Monday, July 16, 2007

Troeger reviews Kelley on the History of Historiography

The impact of war on the writing of history (or not) and the tendency of historians to forget are major themes in a review by Bertram Troeger, University of Jena, Germany, of Donald R. Kelley, Frontiers of History: Historical Inquiry in the Twentieth Century (Yale University Press, 2006) on H-Ideas. Hap tip to Cliopatria.

With the publication of Frontiers of History, Donald R. Kelley, Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University, has completed his three-volume survey of the history of Western historiography. In the other two works that belong to this tremendous project, Faces of History: Historical Inquiry from Herodotus to Herder (1998) and Fortunes of History: Historical Inquiry from Herder to Huizinga (2003), the author gives an account of the writing of history from antiquity to the early twentieth century. The last volume presents his readers not only with a description of the historiographical tendencies, ideas, methods, and debates that marked the twentieth century, but also with original comments on the most recent trends in historical studies.

Kelley's main focus is on the writings of professional historians in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States, but he occasionally includes other nationalities as well. His definition of the historical field that underlies this work is similarly wide. Given the late twentieth-century discussions on the linguistic turn and the textuality of history, it may not be surprising that he takes in various scholars of literature studies; however, Kelley also includes "prophets of decline"like Oswald Spengler (p. 82), and other writers who are generally located in the field of philosophy of history.

The plot of Kelley's work is as complex as its dramatis personae are numerous, and any short summary of this multifaceted narrative can only give a limited account of its various topics. The "anxieties of modernism"(p. 7) that characterized the years before the Great War form the subject of the author's first foray through the thicket of twentieth-century historiography. As far as the writing of history is concerned, these anxieties were felt particularly in Germany, whereas British historians,despite some adjustments like T. F. Tout's turn towards administrative history, self-confidently adhered to their Victorian historiographical legacy. Kelley's second chapter can serve as an illustration of the wide range of his work. On the one hand, he describes the effects of the Great War on history, and summarizes the battles historians fought over the value of their respective national traditions. On the other hand, he also provides an insight into the transformations of ancient history and the rise of prehistory caused, in particular, by new archaeological discoveries.

It is perhaps surprising for the reader of the next three chapters that the direct effects of the two World Wars on the writing of history were rather limited. Possibly the most immediate impact of the World Wars on historiography was the emigration of scholars to the United States, which strengthened the European influence on U.S. history in the face of occasional "American Exceptionalism" (p. 117). As far as greater reorientations and the establishment of new paradigms are concerned, however, one can gather from Kelley's work that peaceful times seem to have been more fruitful. This applies even to Germany, whose historians remained largely faithful to their historiographical traditions after the first World War, as well as after the second. New views and approaches like those of Ernst Kantorowicz and Eckhart Kehr formed an exception after 1918, and the influence of scholars like Friedrich Meinecke and Gerhard Ritter provided for continuity after 1945. It took another twenty years until a "New German Paradigm" firmly established itself (p. 170), a process that was linked to the names of Werner Conze, Jürgen Kocka, and Hans-Ulrich Wehler. In Britain it was "mostly business as usual after the trauma of the Great War" (p. 100), but the voices of Marxists and social reformers started to make themselves distinctly heard, and heavily source-based approaches, like that of Lewis Namier, were soon to challenge the Whig narrative. All in all, British historiography became increasingly characterized by conflicts between proponents of different ideologies and methodologies. Namier was opposed, in particular, by A. J. P. Taylor. The polarization reached a climax after the Second World War when controversies over ideology and revisionist approaches led to historical "Civil Wars in England" (p. 176), with Christopher Haigh, Geoffrey Elton, Christopher Hill, and Lawrence Stone forming the main combatants.

The impression of French historiography which can be gathered from Kelley's pages is more peaceful, which is, of course, due to the long-term hegemony of the Annales school. As Kelley shows, French historians were among the first to shift the historical focus to economic and social history. When Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch joined forces in 1929, they started to establish a paradigm whose strong influence was felt "for the rest of the century" (p. 112). According to Kelley, one of the outstanding qualities of the Annales school was its ability to face the challenge of the social sciences without "undermining the autonomy and authority of history" (p. 113). Another strength lay in its integrative breadth, which permitted the retention of economic history, the study of mentalities, and Fernand Braudel's concepts of histoire totale and longue durée under the same roof.

Dealing with these (and many more) topics, Kelley does his best to guide the reader through a jungle of celebrated figures, historical methods, and ideas. Nevertheless, at times the reader is in danger of getting lost,left with the feeling that he has to be another Donald Kelley in order to be able to follow and fully enjoy the author's tightly-woven text. Sheer numbers can illustrate the dilemma: within twenty pages, the reader is introduced, on average, to 80 people and reads about 140 others who have already been mentioned earlier in the book. Certainly this complexity is in the nature of this work, and complaining about it would be like criticizing a bird for having wings. But, it is obvious that, despite Kelley's excellent prose, the book reaches the limits of what can be done in this format....
He goes on to comment on the linguistic turn, and claims that the influence of literary theory on historiography, to a great degree, amounted to an "effort to reduce history to its narrative incarnations"(p. 216). Dealing with Hayden White's influential contribution to the matter, he argues that any interpretation of the works of historians like Jules Michelet or Leopold von Ranke has to take into account their"heuristic practice," something which Hayden White's "neo-scholastic scheme" fails to do (p. 216). But Kelley's most important leitmotif, running through the pages of the whole work and becoming particularly visible towards its end, is his contention that historiography tends to be forgetful of previous methods, approaches, and ideas. "The wheel must always be reinvented, the fire restarted, the book rewritten;... novelties are announced so frequently that one is tempted to take innovationism--the 'fetish of the new'--as a permanent condition of the life of professional historians" (p. 189). In other words, historians prefer to get excited over supposedly new approaches, rather than to look back and discover that they are following trodden paths.

The polemical reaction to the fascinating irony of ascribing amnesia to the historian would be to ask Kelley how he managed to fill three volumes on historical ideas from antiquity to the present when there was really nothing new taking place. But Kelley does not deny that historiography underwent intellectual transformations, paradigmatic changes, and reorientations. What he tries to show is that all these new ideas were rooted in a tradition, something which many self-declared innovators failed to acknowledge. This "curious lack of historical sense" (p. 24) can be found, for instance, in the works of the early twentieth-century French "old guard" (Charles Seignobos and C. V. Langlois); Eileen Power, who was not conscious of the Victorian roots of her attempt to introduce her readers "to the invisible persons of past times" (p. 104); and the American "New History" as proclaimed by James Harvey Robinson in 1912.
The full review is here.

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