Not all ways of recalling the past are equal
IN DEFENSE OF HISTORY By Richard J. Evans W.W. Norton 287 pp., $25.95
The title of this thoughtful book, "In Defense of History," is perhaps its least well-thought-out element. The book does not defend history. Rather, it defends the doing of history by certain scholars, while criticizing the way other scholars diverge from sound practice. A more accurate title would have been "In Praise of Certain Historians."
The criticism of the title is more than a quibble because the current version could turn off potential readers. That would be a shame. Richard J. Evans has written one of those rare books aimed at specialists (in this case, professional historians) that will fascinate generalists (in this case, anybody who reads history).
The guts of Evans's accessible discourse is which philosophies and techniques of historians come closest to achieving truth about the past.
That discourse has consequences. As Evans puts it so compellingly, "The problem of how historians approach the acquisition of knowledge about the past, and whether they can ever wholly succeed in this enterprise, can stand for the much bigger problem of how far society at large can ever attain the kind of objective certainty about the great issues of our time that can serve as a reliable basis for making vital decisions...."
As an author with amateur historian status, I read hundreds of books and articles by disparate historians writing about the same topic. Rarely do those historians agree about the facts, much less the meaning. Some impose a pattern on their subject's life, while others do not.
One of the many strengths of Evans's book is his explanation on how intellectual trends within the professional historian ranks determine whether finding patterns is fashionable or not. Evans offers a wonderful quotation from historian H.A.L. Fisher: "Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows upon wave, only one great fact with respect to which, since it is unique, there can be no generalizations...."
Evans supplements that insightful passage with a wonderful passage of his own: "History, in this bewildered view [represented by Fisher], was just 'one damned thing after another,' devoid of meaning and not capable of interpretation."
Although Evans is painstakingly evenhanded when discussing various philosophies of doing history, he is a traditionalist, "optimistic that objective historical knowledge is both desirable and attainable." The postmodernist school of historical thought maintains otherwise, and so do the relativists. Perhaps they will be proved more correct in the future, Evans says. For now, he concludes, "I will look humbly at the past and say, despite them all: It really happened, and we really can, if we are very scrupulous and careful and self-critical, find out how it did and reach some tenable conclusions about what it all meant."
Steve Weinberg lives in Columbia, Mo., and is writing a biography of muckraking journalist Ida