A manuscript illustration of the Greek historian Herodotus. Picture credit: Hulton Archive via Getty Images

A vivid chronicle of chroniclers

Richard Cohen’s history of histories is a gargantuan achievement


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

As a publishing executive, Richard Cohen edited authors such as Jeffrey Archer, John le Carré, and Fay Weldon. As a fencer he competed at three Olympic Games, wrote a history of swordsmanship, and appeared as an extra in the James Bond movie Die Another Day. With this book he took on his most perilous assignment to date, a history of historians from Herodotus and Thucydides to the present day. 

I say perilous because already, before the book was published, Random House, his US publishers, had cancelled his contract, the reason being that his initial draft did not include a chapter on Black historians. 

Cohen subsequently corrected this oversight and the additional 18,000-word chapter is as insightful and entertaining as any in this book, ranging from George Washington Williams, through former slave Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson (“the Father of Black History”), C.L.R. James, and Manning Marable, to Elizabeth Hinton, who says that more people are now “interested in what Black historians have to say — they want to hear from us”.

Making History: The Storytellers who Shaped the Past by Richard Cohen (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25)

However, it begs the question why Cohen thought it permissible to omit such an important body of work in the first place, especially since he includes an excellent chapter on American Civil War historians and a sympathetic portrait of Toni Morrison in a chapter on historical novelists. 

Although inspired by John Burrow’s 2008 book A History of Histories, Cohen has instead decided to focus on historians rather than historiography. Where did they come from? What made them tick? What motivated them to choose the type of history they wrote? In this process, he has made his selection on the basis of their generally acknowledged importance and his own “lived experience”. “It is impossible to eradicate every bias,” he writes, “and I have not eradicated mine.”

He starts with Dom David Knowles, the renegade priest and monk from Cohen’s own school, Downside, who wrote his magisterial four-volume history of English monasticism partly out of revenge against his abbots, who had thwarted his ambition to start a new monastic community (at one stage he pretended to have had a nervous breakdown and lived in a peculiar non-sexual ménage with a woman whom he regarded as being close to sainthood).

But then Cohen goes back to Herodotus, “the Father of History”, who was a peripatetic collector of anecdotes and observations, a man of boundless curiosity, a compulsive digressor, a collector of mental bric-à-brac, an aphorist. And he believed that history was a performative art. While writing about him, Cohen would read out passages from Herodotus to his wife over dinner, much to her delight. 

Thucydides was a more sober figure, a citizen-soldier who analysed events and tidied them up in the telling. “The transformation of history tacks sometimes in the direction of one, sometimes in the direction of the other,” says Cohen. History is a branch of literature which encompasses myriad other disciplines, depending on the subject, and “all writing about the past has an element of conjecture”.

Many historians have written for money or to advance their careers as much as to express their grasp on the world

The eight leading Roman historians were “nearly all high achievers” and “none had to sing for their supper”. Some wrote to justify national policy, others to bemoan moral decline. The Bible is “not only a work of myth and propaganda” but it “genuinely counts as a form of history, only of a highly fictionalised and mediated kind”. 

Islamic history is “the most telling example of the channeling of history writing for religious purposes” and the explosion of Islamic history writing in the eighth century meant that “Baghdad would produce more narrative history in a week than all of France and Germany could produce in a year”. The Islamic historian Ibn Khaldun, Cohen argues, was the first to posit a philosophy of history, though the Roman historian Polybius had claimed that history moves in cycles.

With his publisher’s hat on, Cohen recognises that many historians have written for money or to advance their careers as much as to express their peculiar grasp on the world. He notes that Macaulay — progenitor of the Whig interpretation of history — was the first literary millionaire, that Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, written while he was dying painfully from cancer of the tongue, earned his family millions in today’s money, and that Churchill, later backed by a team of professional historians known as the Syndicate, wrote his histories to justify his own actions as well as to pay for a bankruptcy-courting champagne habit.

One must not underestimate the sheer urge to gossip that seemed to animate medieval chroniclers, as well as the simple act of bearing witness that has been sufficient motive for copious diarists and for journalist-historians such as the Belarusian interviewer Svetlana Alexievich. On the other hand, Mary Beard, having suffered personal loss early in her life, claims to have been partly motivated by a spiritual urge to bring the dead back to life. 

The chapter on truth-telling versus patriotism skewers those nations that have systematically encouraged historians to rewrite the past by forgetting the unpalatable stuff. The Japanese have furiously denied the Nanjing Massacre and whitewashed other war crimes, while the Russians have largely rehabilitated Stalin and repudiated Anthony Beevor’s claims that the Red Army committed mass rape of German women at the end of World War II. Cohen could also have prayed in aid of the Armenian genocide, the mention of which constitutes treason in Turkey, and China’s suppression of the memory of Mao’s Great Famine as well as the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

I enjoyed his chapter on female historians, who until about 50 years ago, had perforce to be women of means (C.V. Wedgwood, Cecil Woodham-Smith, Barbara W. Tuchman, and Elizabeth Longford), but we have since witnessed “a near-total recasting in the way women are written about and how women can impart their views on the past, given the confidence and opportunity. It truly has been a revolution, over little more than half a century, as important as any other since Herodotus.”

And the chapter about historians on the telly, from A.J.P. Taylor to Niall Ferguson and Ken Burns (by way of Simon Schama and David Starkey) is a masterly survey. Cohen is positive about TV history and believes that “many in these pages would have made successful TV presenters”.

He would not have wished to emulate George Eliot’s Reverend Casaubon, doomed never to complete his Key to All Mythologies

It’s a pity Cohen does not include a chapter about the Australian Manning Clark (1915-91), author of a six-volume history of his country and an excellent prose stylist whose judgments grew more flawed and controversial as his fame increased. And there is no mention of Australia’s post-1981 “Stolen Generation” debate about forcible removals of Aboriginal children from their families, initiated by Professor Peter Read, who was this writer’s first teacher of history at a Greater London prep school in the late 1960s. 

Other surprising omissions are James Anthony Froude, Britain’s most famous historian following the death of Macaulay; Bishop William Stubbs, constitutional historian and founder of the Oxford modern history school; Sir John Seeley, Cambridge professor and Britain’s first historian of the Empire; the Dutch cultural historian, Johan Huizinga (only a fleeting reference); Sir Steven Runciman, English historian of the Crusades; Sir Richard Southern, the Oxford medievalist; the post-Second World War German historian, Joachim Fest (the first major German biographer of Hitler); Elie Kedourie, the Iraqi-born historian of the Middle East and nationalism, who taught at the LSE; Benny Morris and Israel’s “New Historians” (who challenged the orthodox view about the 1948 Palestinian exodus); and the vigorous debate between Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen about the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust.

That may sound like a long list of omissions, but Cohen would have had to turn his book into an unwieldy tome to accommodate them all, and besides, much of his selection will have been determined by his personal taste. After all, he would not have wished to emulate George Eliot’s Reverend Casaubon, doomed never to complete his Key to All Mythologies. 

There are so many things to like about this book: its breezy tone, its author’s Herodotus-like curiosity and delight in anecdote (as evidenced by his wonderful footnotes, viz. the detail from Andrew Roberts that the first time Churchill operated a telephone himself was when he called the speaking clock and that he said thank you before replacing the receiver), his readiness to recognise the vices as well as the virtues of historians, and the splendid in-text illustrations. 

All in all, this book is a gargantuan achievement and proof that Cohen has come a long way, as the dedication to his monastic teacher at Downside reveals, since he had a schoolboy essay dismissed with the words, “What is this farrago of nonsense?”

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