The Magazine

'Exiles' in Exile

E.H. Carr and the case of the disappearing masterpiece.

Nov 24, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 10 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Russian nationalism is back in the news after a welcome lull, and that offers an opportunity to describe my recent, excited reacquaintance with an early chapter in its checkered history.

It began when I recommended to a friend, a clergyman of historical and literary sensibility, a book I remembered liking very much in my college years: Edward Hallett Carr's The Romantic Exiles (1933). I recommended, along with it, a Conrad novel, Under Western Eyes, that also evokes the expatriate world of thwarted Russian reformers of the 19th century. I may have said, "These books will help you understand the tragic political obtuseness of the Russians." I soon found myself drawn again to Carr's book, and emerged from a rereading stunned. It is quite simply a masterpiece. When he wrote it, Carr was a young Foreign Office diplomat in his early forties, assigned to the League of Nations in Geneva. He was to become, in due course, an influential journalist and then an eminent historian of the Bolshevik Revolution and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

But he is undoubtedly better remembered in this country for a later and quite different book, What Is History? (1961), a donnish dissection of the way historians work. What Is History? enjoyed the rare destiny of becoming a bestseller (30,000 copies sold in the United States, a quarter-million worldwide) and of being enthusiastically attacked by fellow historians all over. Barbara Tuchman, for instance, professed astonishment at Carr's historical agnosticism: She took him to be saying that even the most familiar episodes have no reality apart from what historians write about them, and in that respect resemble the tree crashing silently in a primeval forest because no one hears the sound.

I am not sure that Tuchman grasped the point, and her riposte might have been ignored had she not been at the time the celebrated author of The Guns of August, a book about accident and miscalculation in the origins of the First World War.

Guns was said to have influenced John F. Kennedy's cautious response to Nikita Khrushchev's attempt to place Russian ballistic missiles in Cuba, undoubtedly the most dangerous provocation of all the Cold War years. But did she read Carr right? He actually says--it approaches truism--that historians shape our ideas of the past because what they write is conditioned by their origins and experience; and that this conditioning colors what they make of supposed historical facts. He also suggests--another near-truism--that historical events are "overdetermined" in the Freudian sense, born of many tangled causes; and that historians must establish some hierarchy among them.

Tuchman, the gifted amateur, tended to find historical causation rather obvious, even simple. Why, she asks in The Guns of August, did Turkey ally itself with the Central Powers in 1914? For the simple reason that a German battle cruiser being pursued by the Royal Navy found refuge at Istanbul!

In The Romantic Exiles, Carr shows how a band of expatriate Russian idealists--some of them of the nobility, a few of them very wealthy--intoxicated themselves with Rousseauist romanticism, and acted accordingly. He knew the surviving daughter of their leader, Alexander Herzen, who lived conveniently in Geneva; and he drew artfully on their plentiful letters and diaries and other literary remains to limn their personal quirks and attitudes.

They were determined to escape the oppression they had fled. Was the czarist regime police-ridden, intrusive, harsh, and terrifying? Very well. High on Rousseau and George Sand (they even adopted roles from her novels), they would so free themselves of conventional jealousies that not even their frequent adulteries would impair mutual regard and friendship--not fatally, at least.

Whatever one thinks of these colorful exiles, whether one considers them foolish or noble or both, The Romantic Exiles is a masterwork, a book literally hard to put down. As Carr's recent biographer Jonathan Haslam writes, it is "quite unlike anything else Carr ever wrote [with] an energy to it and a fluidity that makes it more like a novel."

Having reread it with utter fascination after some 50 years, I wanted to know more about the book's afterlife. What might the formidable Professor Carr of 1961 have thought of the younger self who had written so warmly and perceptively about the Herzen circle?

The surprising answer is: nothing. In the early pages of What Is History? he lists all his works but The Romantic Exiles. There, and also in a collection of essays published at about the same time. According to Haslam, he had dismissed his youthful masterpiece as "frivolous."

If so, he was hardly the first writer to mistake his strengths. Arthur Conan Doyle, for instance, was appalled to think that he might be remembered for his Sherlock Holmes stories rather than his "serious" novels, now long forgotten. E.H. Carr similarly staked his reputation on his dry and impersonal History of Soviet Russia in 14 volumes. It is already gathering dust, and its resolutely neutral perspective on the crimes, follies, and rivalries of that sour chapter of human history earned Carr little praise and much scorn.
His biographer offers few clues to Carr's repudiation of The Romantic Exiles. But some evidence may lie in the epilogue. The failure of Herzen's influence--he and his circle were industrious propagandists for democratic reform--meant that, when it finally came some 70 years later, the Russian Revolution would match, even exceed, czarism in repressiveness. By the time Carr wrote his multivolume magnum opus on that revolution, he had apparently surrendered his warm sympathy for the gentler virtues and embraced a dusty, impersonal view of the "historical process" that left small room for amiable eccentricity and idealism.

Yet he had foreseen the cost of the failure: Before Marx, "the cause of revolution .  .  . had been idealistic and romantic--a matter of intuitive and heroic impulse. Marx made it materialistic and scientific--a matter of deduction and cold reason .  .  . subordin[ating] human nature and human happiness to the working of a scientific principle."

It is regrettable that Carr did not cling to that vital distinction. But these speculations about the disowning of The Romantic Exiles may be unfair, for he never explained it completely. Carr was a formidably complicated student of history, with great brilliance of intellect and style. But his eventual embarrassment by the richly human story he had written as a young man, with a depth and eloquence worthy of the great masters of Russian fiction, is itself a literary tragedy of sorts--a tragedy of art to match the enduring tragedies of Russian politics.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a former editor and columnist in Washington.