Respecting the Past: Himmelfarb, Genovese, E.P. Thompson

One of the things my graduate advisors at Flat State U demanded was that we pay attention to historians we disagreed with. Especially to “why” we disagreed with them. Was it what they wrote and how, or poor use of sources? That was perfectly acceptable and professional. Was it because we had problems with their personal philosophies and lifestyle? Woah up there, Francis. Not professional.

The topic really bubbled up when my graduate seminar read Roll, Jordan, Roll by Eugene Genovese. It appeared later, in a milder form, when I read The Making of the Working Class by E. P. Thompson. Both are/were Marxist historians. But unlike so many modern children of Marx, these men respected their subject. They admired the people they studied and gave them full credit for being fully human, with all that means. Gertrude Himmelfarb, who shared very little with Genovese and Thompsen philosophically, also respected her subject.

Gertrude Himmelfarb passed away recently at age 97. She was a rigorous scholar of Victorian England, and one who insisted on academic honesty and proper use of materials. Even the historical ideas that she disagreed with, she presented with understanding and sometimes sympathy for the people who held those ideas. No one at the time knew the problems that might ensue. Her work comparing the Scottish, American, and French Enlightenments showed this quite clearly, although she did not hesitate to let readers know her opinions, especially of fellow scholars who, in her opinion, failed to uphold the standards of the craft.

Eugene Genovese was, when he first started, a Marxist historian, meaning that he used Marx’s ideas as the lens through which he viewed the past. He was also rigorous about intellectual honesty, and quite willing to throw the BS flag when something pushed his button. When a book came out about slavery in the US that compared it to the concentration camps of Nazi German, and made some dubious claims about the psychological effects of slavery on Africans and African-Americans, Genovese retaliated with one of the best books about how the slaves saw the world, Roll, Jordan, Roll. His respect for the people on the plantations and in the fields came through, and he took them and their beliefs very seriously. Genovese treated them as real people, with real faith and desires and personalities, people who shaped their world as much as they could. He also took seriously the beliefs of the slave owners and other whites. Genovese revealed a far more complicated and fascinating world than people had come to imagine, and the field of history is much, much better off for his book.

E.P. Thompson . . . I have mixed emotions about him, but his work on the origins of the English working class was one of the first, if not the first, to take them as real people and not “the proletariat” or as a faceless political lump. Granted, he downplayed the role of religion, leaning on Marx’s “opiate of the people used by the middle class to control the workers” philosophy. I didn’t care for that, having read Himmelfarb and a couple of other writers on the topic. However, he makes the men and women who worked in the mines, mills, factories, and other places very real, and takes their words and actions seriously. They are agents, in the sense that they acted, they did things, they didn’t just respond when poked. The workers in his books are not carried along by the tides of history. They are paddling, rowing, and sometimes swimming (and whapping sharks on the head). I disagree with some of his underlying assumptions, but his people are real people.

All three historians treated the people they wrote about as real people. That’s one thing that feels absent in a lot of modern public discussions of the past: the real people who lived, loved, hated, mourned, and partied. Everything is groups and ideals, not actual people who do real people things.

It feels a touch odd to link Himmelfarb – a social conservative intellectual historian – with Eugene Genovese and E. P. Thompson. But all three were honest, wrote very well, and left the field richer and more interesting than when they found it. I disagree with the politics of Genovese and Thompson, but I value their work and admire what they produced.



7 thoughts on “Respecting the Past: Himmelfarb, Genovese, E.P. Thompson

  1. Thank you for this article. It shows what a professional historian who lives up to the standards of the craft is.

    • I’m not sure how well Thompson has aged, but if you are studying the Long 19th Century and/or English history, he’s still one of the touchstones, love him or hate him.

  2. Excellent point, and you’re right. Today it is NOT humanized… It’s this ‘group’, or that ‘ethnology’, or (insert ism here). If an individual is singled out, it is for some type of outrageous behavior or action(s) taken for or against them.

  3. More reading suggestions, all of them requiring that you think. They need a lower position on my non-fiction list. I have others to finish, with bookmarks multiplying.

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