Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A History of Histories

"Historiography" is one of those needlessly daunting words that historians use both fully cognizant of its meaning and utterly unaware of how offputting it is to those who don't have the profession's union card and know the secret handshakes. And yet historiography is little more than the direction of arguments, ideas and evidence. It is the history of the history, as it were, in which ideas have developed, pissing matches played out, new information shared. When I was getting my MA one of my professors, who has become a friend, (and who at the time was about the age that I am now) explained how he once hated historiography, but how by that point in his career it had taken ahold of him and he found it fascinating. That's sort of how I feel. An element of the discipline with which I once had an uncomfortable relationship has been the source of to of my recent scholarly articles (one forthcoming) and the very idea of historiography has heavily informed two other recent articles.

I was thus interested to see Michael Binyon's review of British historian John Burrow's apparently impressive new book A History of Histories. In Binyon's words:

John Burrow's A History of Histories is itself an exemplar of how history should be written. Witty, scholarly and, above all, fair, it relates, in chronological order, the lives, learning and influence of the greatest historians, from Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius to Herbert Butterfield, G.M. Trevelyan and Arnold Toynbee.

[. . .]
Burrow is absorbingly informative. He knows his subject and he knows how to tell it to those who have heard of, but never read, Sallust, Jean Froissart, David Hume, Leopold von Ranke or Henry Adams. He tells us a bit about each man (there are almost no women historians), sets out the political framework and summarises the writer's argument, style and intention. It brings to mind Bertrand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy, and the result is just as happy. Burrow comments with enormous authority on a historian's pedigree, judgment and influence.

Although the book does not appear to cover modern historians (or American historiography, never mind Africa) especially well, this appears to be a wonderful book for, say, a graduate seminar in historiography, methods, or the historian's craft.


g_rob said...

My feelings exactly about historiography. Hated and feared it as an undergrad. Started to understand it and enjoy it as a grad student. Fascinates me now.

g_rob said...

For my part, I'm trying to break in high school students to the concept of interpretation and historiography a little so that when you guys get them, they aren't totally wide-eyed and afraid of it.

dcat said...

G-Rob --
First off, thanks for trying to help them understand the way history works. Their future professors thank you in advance.
I think part of the reason why historiography is so daunting is that it is so alien. In high school and college it is quite difficult enough to try to get a sense of the narrative, the themes, and how things go together. To add the element of historians arguing, often in debates that seem pretty esoteric, is asking a lot. Historiography is not ony for specialists, but it is nonetheless pretty specialized.
I've always felt that the single best topic for historiography for students might be Reconstruction, as the development in that area has been so clear and the transformation so marked.
It is fascinating, but historiography is also hard work and requires the ability to get beyond a history that you already need to grasp.

Cheers --