A Crooked Line
From Cultural History to the History of Society
Publication Year: 2005
Published by: University of Michigan Press
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As a young person seeking change in the world, living through a time of excitements and upheaval, I wanted to become a historian because history really mattered; it was necessary for making a difference. I never thought that the connections from history to politics were easy or straightforward, whether in the grander way or just as a guide for personal behavior. Some homilies about the uses of history certainly invited simplicity, marshaling stock quotations made ever more facile by repetition: Orwell’s “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present...
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The idea for this book was hatched on November 18, 2002, when I gave my inaugural lecture as the Sylvia L. Thrupp Collegiate Professor of Comparative History at the University of Michigan. In naming my chair (local custom asks collegiate professors to choose their own title by honoring someone connected to the University) I wanted to make a double statement. First, as well as being a pioneer of medieval social history, Sylvia Thrupp was a main instigator of the openness of historians to interdisciplinary and comparative analysis. The journal which she founded in Chicago...
I . BECOMING A HISTORIAN: A Personal Preface
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When i was deciding to become a historian, interdisciplinarity had yet to haunt the corridors of history departments. It was further from doing so in Britain than in the United States. I came to Balliol College, Oxford, in October 1967 coveting access to a new universe of knowledge, poised at the portals of scholarship and learning. To my chagrin, the first term brought only Gibbon and Macaulay, de Tocqueville, Burckhardt, and—last but not least—the Venerable Bede. Amid this chronically unimaginative Oxford pedagogy, which sought to dampen the intellectual ardor of youth...
II . OPTIMISM
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For me, becoming a historian was intricately bound with an exposure to Marxism. At ‹rst, this was an extremely messy and piecemeal encounter. As I suspect is common for many of my particular generation, early familiarity with Marxist theory came only haphazardly— not through much of a reading of Marx and Engels themselves, let alone from any systematic education or political socialization, but through various kinds of secondhand or vicarious translation. That meant partly the omnipresent political languages...
III . DISAPPOINTMENT
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There is a German side to my story. In October 1970, I arrived at the University of Sussex to begin graduate work in German history. As an undergraduate, I’d spent much of my time on early twentieth century Germany, so there was some logic to this choice. My best teacher had also been a German historian, Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, who was now moving to a lectureship at Sussex.1 But my interest in Germany went back much further. Growing up in the 1950s, I couldn’t help being impressed by the spectacular qualities of the recent German past, its lurid and violent...
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As I left Britain for the United States in the summer of 1979, some weeks after the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, the world may have been changing, but the intellectual bearings seemed secure. With hindsight, we can see the solid ground of materialism cracking and shifting. As I suggested in chapter 3, between 1977–78 and 1982–83, such influential individuals as William Sewell and Gareth Stedman Jones...
V. DEFIANCE: History in the Present Tense
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Within the vast corpus of the social history accumulated since the 1960s, it’s possible to ‹nd two distinct impulses or directions (though this is not the only way of telling the story). One impulse has been the desire to grasp the development of whole societies— sometimes discretely, by analyzing the forces shaping a single country’s experience; sometimes internationally, by arguing about global or comparative change. The history of social structure— whether approached through class...
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Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2005