History is made, then recorded, and recorded again.
Jul 7, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 41 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
A History of Histories
The historical study of historical thought and writing-what historians call historiography-has long been the basis of historians' work. To function as professionals, they must know the interpretive history of their subjects, whether they be the fall of Rome, the American Revolution, or the causes of World War II.
Yet historians rarely pursue the larger subject of the history of all history itself, and many never directly acquaint themselves with the works of the great master historians. Their reason? The mistaken assumption that new evidence and deeper understanding have long ago superseded many of the masters' interpretations. Why bother with what's been surpassed-except, perhaps, in literary merit?
What's more, too many practicing historians are introduced to the subject (as I was) in dreary required courses in historiography at the start of their graduate preparation when they're just gaining their professional legs, don't yet know where they're headed, and aren't yet able to comprehend fully why they're being made to study ancient texts. Nor are they likely to have encountered historiography as undergraduate majors of history. As a forthcoming report prepared for the Teagle Foundation by the National History Center indicates, few undergraduate courses in the subject are offered at all by American colleges and universities. No wonder that the history of history enjoys so few students.
Fortunately, however, when it does attract scholars, it attracts good ones indeed, as it has John Burrow, a respected historian of 19th-century thought and a biographer of Edward Gibbon. A History of Histories joins the distinguished, but rare, company of comprehensive, modern histories of historical thought, of which the best recent examples are Ernst Breisach's synthesis, Historiography: Ancient, Medieval & Modern and Donald R. Kelley's three volumes (Faces of History, Fortunes of History, and Frontiers of History), which also cover the history of history since ancient times. Burrow is livelier reading than Breisach, intended for a broader audience than Kelley. All three are worth the effort, but none can take the place of the originals-Herodotus, Tacitus, Macaulay, and the rest-as their three authors would readily agree.
Burrow brings to his project a refreshing zest, seductive enough to make you think that, rather than reading the originals, you might rely on his evaluations of the great masters' works rather than reading them. You would not go far wrong to do so-if only as an introduction. Even without the credulous curiosity of Herodotus, the gravity of Thucydides, the rolling periods of Gibbon, or the propulsive sweep of Carlyle, Burrow effectively gets you inside his subjects' minds without surrendering his own critical sense. This is of double benefit: You get balanced interpretations of the great histories, along with evidence of a thoroughly modern mind at work on them. Even if Burrow's won't be (because it can't be) the last word on any of his subjects, what he writes is unfailingly solid, sometimes delightful, always keenly considered.
Burrow commences his tale, as he must, with Egyptian and Babylonian record keepers. But as he quickly makes clear, history as more than a chronicle of dates and deeds-history as a purposeful inquiry to discover and explain the past as well as to commemorate its leading figures and great events-commences properly with Herodotus and his history of the war between the Greek states and the Persian empire. This great Greek historian set into a kind of intellectual amber many of the enduring themes of Western historiography: the conflict between East and West and between Western freedom and Oriental despotism, the dangers of imperial overreach, and the corruptions of power. It was also Herodotus who ventured down the paths of social and cultural history, and whose ethnographic researches and interviews prefigured the methods of modern historical inquiry.