David A. Bell: What hinders historians from discovering the strangeness of the past?





Given how fiercely cultural conservatives defend the importance of a single "Western canon," it is more than a little ironic that different parts of the West have such different versions of it. True, the canon everywhere tends to start with the same Greeks and Romans, but thereafter, things get trickier. Consider, for instance, what competing accounts of "Western" philosophy and literature say about the 19th century. Where the French highlight Auguste Comte and Victor Hugo, the British give pride of place to John Stuart Mill and Charles Dickens, while Germans speak of the age of Hegel and Goethe. The multinational canon that dominates survey courses at universities like Columbia and the University of Chicago is actually a peculiarly American phenomenon.

When it comes to canonical works of history writing, national differences are all the more striking. Before the 18th century, nearly all historians wrote exclusively about their own countries, and in most of the world, most of them still do (America, with its immigrant heritage and global reach, is again an exception to the nationalist rule). So not surprisingly, when looking back on the "history of history," German historians loom largest for the Germans, French ones for the French, and so on.

In his whimsically titled A History of Histories, British historian John Burrow seems at first to avoid this tendency. He offers the book as a survey of history writing in general, or at least the part of it that falls into the "European cultural tradition." He starts with Herodotus, dwells lovingly on Thucydides and the Romans, and only gets to his first British subject (a sixth-century monk named Gildas) on Page 175. In his sections on the 19th century, he gives ample space to the German school and an entire chapter to the United States. Yet in the end, the book still shows just how hard it is to think about history outside a particular national framework.

For one thing, Burrow's gestures toward the world beyond Dover go only so far. His chapter on the Enlightenment looks almost exclusively at British historians, despite the significance of continental contemporaries like Voltaire. Moving on to the 19th century, the book has almost as much on the eccentric if brilliant Thomas Carlyle as on Jules Michelet, Leopold von Ranke, and Jacob Burckhardt—three giants of historical scholarship—combined. Burrow gives extensive treatment to Victorian medievalist William Stubbs, a hero mostly to his own countrymen, while barely mentioning France's Marc Bloch, perhaps the most admired medievalist of modern times. Taken individually, any of these decisions are defensible. Put together, they emit a strong whiff of "Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off."...


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