Review of Robert A. Rosenstone’s “Adventures of a Postmodern Historian”

tags: book review, Robert Rosenstone, Adventures of a Postmodern Historian

Minsoo Kang is an associate professor in European history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He is the author of Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination (Harvard University Press, 2010) and a co-editor of Visions of the Industrial Age, 1830 - 1914: Modernity and the Anxiety of Representation in Europe. 

In the course of his career, Robert A. Rosenstone (emeritus, Cal Tech) has worked as one of the most brilliantly innovative historians in the United States. He has produced a series of ground-breaking works on the theme of Americans who travel to foreign countries, including a book on leftists who went to Spain to fight fascists during the civil war (Crusade of the Left: The Lincoln Battalion and the Spanish Civil War, 1969); a biography of the journalist John Reed (Romantic Revolutionary, 1975) that became the basis for the academy award winning film Reds; and a study of three American visitors to Japan in the nineteenth century (Mirror in the Shrine: American Encounters in Meiji Japan, 1988). Since then he has become one of the leading authorities on the representation of history in cinema (see History on Film / Film on History, 2006), and has also written novels and creative non-fiction. His latest book Adventures of a Postmodern Historian is a beautifully written memoir that succeeds in being a profound meditation on the life of a historian as well as the nature of historical research and writing. It is also a highly entertaining and moving account of his unique and interesting career.

The four chapters of the book center around the writing of his first three books and his scholarship on history and cinema. The first chapter provides an account of his education and involvement in leftist causes in the 1960s that led him to write Crusade of the Left with interesting insights not only into the role that the historian’s political stance played in his research into the topic but also the complicated nature of historical memory, as exemplified by Rosenstone’s experiences with the surviving veterans of the war and people who purport to speak for them.

The second chapter, dealing with his investigation of the life of the communist journalist John Reed, features a fascinating and often hilarious account of doing research in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. While he goes through the expected accounts of bureaucratic delays, propaganda that presents itself as history, and suspicion he incurs from both Soviet and American authorities, the narrative is made lively by Rosenstone’s own idiosyncratic actions and reactions to what he encounters in the course of his Russian adventure. The surprising denouement of how he ultimately got his hands on a crucial batch of documents provides a great example of the role of contingency in historical research.

The third chapter begins with a wonderfully evocative narrative of Rosenstone’s experience of teaching in Japan that led to his writing of the experimental historical book Mirror in the Shrine. The significant personal impact of his sojourn in the country explains why the books tells the story not only of three very different nineteenth-century Americans (a scientist, a missionary, and a writer) who traveled to the country for very different reasons, but also of the historian’s own story.

The fourth chapters deals with Rosenstone’s involvement with history on film, which began with his role as the historical advisor to Warren Beatty’s production of Reds. His sometimes contentious relationship with the superstar is highly entertaining, but the chapter goes beyond telling amusing anecdotes of an academic historian on a Hollywood film set as it goes on to discuss his ideas on the role of film in historical knowledge that sent his career in a new direction as a leading expert on the topic. Rosenstone only briefly mentions his recent forays into fiction writing which are informed by his career as a historian (see his novels King of Odessa, 2003; The Man Who Swam Into History, 2005; Red Star, Crescent Moon, 2010). But he demonstrates his considerable talent in that mode as well by inserting in each chapter what is apparently an imagined letter written by a companion from the particular time period of his life.

While Adventures of a Postmodern Historian is an entertaining book that can be enjoyed by academic historians and the general reader alike, it also makes a significant contribution to the scholarship of historical research and writing. Questions of the role of the historian’s personal life experiences and worldview on the choice and nature of his work, the complexities of archival, oral and other forms of research, and the nature of all historical writing as a kind of memoir or confession on the part of the historian, which are sometimes briefly mentioned in the footnotes or the acknowledgement of a work, are brought to the fore in this book.

Rosenstone utilizes theory (à la Hayden White) in his meditations on such topics but he also uses the literary techniques like that of W. G. Sebald to make a series of profound statements on what it is to struggle with history on a personal level. In that sense, the book points to the idea that in understanding a historical work, it is crucial to understand the historian as well, not just in his or her research method, writing style, and theoretic perspective, but also the life experiences and the worldview that brought the historian to the subject.

With Robert A. Rosenstone’s fascinating life story, his significant body of work, and his considerable talent as a writer, Adventures of a Postmodern Historian makes an important contribution to the study of the historian in the production of history.    

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