- Editorial Introduction: A Festschrift for Jerry Bentley
Jerry Bentley’s dedication to intellectual inclusiveness and to disciplinary rigor should be celebrated as two sides of a groundbreaking career in the discipline of history. His enduring advocacy for investigations into world history, because it was broadly and deeply conceived, was not complacent: To the end, it aimed to challenge us. And his advocacy remained dynamic in his last publication, a critique of John Headley’s history of the European origins of global democracy.1 Bentley there described the current challenge as “the difficult work of actually investigating historical reality in the larger world, just as professional historians from Leopold von Ranke forward have compiled remarkable histories of Europe and its American offshoots.”2 Bentley was specifically thinking of the challenge of Headley’s Eurocentric thesis about democracy, but the content of Bentley’s other final writings indicates that he was thinking more programmatically about world history in general.
Bentley labored under no illusions that history is an easy discipline, perhaps especially world history. For example, a truthful history of democratic ideas and practices “in global context,” Bentley argued in his critique of Headley’s book, would have to explore how these two historical phenomena took “different shapes and sport[ed] different colors in different societies,” and not straightjacket the historical evidence of “complicated” and “interrelated” reality into one preconceived taxonomy [End Page 459] (evidence, it should be noted, should thus be privileged according to Bentley over desires for simplicity). The challenge is a familiar one to historians: Generalizations, like translations, have to reach heights of intellectual accomplishment, but they must be solidly grounded in the evidence of specific contexts. Perhaps Bentley was thinking of this issue of how resuscitating the lived, grounded truth of the past should matter more to historians than rhetorical heights when in a 1981 book review he quoted Edward Fitzgerald’s approving self-assessment of his rather free translations of Omar Khayyam’s poems: “better a live sparrow,” mused Fitzgerald, “than a stuffed eagle.”3 Lived reality is to be preferred to preconceptions, anachronism, or aggrandizement.
However, this is daunting historical work: Reviving the lived past while avoiding the stuffed eagles of the present is a collective goal that relies on individual historians’ intellectual efforts. Like the meticulous work carried out by the Renaissance scholars whom Bentley studied in his early years, world history is a humanistic endeavor, writ large, and Bentley argued in his analysis of Headley’s book that its critical investigative moment has arrived, a feeling easily confirmed by a quick perusal of scholarly journals, which shows that there is more research of a cross-cultural, entangled, histoire croisée, or transnational vein than ever before: “The time has come, in the interests of clear historical understanding unclouded by Eurocentric mythologies,” Bentley contended, “to take the larger world seriously, to scour global archives just as assiduously as historians have examined the European record over the past two centuries, and to follow as clearly as Headley has done for Europeans the contributions that peoples beyond Europe have made to the development of democracy and human rights.”4 The way Bentley praised Headley’s rigorous scholarship but critiqued the limitations imposed on him by his Eurocentric evidence is emblematic of the great legacy of Bentley’s scholarship, which this Festschrift celebrates. Despite our many accomplishments, much of the world’s history still remains to be fully investigated in a rigorous fashion.
Over the years, and with increasing focus, Bentley’s writing encouraged many to take up this “difficult work of actually investigating historical reality in the larger world.” But there was an implicit model as well (less [End Page 460] often perceived) in the arc of his career, from his early methodological realizations to his final culminating recommendations for the future. We can learn from the way Bentley’s trajectory went from young historian of Renaissance humanism in the 1970s to early advocate of world history in the 1980s and then finally to mature proponent of world-historical research in the early 2000s, especially because this evolution parallels key developments in the recent history of the modern historical profession...