An incident that occurred during my first year of graduate school remains indelibly etched in my memory. Our cohort was invited to spend an hour with the great popular historian Barbara Tuchman, who had just published Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–45 and would soon complete A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century.
A classmate, whom I will not name, but who subsequently became a chaired professor at a leading university and is widely known for his work on gender and power, subjected the author of The Guns of August and later of The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam to fierce questioning about her research methods, sources and modes of analysis.
Awkward doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. Here was a scholar who had done more than any academic historian to shape the public’s view of our collective past, condescended to by a graduate student. Who were we, who hadn’t yet published anything, to question her bona fides?
I’ve just finished a grand, sweeping, 770-page popular account of the people who recorded and informed the Western world’s understanding of its collective past—from Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Caesar, Sallust, Livy, Flavius Josephus, Plutarch and Suetonius to Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Hegel and Marx to Winston Churchill, William L. Shirer, David Halberstam, Stanley Karnow, David McCullough, Mary Beard, C. L. R. James, Simon Schama, Ken Burns and Hilary Mantel.
Historically inclined anthropologists, economists, journalists, memoirists, sociologists and authors of historical fiction co-exist alongside professional historians.
Richard Cohen’s Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past is an idiosyncratic, opinionated, sprawling and wildly uneven account of how, over time, Western societies developed historical consciousness—a understanding of the temporality of historical experience and of how the past, present and future are interconnected.
Cohen’s overarching argument, not radically dissimilar from that made by John Lukacs in The Future of History and John Burrow in A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century, is that as history has become more and more professionalized, and as historians have become subsumed within academic departments, history risks losing its ability to grip the public imagination. Popular history is crucial, Cohen argues, in helping readers situate themselves within the sweep of history, grapple with some of the biggest historical issues—such as the historical impact of personality and consequences of decisions—and understand the texture of life and the mentalities of people in the past.
Cohen’s book certainly has its flaws. It’s Eurocentric in the extreme, utterly dismissive of Arab historians with the exception of Ibn Khaldūn and of China, except for Ban Zhao, and largely oblivious to the historians of South Asia and the Indigenous histories of Africa and the Americas. Its chapter on 20th century Marxist historians is flippant and contemptuous. Infused with an antireligious animus, the volume’s coverage of key figures strikes me as arbitrary and at times superficial, its interpretations of key works cursory, and some of its judgments mischievous.
Yet it also reminds us that the most successful works of history create enthralling narratives that alter public understanding of the past and influence the present in profoundly meaningful ways.