The story of the people, by the people

What is History, Now? offers a passionate defence of the pluralism of historical study

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The original What is History? was the published version of the George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures delivered by E.H. Carr at the University of Cambridge in early 1961. It was available in a slim Penguin version in 1977 when I prepared for the General History paper in the Oxbridge exam. We Oxbridge candidates all read it, as I recall. 

It is still Carr’s most accessible book — far more so than his studies of the pre-1929 Soviet state and economy. Having found a free online version recently, I enjoyed it more upon re reading than I did the first time I read it.

In 1985, Juliet Gardiner edited a follow up book, What is History Today?. This contained contributions from only seven women (including the editor) out of 36 historians and from only one non white contributor.

In 2002, David Cannadine edited What is History Now?, consisting of eight lectures on different branches of history given by different historians during a two day symposium at the Institute of Historical Research in London, plus a preface and a prologue. 

Now, Helen Carr, E.H. Carr’s great granddaughter, has co-edited What is History, Now?, a new collection of 19 essays by different historians (one a collaboration), plus a prologue and a foreword.

What is History, Now? edited by Helen Carr and Suzannah Lipscomb (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)

Ten of this crop of historians are women, six are non-white, and one is a pioneer of queer history. One, Miri Rubin, wrote an essay for Cannadine’s earlier book. In Helen Carr’s words, her collection offers “an olive branch to those who have felt pushed out or marginalised from history and the way we talk about it”; it also “argues loudly that history belongs to us all and by making space for all histories, we can perhaps begin to understand a much deeper, broader past”. 

What is it about E.H. Carr’s book that makes Helen Carr’s contributors wish to honour his memory? One is his denial of objectivity, as in his assertion that facts are available to the historian “like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants. History means interpretation.” Helen Carr has chosen this as the epigraph to her foreword.

E.H. Carr was all for multiple interpretations or re-interpretations, and although he saw this from a left-wing political viewpoint, it works equally well for those of a conservative disposition. I was taught history by Peterhouse’s Maurice Cowling, who encouraged sceptical thinking amongst undergraduates and believed there was no such thing as value-free historical enquiry: that all historians have an axe to grind.

E. H. Carr

“If history is a process that requires a constant reinterpretation of facts,” writes Jaipreet Virdi in her essay about disabled history, “it must also be a practice that requires inclusion — the people whose histories have long been glossed over, trapped in medical files or valued only for inspiration need their stories to be told.”

I have some sympathy with Suzannah Lipscomb’s argument that understanding women’s history often requires “reading against the grain” those historical documents in which women appear as offenders against patriarchal values: “Reading against the grain, thick description and critical fabulation are methodologies that are appropriate when there is no other way to enter a story — because there is no other way.” 

The other aspect of Carr’s book that these contributors like is his plea for English historians to be less parochial. The Silk Roads author, Peter Frankopan, in his advocacy of “global history”, writes that “history today is in danger of becoming a circular story where more and more is known about fewer and fewer topics” and that “global history can help correct some of those faults”.

The essays in this collection are models of lucidity and literary skill

Onyeka Nubia did not persuade me that the existence of Tudor Africans “offers a challenge to narratives of Englishness that continue to ignore or marginalise them”. While I agree that “we should avoid reactionary notions that automatically and perpetually ‘other’ Africans in English history”, nonetheless the reason Tudor Africans are marginalised is because they were outliers at a time when English history was dominated by the rapid accretion of monarchical power, the formation of a modern state, and the Reformation. 

For Leila K. Blackbird (an adoptee of Mescalero Apache and Eastern Cherokee descent) and co-writer Caroline Dodds Pennock, “by studying, categorising and labelling the Indigenous past, we have colonised it”. This sounds as if writing about any people’s history other than one’s own should be regarded as an exercise in impermissible cultural appropriation rather than an antidote to parochialism. And yet Dodds Pennock, a non-indigenous person, is currently writing a book about early indigenous travellers to Europe. 

Islam Issa is worried about “periphery neglect”, more specifically the neglect of periphery readers and writers, as opposed to mainstream readers, who are “often white, English-speaking males, mostly affiliated to traditional institutions and publishers”. He also wants to ensure that “the classroom is always a safe space in which a student’s identity enhances rather than hinders their contributions”. 

Justin Bengry argues that gay history is a misnomer, since “gay” is a modern identity, whereas “to queer the past is to let people in history define themselves in often complex and unfamiliar ways, or to accept that even if they did define themselves, we may never know how”.

Rana Mitter believes that the study of East Asian history is “an urgent task” for reasons of geopolitics, Simon Schama that “deep environmental history … [is] loaded with one of the great drivers of historical research and writing: the instinct of hope that acts as the salve of despair”. 

What is excellent about this collection is the passion with which it champions pluralism of historical study, as well as the sheer quality of the writing. Museum curator Gus Casely Hayford’s essay is a powerful example of richly descriptive prose, Simon Schama is as eloquent as ever, and Sarah Churchwell is enlightening and entertaining about “vernacular history” (folk memory) as a branch of cultural history: “All cultural history involves a kind of archaeology of Indigenous vernaculars.” 

Yes, there are the occasional references to othering, agency, and intersections — but compared to some of the contributions in David Cannadine’s 2002 collection, which were dry, freighted with jargon, and impenetrable to the lay reader, the essays in this collection are models of lucidity and literary skill. At least, that’s my interpretation.

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