Historians who know fact from fiction

Despite what the cultural studies boosters might have you think, there are serious contemporary historians who do empirical research.


Sean McMeekin
January 12, 1998 10:05PM (UTC)

Students currently starving on a force-fed diet of Foucault should
look to the following books by solidly empirical historians as an
antidote:

A good place to start is E.P. Thompson's "The Making of the English
Working Class" (1963), a magisterial work that proves that "social
history," written without benefit of French theory, can actually be
about people. The breadth of Thompson's scholarship is stunning, and
his narrative, about the responses of English artisans to
industrialization, remains gripping for more than 900 pages of vigorous
historical prose.

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Another social historian blissfully free of the mania for
theorizing is Barbara Tuchman, who brilliantly reconstructs European
society in the last decades before World War I in "The Proud Tower"
(1966). No one is better than Tuchman at bringing disparate historical
characters to life, weaving stories of real men and women together with
great theatrical effect so that we empathize with them and always yearn
to find out what will happen next.

Those interested in the history of European colonization should
read C.D. Rowley's "The Destruction of Aboriginal Society," a
broad survey of the destructive impact of British settlement on the
native population of Australia since 1788. Rowley treats sensitive
subjects candidly, avoiding the cultural studies jargon that so often
infects academic discussions of race and imperialism. Instead of arid
relativism, Rowley offers vivid facts. His sweeping historical
narrative, published in 1970, has sparked tremendous interest in
Aboriginal history and, according to Keith Windschuttle, helped ignite
the contemporary Aboriginal movement for redress of past grievances.

James McPherson's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Battle Cry of Freedom"
(1988) is a bracing account of the American Civil War that may never be
surpassed. McPherson mixes copious empirical detail together with a
lucid exposition of the great issues at stake, so that his readers sense
the drama of a historical conflict in which the outcome was always in
doubt. Today, we assume that the Northern victory, and the subsequent
abolition of slavery, was inevitable. In McPherson's hands, we perceive
the Civil War as contemporaries did: as a violent, wrenching cataclysm
that was shaking the American republic to its core, with no end in
sight.

Students curious about a genuine motor of historical change (hint:
It's not semiotics) can do no better than pick up John Keegan's "A
History of Warfare" (1993). Keegan clearly explains how the evolution
of military technology and the cultural ethos of warmaking have shaped
the course of human history from ancient times to the present day,
deciding the fortunes of different civilizations and the fates of
millions of people.

These are just a few of the treasures awaiting students of history
wishing to extricate themselves from the various swamps of cultural
theory. All of these books were written after 1960, proving that one
does not need to go back to Gibbon and Macaulay to find page-turning
historical works that excite the imagination. What sets these books
apart is this: Their method is narrative, and their subject matter is
real people and real historical events. Doing theory is easy; it is the
capacity for storytelling that distinguishes the truly great historians,
and we should all be grateful for their talents.


Sean McMeekin

Sean McMeekin is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UC-Berkeley and a freelance writer.

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