BBC Radio 3, 14-18 November 2011
E. H. Carr's What is History was published in 1961 and immediately
became an influential text, prompting entire generations of historians to think carefully about how they reshaped
the past. Although some consider his work outdated, his book still exerts an influence over the theory and practice of history.
In this series of talks for Radio 3's The Essay, five well-known historians
from different generations offered their personal assessments of Carr's book. Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History at
Cambridge University, believed that Carr forced historians to consider what facts they included within their work, and whether
such a concept as "objectivity," actually existed. Speaking for a younger generation, Elisabeth Buettner from the
University of York treated What is History as an historical document in itself; the product of a time of profound
change in British society, as it tried to adjust to the postcolonial era, while realizing that it could no longer be
considered a Great Power. Buettner was particularly illuminating on how the book's arguments mirrored the changes going
on in the make-up of Britain's urban spaces, due to continuing immigration.
This series of talks was certainly no festschrift in Carr's
honour. Amanda Foreman believed that his preoccupation with the historian's role as a reteller of past events did not take
into account the significance of lived experience. Only by delving into the lives of those whose story you are telling,
as well as those surrounding your subject, can you come to understand how people might have lived and responded
in the past. Historians do not tell one story but multiple stories: What are Histories, rather than What
is History. Niall Ferguson had little time for Carr, whose work contemptuously dismisses what might be described as counterfactual
history; the kind of history that poses "what if" questions. Carr revealed a Gradgrindian obsession with facts, which in Ferguson's
opinion prevented him from understanding the significance of past events.
The series ended with Michael Cox of the London School of Economics insisting that
Carr was not an historian at all, but someone more concerned with international relations - especially in his earlier work
on Soviet Russia. What is History should be seen as a meditation on the Cold War, and how East and West redefined
themselves in relation to one another. This is still the case today, as the West tries to assess its role in relation to emergent
powers in Asia - especially China. In Cox's view What is History still has the capacity to help people in the assessment
Two things struck me most about this series. The first was that all the speakers
were preoccupied with whether What is History is still relevant or not. This is an interesting issue, and one which
I don't think was sufficiently addressed. The term 'relevance' immediately evokes a supplementary question: 'relevant to whom'
- the professional historian, the listener, or the publisher who still finds a ready market for the book, half a century
after its first issue. Secondly, I was struck by the fact that all five speakers trusted in their own
abilities as historians to synthesize their material (in different ways, of course) and produce plural interpretations
of the past. However I was prompted to ask whether there were other ways in which Carr's book could perhaps be reinterpreted
today - for example, from a fiction writer's or film director's point of view. Such comparisons might have given
us a more polysemic notion of what is "history" today; whether it can still be viewed as an autonomous subject,
or whether it should be used as a basis for constructing more interdisciplinary approaches to viewing the past.
Nonetheless, I thought the five talks were excellent; they deserve to be collected
and reissued in more permanent form, either online or in print. The producer was Katherine Godfrey.