publishers blurbs, television treatments, and the like? Perhaps plain speaking is no longer as plain as we would like it to be. If on the other hand our historian treads only the primrose paths of Past and Present, must she ask herself at least occasionally what the point of it all is, a question Evans resolutely refuses to address?

For the second category, the unexamined or confused, we can move right along to Evans's muddled discussion of Hayden Whites assertion that history is a literary mode because it uses metaphor, imagery and narrative. In what Evans mysteriously terms unpractised hands, such literary ornamentation can lead to prose that is rambling, opaque and affected. So historians must make sure that literary artifice... is used.... in the service of clarification. No, really? And yet this banal statement overlooks a lot that its familiar to literary critics; that no-one is fully in control of the meaning of what they write, that metaphors have resonances that Shakespeare and Milton couldn't clarify altogether, that metaphor and narrative in general are anyway unavoidable and cant be chosen or done without, as Evans seems to think, though of course particular metaphors can be scrapped. T.S. Eliot could have told Evans this, without having to take him through Derrida first. Now, it turns out in a paragraph or s o that the only ones guilty of the wrong sort of writing are the wrong sort of historians; White, Dominick La Capra, and someone called Sande Cohen. Apparently this happens because such persons cease to think of themselves as historians, and begin instead to think of themselves as scientists (p. 70). This is simply wrong; for someone like White, science is as much a target as history in its pseudo objectivity, but Evans wants to see science as the enemy himself - not in the same sense as White, naturally - but so that he can finger the social sciences as responsible for the decline in historical writing. Prior to their advent, it seems, historians work was actually far more literary. So it seems that what Evans wants is a style that is neither literary nor scientific, but merely historical, simply plain and clear. Is that too much to ask?

Well, yes, if his own book is anything to go by. Evans does write plainly and clearly, and avoids metaphors, wit or stylistic flourishes with fair assiduity. Not many literary critics would find him stimulating, but that is not the same as saying that he himself uses no literary devices. He is fond of extended analogies, for instance. As well, like most polemics of its kind, Evans book is dominated by an unexamined narrative, a lapsarian narrative which has its origins in the Bible, but also in literary and philosophical Romanticism. Consequently, the arrival of science-based models and social sciences have to be the single villains in reducing historians readability. No doubt the dominance of this seductive narrative also explains why Evans manages to make it sound as if Hayden White and Dominick La Capra are as unreadable as the little-known theoretician he cites alongside them, for one would not wish to accuse Evans of the sleight-of- hand that would falsely besmirch one of his opponents. The only other possibility is that his literary judgement is questionable, certainly feasible for someone who cites Carlyle as part of an argument about the need for clarity.

For another instance of Evans's practices and procedures, we can turn to Evans's arguments about facts and evidence, which begin incisively, so incisively, indeed, that one cannot help wondering if the whole book mushroomed from his sensible refutation of Carr. Alas (and here I must in my turn deploy a lapsarian narrative) Evans soon declines into another floundering attempt to indict postmodernists, one which yet again weakens Evans's case without dispatching its target. The target this time is Catriona Kelly's suggestion that historians need to look at subtexts and secondary layers of meaning. Evans says this can be discounted for two reasons: first, because no-one has tried it, and secondly, because everyone has been trying it since the days of Thucydides. Cries of 'Make up yer mind!' rise to the lips. Actually, neither statement is true; a few historians have tried out some readings of subtexts, and although historians have of course been reading sceptically from the dawn of disciplinary time, this is not at all the same as reading subtexts or reading against the grain. Evans shows he does not know this by defining sceptical reading entirely in terms of authorship - what the author thought, who he was, what his views were - whereas reading subtextually or against the grain means ignoring all this and attending only to what the metaphors are saying, unbeknownst to themselves. Reading (say) Areopagitica in terms of anxieties about masculinity is not at all like reading it with a duly sceptical eye on why its author may have advanced such arguments at that precise moment, nor is it like reading it as a source for seventeenth-century printing practices. (A few pages later, Evans does seem to know that reading against the grain involves reading texts in ways not intended by their authors.) Regardless, we are soon treated to the usual paean to grubbing about in the archives as the sweaty locus of real historical virtue, as opposed to the merely opportunistic reinterpretation of the discoveries of others.

Personally, I love archive-grubbing, and regret the fact that it is under threat, not from postmodernists, but from the far greater and stronger powers of darkness represented by the Research Assessment Exercises. (If Evans really wants to defend history, he might start by laying into these absurdities.) I do wish, though, that those who grub would sometimes give more thought to how to read what they unearth. Another puzzle is historians willingness to accept a summary with short quotations when a genuinely new source is discovered, an issue Evans canvasses indirectly when he discusses the row abut the work of Abraham; here, amazingly, another historian opines that because Abraham had a PhD, he assumed - wrongly, as it turns out - that the chap was a reliable scholar. This is a club, not a discipline. For Evans, this is a question of individual professional behaviour only, but in actuality few of us are in a position to critique the work of anyone on the grounds on which Abraham's work is critiqued, precisely because no-one makes it a habit to look for the evidence cited by others. If literary critics find a new poem by Shakespeare (which at one point was happening about once a week) everyone wants to see it so as to read it for themselves. Yet microhistories depending on a single witchcraft trial, for instance, are constantly printed without even lengthy out-takes from transcriptions, and often without direct quotation from the original at all. No doubt this costiveness arises inversely from the prestige accruing to those who find new things; there is a fear of being ripped of, perhaps. These questions are not, I think, best tackled by a genial cry of 'chacun a son gout', because they go to the heart of how the discipline of history appears to those outside it, and this is the question Evans repeatedly shuns.

One could occupy considerable bandwidth just listing Evans's inconsistencies; Evans is also confused about primary sources, secondary sources, and postmodernism. Having treated in his own first chapter everyone from Namier to Ranke as products of (and sources for) their own moment of existence, he then proceeds to lay into Keith Jenkins for suggesting that historians work might also be subject to scrutiny and reading (with or against the grain) by other historians, in much the same way as primary sources. On the Abraham versus Feldman row, Evans endorses precisely he scientific model of testing that he had previously rejected, though I suppose he might simply not know that looking for vulnerabilities in a hypothesis and finding means of testing them is scientific method (p. 121).

Similarly, having laid into Natalie Zemon Davis for fictionalising the archives, Evans then asserts: We imagine the contours in this situation, and have to speculate on quite a bit of the detail. (p.89). But apparently we shouldn't tell anyone that this is what we are doing, because if we do we are selling the pass to the dogs of postmodernism. Evans rightly asserts that such fictionalising should occur in relation to the evidence and not without reference to it, but whoever said it shouldn't? Once again, Evans has balked at the issue, which is how much fiction a historian can stand, how much fiction is allowable, declarable? Its all very well to say, as Evans does, that if your historical jigsaw is a steam engine you cant make it a garden, but this is just an instance of metaphors run mad. In the first place, Evans is confusing going beyond evidence with ignoring it, and in the second place, textual evidence is much more complex and difficult than a jigsaw, because the meaning of each piece of it is subject to interpretation, a process which may cause the whole picture to break up. What is much more likely to happen is that you have some words and some silences, and you have to think about whether if you could hear anything in the silences it would make a difference to the words. Clear pictures are a luxury. In my own recent work on Scottish witchcraft, there is an ellipsis in a trial narrative, which moves rapidly from the accused witch's supernatural diagnosis of the bastardy of another woman s baby to the birth of the woman's own baby. Imaginatively, one can see many possible links between the two events - is the first baby also the witch's, is the bastard somehow an outcome of becoming a supernatural creature, and so on. But there may be no link at all. And if we make one, its fiction, and can only be judged as fiction. Nor do statistics on the prevalence of bastardy help, though social attitudes to bastardy might be, at best, suggestive, and one might even add that knowing whether the woman had ever really had a child would only help minimally. When we are reading fiction, we have to read it as fiction. Its no good simply hoping that it will mutate into something more tractable. Evans seems not to see any difference in diverse subjects of historical enquiry, yet it must or should be apparent that a case like the Martin Guerre case, where the whole issue is one of fictiveness, or a witchcraft case, where the object of enquiry does not exist, are different in kind, not in degree, from questions of political history such as the impact of capitalism on the rise of Nazism. To say this is not to suggest that historians of interesting lies can simply make up whatever they like, though of course some have done this. It is, however, to say that some historical topics raise issues of truth and fiction far more pressingly than others. Ultimately, we may need to acknowledge different protocols for different projects, so long as these are declared and understood. Evans himself gestures towards this possibility when he writes of the special tasks of intellectual historians; straining for geniality in my turn, I would suggest that he extend the same 'mutual toleration' to historians of culture.

(Diane Purkiss)

Original review (by Prof. Antony Easthope)

Professor Richard J Evans's response to his critics

A (first) response by Dr. Diane Purkiss

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