“To Curiosity”

A review of: Who Is the Historian?, N.A. Raab

Three things made me pick up Raab’s slim volume on the work of historians: 1) its brevity 2) a longstanding love of inspirational stories from historians 3) desire to be familiar with the genre should I ever be fortunate enough to teach a historiography course. Unlike From Herodotus to H-Net, this book is not really a book of historiography, but an essay on the doing of history in the twenty-first century, covering spaces, sources, disciplinarity, technology, and skill-sets.

Raab’s wants to give personality and humanity to historians qua historians rather than historians as professors. He offers a vision of them as an eclectic globe-trotting bunch who work in a host of different jobs in addition to teaching college courses. The overarching themes of the work are how the field has changed, expanded and become enriched in recent decades, and how historical thinking is fundamentally embedded in all walks of society.

With few exceptions, Raab avoids overwhelming the reader with specific disciplinary periods, themes, and names, which, while useful, sometimes means that the book errs on the side of general observations rather than specific developments or advice. For instance, there is specific discussion of certain open-access sites and how that has changed how historians do their job, but doesn’t suggest specific technological expertise that could be beneficial. Certainly historians do not work in a vacuum and some of the observations, such as the wide variety of viable source material, is well taken. Similarly the book is well-written, and Raab is an advocate of the written style as critical for the field, but offers no suggestions for how to get there or how to frame questions in order to best use the material.

Raab works a middle-path that didn’t work for me. On the one hand, while much of the book is reflective, to give personality to the stuffy old-fashioned vision of the tweed-clad professor, neither are most of the reflections personal. Similarly, while he includes a broad range of people in the historical fields, Raab still tends to default back to the historian as professor. On the other hand, neither does he provide skill, methodological, professional, or practical suggestions to those who might be interested in being a historian. Raab is clearly enthusiastic about history, but his audience for the book is not wholly clear. Students may appreciate the insights and some might be inspired, but the testimonials are not particularly uplifting and the defense of the humanities follows traditional paths. Who Is the Historian? has its virtues and in some ways shows a more nuanced understanding of historians in the world than did From Herodotus to H-Net, but it was still in some ways lacking. It might be the right book for an opening gambit in an undergraduate historiography class for some, I am still looking for that right one for my tastes.

“Glorious Confusion”

A review of: From Herodotus to H-Net, Jeremy D. Popkin

[Ed. Note: What follows is an attempt to recreate an earlier post that was written earlier this week with access to the text but, with a perfunctory “document could not be saved,” vanished to the devils of technical difficulties.]

Jeremy Popkin’s From Herodotus to H-Net is an excellent introduction to historiography, or the history of writing history. After a brief, but sufficient, introduction, the text is divided into two parts, the origins of history to 1960 and 1960 to the present. The title of this post, “Glorious Confusion,” is taken from the opening chapter of the second part, but could aptly describe the book as a whole.

Popkin has a catholic vision of history and, as such, tries to balance two divergent visions of recounting the past. On the one hand, he walks the reader through what might be termed the “grand narrative” of historiography to show the general developments in how mainstream history has been written; on the other, he tries to show the extreme diversity in terms of representations of the past–so much so that he even name-drops “the Hitler Channel” as a nickname for the History Channel. The result of this diversity is that Popkin implies the “glorious diversity” after 1960 was a radical reinvention of history as an academic discipline post-1960, rather than a revision of how to think about the past.

The two threads to From Herodotus to H-Net frequently results in summary of the major historiographical works. Most of the major figures and/or works make their way into the dizzying series of names such as Marx, Weber, Wallerstein, Foucault, Said, and Chakrabarty. For the ones I have read, Popkin’s summaries and critiques are more than adequate, generally presenting the approach and how it came to be adopted by historians without being dismissive. After all, his objective is to show the multiplicity of historical approaches.

Specialists may quibble with the specific character of “history” in their time period, even though this “problem” actually furthers the core assumptions. For instance, Popkin’s account of ancient historiography is dominated by the canonical authors Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Livy, and Tacitus. Certainly he suggests that these authors were not alone in their writing, but, unlike later periods, there is no recognition that ancient peoples represented the past through poetry, rhetoric, and even plays the way that he acknowledges for later periods. Too, despite nods towards Chinese (and to a lesser extent) Muslim histories, there is an excessive focus on Western historiography, as building toward the creation of history as an academic discipline. As a result, representations of the past in Babylon, Persia, and Africa in both written and non-written forms are given short shrift.

The penultimate chapter, “historians at work” is a radical departure from the preceding historiography that would be of particular interest to undergraduate and MA students. In it, Popkin provides an overview of how one goes from being a history major in college to applying to college to graduate school to applying for jobs, getting tenure or finding jobs outside the academy. The process he gives is somewhat distilled and runs the risk of becoming dated, but is neither overly optimistic nor pessimistic. I appreciated his frank discussion, though it was somewhat surprising that there was no mention of being interdisciplinary in graduate school given the preceding vision of historiography. Another issue that Popkin raises in this chapter is that it is common for students to arrive in college with an aversion to history because of how it is taught in high school. He solution, it seems, is to have his legion of readers, history devotees all, reform how history is taught from the inside, without acknowledging the institutional limitations faced by such instructors.

Despite, or perhaps because of these issues I think that From Herodotus to H-Net is an excellent introductory text to a historiography course. It would, of course, be necessary to pair it with more pointed studies about or using the variety of methods Popkin discusses, but the book sows the fields from which fruitful discussion may grow.