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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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.