Cosy world of the old history boy network

When I asked my academic colleagues to rate historians and their most famous works, their anger at the patronage system surprised me

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We should ask questions about totemic works, such as “The Mediterranean” by Fernand Braudel (above) (© Micheline PELLETIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Bad books are all too easy to spot. My concern is not those, but rather overrated works. Some can be bad, for example Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (2017), and with such works one has to wonder whether there was a review process and if so what it involved. Some overrated works are not bad, but their reception can tell us much about the nature of the publishing and academic worlds.

A range of factors are at play. Economics and power are significant, both the exigencies of publishers and the academic pursuit of grants and patronage. There are also fashionable topics and faddish approaches.

The peculiar brand of academic luvviedom hides behind pride of process. How often have I heard that “we” are better because we use peer group review and that produces inherently better books. It is a nice thought, and I have spent time trying to produce such helpful reviews. Yet it is fanciful to pretend that this process is somehow free of the power structures and patronage networks of the profession. That, of course, is true of all branches of academe as of life, but historians ought to be especially chary of such a belief, given what they know not only of the anatomy of power but also of how values and assessments are contextual, contingent and changing. It is particularly strange to see works proclaimed as definitive or careers acclaimed as transformative, when the one thing that historians ought to know is that evaluations will alter, and radically so. Thus, the syllabus and scholarship of the past, with their concern for political, diplomatic, constitutional, legal and military history, have been cast aside in favour of a modern focus on social, cultural, gender and identity topics and methods. Reputations are made and goodies distributed accordingly, but it is probable that this well-entrenched establishment will in turn be challenged, although it shows itself singularly intolerant of alternative voices and approaches.

That is equally true of status, patronage and grant allocations, of the appointment of chums to worthy posts, distinguished honours, famous lecture slots, and generous grants. So we all know in the system, even if we are not supposed to say it in public, that appointments to the British Academy, Wolfson awards, and so on tend to follow predictable paths of favour that are well-oiled by patronage. This is not new. My first boss at Durham, Reg Ward, a Northerner with the teetotal integrity of a Primitive Methodist and lay preacher, told me on my appointment that Durham risked going the way of Oxbridge (which he and I had attended): “They take good people and don’t do very much with them.”

But he also held up for approval the example of Sir Lewis Namier, under whom he had worked at Manchester:

. . . He was the opposite of the standard academic. They are distant to students, offhand to junior colleagues, and oleaginous to those their own rank. [I had no idea of what oleaginous meant. Since my spelling was poor, dictionary elucidation took a while.] Namier was pleasant to the students, encouraging to his junior colleagues, and an absolute swine to those of his own rank.

Reg was an interesting man, wide-ranging in his intellectual interests and a very hard worker: he told me that he could not take seriously anyone who could not write 5,000 words a day. As his wife Barbara did not like him cooking at home, he kept a Baby Belling in his office and would cook implausible dishes and always invite colleagues who did not get on with each other to share the meal, before sharing the washing-up. Paul Harvey remembers Reg telling him one lunchtime that he had written 1,000 words that morning: “I congratulated him, but then learned so few was a disaster.”

Reg’s dictums are in my mind having had a very pleasant dinner (they tend to be) recently with a senior Oxford panjandrum who told me how far the history course there had been “wrecked” (his term, not mine) by social historians amassing influence (he cited Thomas, Wickham and Roper). When I innocently suggested that he write this up, he reacted with horror. As with obituaries, it is OK to know but not to say aloud.

So where do we start with overrated books? We should not really draw attention to those that have already been criticised, as that criticism can still be read. Kim Wagner on Amritsar or Madhusree Mukerjee on the Bengal famine fall into that category. What is the point commenting on really silly books, for example those on Second World War air power that do not devote due attention to the air war at sea? And I have already written at length about the flaws of Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers. Across the discipline,the obsession with proclaiming turning points and revolutions so often is a self serving means to focus attention on the author in question

Possibly we should ask questions about totemic works. Often that only happens once authors are dead, as with Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean, although at the time Maurice  Cowling criticised its determinism, correctly in my view. But why, other than for some craven reasons of safety, wait for the death of authors, as with J.H. Plumb, on whom I have also written. Now, can I start the ball rolling? Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas (1971).  Some of the thesis was
already familiar from French work on the early-modern period, but the analysis anyway is problematic. For example, it was still widely believed in the 18th century that astrological anatomies and zodiacs were keys to character and guides to the future, and that extra-terrestrial forces intervened in the affairs of the world, particularly human and animal health and the state of the corps and weather.

I am happy to be told I am wrong, but can we look more critically at some of the great works and reputations that preside over the very curious field of modern historical scholarship? It may be appropriate to think about how the corpus of major works is set and how it is deeply flawed as an understanding of the work of the period. I have sought to do the same with my Charting the Past: The Historical Worlds of 18th-Century England (2019), but the same needs doing for the present age and it would be helpful to begin gathering more evidence, not that this valuable contribution to historiography will be supported by the British Academy. Moreover, Toby Barnard’s point about 18th-century Ireland can be expanded: “What was valued and bought by a select few has tended to dominate reconstructions of the Irish past.” That these works today are publically-funded does not make them more meritorious.

I can reveal a new form of peer review, since many other historians, both academics and others, have offered their suggestions about overrated historians and books.

These range greatly. Some focus on dead historians, notably Braudel, Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Said. For example, from one scholar: “I would nominate The End of History and the Last Man, and virtually everything by Hobsbawm, which is simple propaganda, and whose adulation by academics and their gullible students has nothing to do with his abilities of perception and truth-telling.”

My concern however is that historiography should not only focus on the dead. For the living, some general points arose, including the need to be wary of those who rely heavily on research assistants. Some of their books may be good but they should not enjoy a reputation accordingly. I recall being told by Leopold Auer that the archivists at the Kriegsarchiv in Vienna were so unimpressed by Max Braubach sending research assistants to do work there for his supposedly definitive Eugen biography that they deliberately concealed material.

Particular books by living authors that have emerged in this peer process include Peter Frankopan’s The New Silk Roads, described as “looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope. The ‘globalisation’ that Frankopan claims to see in his Silk Road history is merely reading back into the past current events.”

Another suggestion is Richard Overy’s The Morbid Age: Britain between the Wars, in that it cherry-picks information that suits its thesis, concentrates too much on intellectuals, and ignores the increases in living standards and the new opportunities available for many people.

There has also been mention of Keith Thomas’s In Pursuit of Civility that seemed to the contributor, another Oxford professor, to be the best recent example of a book that garnered glowing reviews—often from old pals—but was derivative in the extreme and said almost nothing new. But then we will all have our own overrated book.

Another scholar wrote: “My own candidate would be 1688 by Steven Pincus. The book ignores much fine existing scholarship (or doesn’t acknowledge it where it deploys it) and reimposes a—suitably updated—teleological reading of events just when the rest of us had dismantled it. And, somehow, Pincus got away with it. He is immensely influential within the shrinking field of 18th-century specialists in the USA and I’ve never seen him challenged. Too much is at stake for anyone who does, I suspect.”

There is more here than an eclectic list of complaints about books with limitations, and the view that senior scholars should not be free of the critical scrutiny applied to junior colleagues, postgraduates and undergraduates. Instead, it is worth asking questions about the power system in academe, and, in particular, whether the pronounced emphasis, slant or prejudice within it—you choose the word—has a seriously misleading impact in terms of the presentation of history.

A good case can be made that it does and that the processes used to justify a special status and funding, notably peer review, simply strengthen and express both this power structure and its preferences and fads. So what, you may retort, surely all power structures work in this fashion. That is the case, but with academe we also have large amounts of money being spent and a closing down of debate in favour of a supposed zeitgeist. Thus, transnationalism is in, and nationalism is a dirty word. Imperialism is ipso facto bad, and the syllabus is to be decolonised, which is a new approach to justifying a witch-hunt. That might sound lurid, but is an all too apt description of a culture that is also characterised by promotion for the politically correct and sweetheart reviewing of mediocre work. I plan to publish future round-ups of overrated books and ask others to keep me posted with their suggestions.

Judging from the large number of replies I have received, there seems to be considerable anger with the patronage system, and interestingly both from across the entire political spectrum and from its methodological counterpart. What is particularly instructive is to read comments from scholars who are beneficiaries, but who appear to find the workings of the system simply too corrupt. Private Eye has drawn attention to the workings of literary luvviedom, especially of sweetheart reviews, and there has been discussion in print of the prize system. However, the anatomisation of what is currently going on would be of great value to future work on historiography as well as meeting modern expectations of openness.