Reflections on late-evening reading

+ More

I have been writing a book on the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 and so have been tilting my late-evening reading to books that are not quite on point but have some relevance to the events of 1688-89 and put them into a longer perspective. Which led me last night to The Makings of an Historian: The Collected Essays of J. H. Plumb. Plumb was a graceful and prolific writer, and, as best as I can tell, some of his works have stood the test of time very well, notably his The Growth of Political Stability in England, 1675-1725. There Plumb explains how the fractious and often violent politics of 17th- century England was transformed into the more consensus-minded and peaceful politics of the 18th century. The book was first published in 1967, but I gather from my readings of the more recently published historians that Plumb's view has held up very well.

Plumb's Essays are a joy to read:, gracefully written, based on extensive learning, full of wise judgments and generous appreciation of the work of others. But I found some jarring notes in his essay, first published in 1969, on Winston Churchill—important, for my project, because Churchill wrote a 2,000-page biography of his ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough, who as Baron John Churchill played an important part (historians disagree on how important; Winston Churchill unsurprisingly considered it very important) in the Glorious Revolution.

Plumb praises Churchill's narrative accounts of battle, his vigorous prose, his understanding of how men in high office behave. But he also points to what he considers Churchill's limitations. Here is one such passage, with emphasis added:

"These advantageous gifts, however, had their corollary of weakness. Unlike Macaulay, Churchill was not a clever man: his intellectual machinery was adequate rather than distinguished. This, of course, saved him from self-criticism, from that gnawing intellectual doubt which may haunt the creative faculties of gifted men. In Churchill the historian, however, it created serious limitations. A self-indulgent man, he could not drive himself where he did not wish to go; hence, the history of ideas, of science, of complex intellectual issues remained an almost closed book to him. He never mastered the giant intellectual figures of his youth and early middle age—Marx and Freud. He never turned hungrily to the works of philosophers, economists, social scientists. His intellectual tastes were as simple as his taste for literature. The devious subtleties of human nature, as explored by Proust or Dostoevsky, possessed no charm for him. There was, and is, in his work a touch of the philistine. His culture, such as it was, was the simple culture of his class—the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Scott, Dickens, and a little Trollope, topped off with Rudyard Kipling."

Some of this stands up pretty well. But some of it, 37 years after it was written, sounds antique. So he never mastered Marx and Freud. In the common rooms of Cambridge, where Plumb taught, in 1969 Marx and Freud may have still seemed giant intellectual figures. But today it's pretty clear that the explanatory force of their theories is generally considered discredited. The Bible, Shakespeare, even Kipling provide better guides to human motivation and events. As for Proust and Dostoievsky (to use Plumb's transliteration), they certainly do provide important insights (I haven't read Proust, so I'll take others' words on him), but how relevant were they to Churchill's task?

Plumb is particularly scathing on Churchill's four-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples, written mostly in the 1930s (when he badly needed the money) but not published until the 1950s (when he had quite a lot). Here his criticisms seem sound. But it's not just Churchill's methods Plumb criticizes: He dislikes the basic thrust of Churchill's work.

"For Churchill, the core of English history lay in the struggles of its gentlemen against the Crown for its liberties, and then, when those had been won, in the harmony with it on their forward march to wealth and Empire. Churchill's old-fashioned, deeply patriotic book is the elegy for the generous view of English history and institutions, but one which lay at the core of the beliefs of the class in which he was nurtured. Faulted and criticised it may easily be, but this tradition is not all nonsense: it possesses some grains of truth. The English acquired and maintained political liberty, not for the reasons Churchill would have given, but acquire it and maintain it they did. And the history of Europe, or of the world for that matter, shows that this is no easy thing even for an affluent and dominant society. And the Whig aristocracy played some part in England's unique achievement. It should not be forgotten. As we shall see, when Churchill combined his historical beliefs with statecraft, his dream acquired reality."

In the first half of this passage, we see the perspective of 1969: England has lost its empire, and a good thing too; the capitalism of the industrial era, largely ignored by Churchill, has been transformed into the socialism of the welfare state, largely opposed by Churchill. The heroic age of England is over, and was never the whole story anyway, or even perhaps the largest part of it. But from the perspective of today, of post-Thatcher Britain, the assumption that the welfare state represented the last and highest state of history seems unpersuasive, and the assumption that Britain no longer has a major part to play on the international stage seems just plain wrong. And, to give Plumb credit, in the second half of the passage, he concedes that there is something to Churchill's heroic view of history. He recognizes that the achievements of the English-speaking peoples (Churchill's formulation) were impressive—and how much more impressive they look today. In 1969, the United States was mired in Vietnam and Britain was preparing to withdraw from east of Suez. Now the United States is the unipolar great power and Britain one of its most steadfast and useful allies. To Plumb's credit, if you can see the perspective of the 1969 in which he was writing, you can also see something like an openness to the potentialities that have come to pass.

A final passage to illustrate this, one in which Plumb shows a fine appreciation for architecture. "Good as Churchill's prose is, it remains all too frequently rhetoric, oral rather than written literature [a nice touch: Churchill actually did dictate much of his books], and his style is something of a confection, a hybrid of Macaulay out of Gibbon, a style which by the 1940s, let alone the 1950s, was curiously old-fashioned and somewhat out of place, like St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue: a building perfect in its faithfulness to the Gothic and splendidly designed and built, but distinctly odd in the context of Rockefeller Center."

Distinctly odd in the 1950s perhaps. But in the 2000s (or whatever we want to call this decade), the juxtaposition of St. Patrick's and Rockefeller Center, together with the International- style media towers (Time Warner, News Corp., etc.) of Sixth Avenue and the postmodern IBM and 9 West 57th Street towers a few blocks away, seems not only comfortingly familiar—especially comforting in those hours and days after the September 11 attacks—but fitting, as a sort of palimpsest of our English-speaking civilization and American heritage. Plumb shows us in his essay on Churchill that historians inevitably see the past through the prism of the present.

But he also shows us that a fine historian can help us to understand the future that he could not have seen, by meditating on the trajectory of history that he implicitly foresees and the difference between that—and there will always be differences—and the trajectory that we can see in the events that have taken place after he has written.