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Isolation Bookshelf: History Outside the Academy

For reasons that pass all understanding, modern academic disciplines are where English prose goes to die. Fortunately, profound and compelling historical writing has a history of its own that predates the modern research university by two and a half millennia, stretching back to Herodotus in the fifth century BC. Such a tradition is resistant to the chloroform of the modern academy, so long as gifted storytellers find publishers and readers.

As a political scientist, I find myself quite naturally drawn to reading history, and thanks to my own teaching and research interests, I have read a fair amount of political, constitutional, and legal history. For my sins, a great deal of what I have read was written by academic historians. Their writing is no worse than that of political scientists and legal scholars, but in the main it is no better: plodding prose with little narrative sense and a very poor signal-to-noise ratio. There are noble exceptions, such as Princeton’s Allen Guelzo and others I might name. But for reasons that pass all understanding, the modern academic disciplines, across the board, are where English prose goes to die.

Fortunately, profound and compelling historical writing has a history of its own that predates the modern research university by two and a half millennia, stretching back to Herodotus in the fifth century BC. And such a tradition is resistant to the chloroform of the modern academy, so long as gifted storytellers find publishers and readers. The five writers I recommend below were not all “amateur” historians, since some of them did make a profession of historical writing. But non-academic they all were, and thus unaffected by the fashionable straitjackets of the university history departments.

No one wrote more capably about the seventeenth century than Dame Cicely Veronica Wedgwood, who published as “C. V. Wedgwood” in the mid-twentieth century, when those initials helped her gain readers who might have resisted reading serious history by a woman. Wedgwood’s magnum opus was her trilogy on the English (and Scottish) Civil War, which began with The King’s Peace, 1637-1641 (1955), continued with The King’s War, 1641-1647 (1958), and concluded with A Coffin for King Charles: The Trial and Execution of Charles I (1964). As the author said in introducing the first book, “No historian has ever been, or will ever be, omniscient in his knowledge or infallible in his deductions. None can see the whole and undivided truth.” But she promised her readers that in her study of the actors of her drama, she “sought to restore their immediacy of experience.” Wedgwood delivered handsomely on this, keeping the reader going for more than 1,200 pages of her trilogy.

More wide-ranging in her interests was Barbara Tuchman, an American who first came to the front rank of popular historians with her account of the onset of World War I, The Guns of August (1962). Some of her late work, such as The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution (1988), was seriously flawed. But I recommend her 1978 book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century. Here Tuchman begins her story with a central character, Sire Enguerrand de Coucy, a nobleman of Picardy to whom she often returns as her tale spins out over the tumultuous events of a century marked by plague, the Little Ice Age, and the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. War, pandemic, and climate change—a distant mirror indeed, now more than ever.

If a history of Europe in the fourteenth century is ambitious, how about the whole world in a period just closing as the author writes? That was the subject of the prolific British journalist and author Paul Johnson in Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Eighties (1983). This is highly opinionated conservative history writing, but eminently readable and with a strongly argued thesis about modern totalitarianism’s threat to the freedom of the human mind. Johnson punctuates his tale with vignettes that show the follies of the great and the good, as when George Bernard Shaw, during the Soviet Union’s 1932 famine, “threw his food supplies out of the train window just before crossing the Russian frontier ‘convinced that there were no shortages in Russia.’ ‘Where do you see any food shortage?’ he asked, glancing round the foreigners-only restaurant of the Moscow Metropole.”

Sometimes a very personal interest in a subject moves a historian to tell an intricate tale. Antonia Fraser, an Englishwoman whose family converted to unfashionable Catholicism when she was young, has ranged broadly over English history in her work, sometimes covering the same ground as her predecessor Wedgwood. One of her best is Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot (1996). Here Fraser disentangles the complicated web that connected the Catholic plotters who sought to blow up King James I as he sat in Parliament in 1605, exploring their motives, their blunders, and the ferocious response of James’s government that set back the cause of Catholic toleration in Britain for two centuries. “The Gunpowder Plotters were terrorists and they were defeated. They were not good men,” she concludes. Yet we can still have “respect for those whose motives, if not their actions, were noble and idealistic.” That is a measured historical judgment.

The last of my non-academic historians—a true amateur in this case whose real vocation lay elsewhere—is Winston Churchill, one of very few nonfiction writers to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Churchill wrote constantly throughout his long life, often sustaining his lavish lifestyle with an income from journalism, volumes of essays, memoirs, biographies, and histories of various kinds. His best work is Marlborough: His Life and Times, a massive four-volume work published from 1933 to 1938, out of print for many years but today available in two unabridged volumes from the University of Chicago Press. Marlborough was for Churchill a project of familial vindication, rescuing the reputation of his ancestor John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, from what he regarded as calumnies in the previous century by historian Thomas Babington Macaulay and novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Churchill ably showed that Marlborough, for all his vaulting ambition, was the outstanding statesman and general of Europe in the final years of the seventeenth century and the first years of the eighteenth, a man without whom England might have permitted the France of Louis XIV to completely dominate the continent. The day after Churchill’s death in 1965, the political philosopher Leo Strauss said to his graduate seminar at the University of Chicago, “Not a whit less important than [Churchill’s] deeds and speeches are his writings, above all his Marlborough—the greatest historical work written in our century, an inexhaustible mine of political wisdom and understanding, which should be required reading for every student of political science.”

That is a judgment that I cannot question after reading the work myself. Like all the writers I recommend above, Churchill chose a broad canvas for a portrait of political tumult, and told his tale with extraordinary narrative skill. Our academic colleagues could do worse than emulate these models.

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