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Reviewed by:
  • History, Historians, and Autobiography
  • Allan Megill (bio)
Jeremy D. Popkin . History, Historians, and Autobiography. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005. 328 pp. ISBN 0-226-67543-2, $35.00.

A book on "historians' autobiography" is a bit unexpected. To be sure, many historians take an interest in the autobiographies of their fellow historians. If the present reviewer is any indication, historians typically give passing attention to the autobiographical writings of historians whom they have encountered in person or whose historical works they know. Accordingly, over a span of years this reviewer has read Arthur R. M. Lower's My First Seventy-Five Years (1967), Sir Keith Hancock's Professing History (1976), Saul Friedländer's When Memory Comes (1979), Hans A. Schmitt's Lucky Victim: An Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times, 1933–1946 (1989), H. Stuart Hughes's Gentleman Rebel (1990), Martin Duberman's Cures: A Gay Man's Odyssey (1991), Deirdre McCloskey's Crossing: A Memoir (1999), and George L. Mosse's Confronting History (2000). These are, respectively, historians of Canada, Britain, Germany (with a focus on the Third Reich and the Holocaust), Germany, Europe (intellectual and political history), the United States (cultural history, gay history), Britain (economic history), and Germany (intellectual and cultural history). This reviewer has also just finished Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (2005), whose author has written many books on the history of the United States.

But aside from a few classic works, such as Edward Gibbon's Memoirs (1796) and Henry Adams's The Education of Henry Adams (1907), it is hard to think of historians' "life writing" as constituting an especially interesting subgenre. It appears that no one before Jeremy Popkin has written a book on the subject, and the absence is surely indicative. One problem is the often uneventful character of historians' lives. The historian's craft requires that much time be consecrated to the sedentary tasks of reading and writing. If some part of the historian's life story happens to be rich in incident and excitement, this is usually the result of circumstances, such as being drafted into a war, that are separate from a scholarly career. While it is tempting to say that any life can be interesting if it is well told, only a few historians lead lives that are likely to resonate widely in the retelling. In this regard, two of the autobiographies mentioned in the previous paragraph stand out: Friedländer's When Memory Comes and John Hope Franklin's Mirror to America. Friedländer's book recounts how, as the young child of refugee Czech Jews, he managed [End Page 481] to survive World War II under the assumed identity of a French Catholic. As for Mirror to America, which was published in John Hope Franklin's ninety-first year, it has a far wider subject than Franklin himself, for the real story that it tells is of an American racism so rigid and pervasive, during most of his life, that his triumphing over it seems nothing short of miraculous.

However, a more important question is not whether historians' autobiographies are interesting but whether we ought to think of them as a subgenre at all. It is a matter of existential priority: in other words, we need to ponder the question, "How deep an aspect of the self is 'being a historian'"? Marcus Mosely recently published a 650-page study of Jewish autobiography, Being for Myself Alone: Origins of Jewish Autobiography (2006). If someone is Jewish enough to write a "Jewish autobiography," that author's Jewishness surely exists deeply enough that it can be said to be a fundamental identity. Our imagined author of a "Jewish autobiography" would see herself as being Jewish in a quite profound sense of "being." By way of contrast, in most cases "being a historian" seems more an activity one carries out than an identity one inhabits (although, to be sure, one cannot entirely separate doing and being). Consider Franklin's Mirror to America. Franklin has much to say about his struggles to establish himself as a historian (he was eventually elected president of the American Historical Association), but his book is far more...


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