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A Scholar’s Journey

From 17th-century Spain to the world at large.

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By JAMES M. BANNER
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In none of these ventures has Elliott avoided identifying and trying to overcome the obstacles in his own and others’ paths. He is as candid about what he sees as the limitations of his own writings as he is critical of aspects of the larger historical enterprises in which he has been engaged. The book is thus a model of dispassionate reflection on one’s own life and work—a book that, while putting himself, as a memoirist must, at the center of things, avoids the self-esteeming claims and overexposure of so many memoirs, even, occasionally, those of historians. 

A memoir like this—modest, unadorned, and candid—does not, however, speak for itself. No memoirist can cover every topic he or she may wish, and, of course, most humans are incapable of understanding everything about their own lives. One topic that Elliott might have addressed—and surely he is capable of doing so—is the widely misunderstood matter of revisionist history. If we take the term at its capacious best, then Elliott has been a “revisionist historian” from the start, even if he doesn’t devote one of his limpid chapters to that fact. That is, he has altered existing interpretations of the Catalan and Spanish past, consequently challenging others to address his claims, and thus gathering controversy to himself.  

Yet there is nothing unusual about this. Too many people associate the term “revisionist” with the left—and, to be sure, the term originated in late-19th-century German Marxist circles—but, in fact, from the days of Thucydides, and from every point of the ideological compass, historians have tried to substitute their own views, findings, and arguments for those of their predecessors—on the right, left, and in the middle. Most historians, as often unintentionally as by design, have therefore turned out to be revisionist historians. Revisionism is woven into the very fabric of what Elliott himself calls the “elusive enterprise” of trying to pin down the past. Both the delight and importance of historical knowledge is its being unendingly open to new ideas and visions—always unstable, and eternally open to debate.

Were some paradise of agreement about the past ever to emerge, we could be sure that humans had given up thinking. And thus, even a historian as noncombative and nonideological as Elliott has found his work entangled in intellectual and public politics. As Elliott writes, reflecting on both himself and his fellow historians whose work his own has challenged: 

Because of the constant interaction between past and present, national historians consciously or unconsciously shape the image that nations have of themselves, and, by shaping it, become the largely hidden players in the unending drama of the politics of national identity.

 

This is the fate, and not an unhappy one, shared by all historians—to be unwitting participants, sometimes contestants, in the enduring effort to make meaning of the past. This means always being stuck in the present and trying, through study of the past, to make sense of one’s own time, too.

James M. Banner Jr. is the coeditor, with  John R. Gillis, of Becoming Historians,  a collection of essay-length historians’ memoirs.

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