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  • A History of Historical Distances
  • Jason H. Pearl (bio)

The term “distance” has become a buzzword among literature scholars for new interpretive methods. How closely should we read individual texts? How heavily can we rely on abstract models to provide greater distance and perspective on numerous texts? In On Historical Distance (Yale, 2013), Mark Salber Phillips reminds us that historians have their own questions of distance, in particular the question of how distantly, or proximately, to understand and represent earlier episodes in history. Of course, the two kinds of distance are discipline specific, but each raises roughly similar methodological issues about engagement and identification on the one hand and detachment and estrangement on the other. What concerns Phillips is the always-variable relationship between actual temporal distance and represented historiographic distance, as well as the kinds and combinations of distance that make up particular historical vantage points. These matters have gone largely unacknowledged, or acknowledged only indirectly, except for a few notable exceptions, including David Lowenthal’s The Past is a Foreign Country, Carlo Ginzburg’s Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance, and a new volume of essays edited by Phillips, Barbara Caine, and Julia Adeney Thomas, entitled Rethinking Historical Distance.1 What the monograph under review gives us is a more sustained treatment of the concept that makes it both mobile across history and especially pertinent to the historiography of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

It is worth pointing out that Phillips claims always to have been interested in issues of distance. This will come as no surprise to readers of his previous book, Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740–1820, the introduction and conclusion of which offer brief statements on distance that get further developed in the new book.2 In Society and Sentiment, an appreciation of the complexities of historical distance is one of the keys to recuperating the historical work of David Hume and others before Leopold von Ranke, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Jules Michelet. On Historical Distance returns to several of the same topics, as well as topics in Phillips’s earlier books on Florentine [End Page 391] and Italian history, and although this might seem redundant to some readers, the new book is aimed at a broader audience, and moreover it reinterprets the familiar material and intersperses it with much that is new.3

The most far-reaching insights come in the introduction, where historical distance is defined as encompassing the various ways history writing orients us toward different periods of the past. Distance is a primary idea of human understanding; it is a mediatory and relational concept that helps us understand historical parts and reconcile them with historical wholes. Here and throughout the book, Phillips is keen to demonstrate the complexities of distance, to show that “the plasticity of distance produces richly variable designs” (9). Holding history close does not necessarily entail identification; seeing the past more remotely does not always result in a cooler sense of proportions. The introduction elaborates four specific types of distance: “Every representation of history incorporates elements of making, feeling, acting, and understanding” (6). The first category comprises the media, genres, and conventions that give history writing its formal structures. The second refers to its affective qualities. The third denotes its ideological summons, the fourth its epistemological bases. Although these categories overlap, a certain valence in one never necessitates a corresponding valence in another, and Phillips avoids what he calls “a fixed combinatory logic,” preferring instead to consider individual texts on their own and presume a wide range of possibilities for signification (9).

The rest of the book delves fairly deeply into individual historical works clustered around three moments in Western history: 1500, 1800, and 1968. Indeed, the organization of the book is a bit peculiar, though what is intended is not a comprehensive survey but “ten experiments around a central idea” (xii). Two earlier chapters concern Renaissance historiography; six middle chapters— the bulk of the book— treat different aspects of the transition from Enlightenment to Romantic historiography in Britain; and two at the end are devoted to the late twentieth century. From chapter to chapter, Phillips ranges widely, examining not...


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pp. 391-395
Launched on MUSE
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