Historians I Have Known
I recently gave an autobiographical talk on historians I have known. I was reluctant to do so, not so much out of false modesty, but because I didn't believe that anyone would be interested. I was then asked to present a revised version of it for Perspectives. I was once again reluctant, this time because such an essay might set a precedent for future presidents to reveal something about themselves. On reflection, I decided to go ahead, if only to cause the same sense of disquiet in future presidents. More seriously, I have in the past in fact often been curious about the careers of our presidents. Apart from campaign statements, no one ever has much of an opportunity to learn about their early lives, education, and the influences on their work. And there is another reason why I decided to publish a discursive essay that I believe has relevance to the present-day temper of the AHA—but this I'll save for my concluding point.
I grew up in Oklahoma City. I had no idea in high school that I would become an historian—far from it. I wanted to become a musician and I used to play as assistant first French horn in the Oklahoma City Symphony Orchestra. My life also revolved around sports—the swimming team, YMCA handball, and so on. Not until I got to the University of Oklahoma did I begin to have some notion of history as an academic pursuit, and even then I was not a history major. I was what they called a Letters major, which combined majors in literature, philosophy, and history plus ancient and modern languages. While I was a student at OU I spent a year in Europe, and on one of my travels I found myself in Cairo in 1956 when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company. Nasser was in Alexandria, but they had rigged up loudspeakers on the lampposts throughout Cairo. I listened to Nasser's passionate and melodious voice on and on until the early hours of the morning. Though I couldn't understand a word of it, Egyptian friends gave me the gist and I date my interest in Egyptian nationalism and more broadly Asian and African nationalism to that experience.
In my senior year at the University of Oklahoma, I won a Woodrow Wilson Scholarship to study history at Harvard. I was there only a year, but intellectually I profited especially from a class under Barrington Moore Jr., who guided unbelievers through Marxist thought and analysis, and who is proof that the 1950s were not so conventional as is often believed. I must have had as many courses in the social sciences as in history, but I particularly benefited from a seminar under Ernest May, from whom I picked up an invaluable point on teaching that I have put to good use ever since. Drafts of each paper written in a small class or seminar were circulated to all other members of the class, who made detailed annotations on style as well as substance and then returned them to the authors. This is a teaching technique that works at every level—undergraduate, graduate, NEH seminars. It never fails to help improve writing and to come to grips with the subject itself.
At Harvard I worked as an assistant to a famous Australian economist, Arthur Smithies, who once said to me, "If you are truly interested in such things as the British Empire and Asian and African nationalism, then you should go somewhere where they know something about it, which definitely is not Harvard." He helped me to get a Marshall Scholarship to Oxford in 1960, and thus began my more than 40-year association with St. Antony's College. At Oxford I studied under A.J.P. Taylor, then the most visible British historian of the time.
Taylor will be one of the historians I discuss in this column. The others will be Margery Perham, Ronald Robinson and Jack Gallagher, Albert Hourani, and Max Beloff. All these historians happen to be British. But I am not a professional Anglophile. I could just as easily have drawn up a list of American historians whom I have admired and worked with, though the ones I have mentioned did have the greatest influence on my own understanding and writing of history.
When I first met A.J.P. Taylor in 1960, he was 54 years old and, I think, at the height of his powers. He was austere in appearance, even though he often wore a corduroy suit and always sported a bow tie. His narrow, horn-rimmed glasses gave him a slightly bookish look. He was famous as a radical historian, but his academic reputation rested mainly on his book on the Habsburg monarchy, a biography of Bismarck, and The Struggle for Mastery in Europe. He reviewed books far and away more often than any other historian at the time, in newspapers as well as journals. His weekly reviews in the Observer, for example, were something that everyone looked forward to each Sunday morning. He had also begun to appear on television, which gave him a certain notoriety. He was a stylist. He wrote clearly, crisply, concisely. Though I've long since found my own style, he certainly influenced the way I write.
Taylor had the reputation of being anti-American—which he was. More precisely he was anti-United States and pro-Soviet Union, and though he did not especially like Americans, or Germans for that matter, I was lucky enough to be one of the exceptions. To me he was unfailingly friendly and intellectually curious. He could give you the impression, when it suited him, that he was actually learning something from you. He left no doubt that he expected you to get on with your own work and that he would help by reading and commenting. I would take draft chapters to him every few weeks, and we would discuss the argument and the use of evidence, and how the thesis was shaping up chapter by chapter. One of the best pieces of advice that he gave me was to write the thesis as if it were a book. Then I wouldn't have to revise it as a book and could submit it directly to be published. I did so after getting my DPhil, and Oxford University Press published my first book in 1963. Some three decades later, I was appointed editor in chief of the Oxford History of the British Empire. I've been an OUP author almost all the way, what is called a Clarendonian, and it was Alan Taylor who pointed me down that path.
In Oxford your supervisor is required to submit a report at the end of each term on your progress or lack of it. Usually these are very short, often one-line assessments. Taylor once showed me what he had written about me just as I was about to depart for what was then known as Ruanda-Urundi. I think he must have been rather proud of it but I found it slightly disconcerting. He wrote: "Roger Louis is doing good work and should write a competent thesis—if in the meantime he is not massacred in Africa."
What strikes me in retrospect is that there were two Taylors: one was the public A.J.P. Taylor, ferocious and aggressive, the other was my friend Alan, who was unassuming and absolutely loyal. In contrast to his public personality, privately he was very kind and even gentle. I saw him every year when I went back to England for the summer, until Parkinson's disease killed him in 1990.
My other supervisor at Oxford was Margery Perham, who had the reputation of being a formidable Oxford female don, as they used to be called. But like Alan Taylor she had two sides to her personality, one public and another much less forbidding. To be a woman don in those days meant that you had made it entirely on your own in a man's world, though in Margery's case she despised her women's college, St. Hugh's, and thought that Nuffield College, of which she was a founding member in 1939, was paradise in comparison. She preferred male company. Born in 1895, the young Margery of the 1920s and 1930s was a handsome, six-foot-tall woman. She once gave me an inscribed photograph taken, I believe, in the mid-1930s. I treasured the photograph, but after Dagmar and I were married, I came home one evening and noticed that the photograph of Margery had vanished. I asked Dagmar, who is German, "Where is Margery?" Dagmar replied very sternly in German, "Now that we are married, no more girl friends." She later relented, however, and I still have the photo at home permanently lodged on a small desk.
If Margery Perham had been a man, I'm certain that she would have been a district officer and then a colonial governor. In the event, she devoted her career to studying British colonial administration and was greatly concerned with moral or ethical issues. She conducted a famous seminar at Nuffield on African nationalism attended especially by African and Indian graduate students. Her grand theme was colonial responsibility. She was fiercely critical of British rule and was the scourge of the Colonial Office. She wanted to know why the British had opposed the development of nationalism and how they might assist nationalists, especially in Africa, in building new nations. Her most substantial work is her two-volume biography of Lord Lugard, whose name is indelibly associated with British indirect rule in Africa, but her most famous book is a short work called the Colonial Reckoning, which originated as the Reith Lectures in 1961 on the eve of the wave of African independence. Since the beginning of World War II she had demanded a more egalitarian society in the colonies. It was through her writings that I much later perceived the connection between the movement for colonial freedom in the British Empire and the movement for civil rights in this country. To use Brian Urquhart's metaphor, the movement of decolonization and that of civil rights were like two rivers flowing in the same direction.
A.J.P. Taylor and Margery Perham inspired me mainly in the 1960s, a time when I published four monographs, two on Africa (one with Jean Stengers, the Belgian historian of the Congo), one on World War I, and another on British involvement in China and Japan in the interwar years. In the 1970s (when I was writing my book on World War II, Imperialism at Bay), it was Ronald Robinson and Jack Gallagher who influenced me the most.
Robinson and Gallagher had studied and taught in Cambridge and regarded Cambridge as their home. Nevertheless they served in Oxford in succession as Beit Professors from the 1960s, Gallagher from the early sixties until the mid-seventies, Robinson from the mid-seventies until his retirement in the mid-nineties. There was a sort of Laurel and Hardy quality to them. Gallagher was the more stout and was referred to as "Fat Jack." Robinson was a beanpole. Gallagher was born in 1919, Robinson in 1920. Robinson died two years ago of cancer, Gallagher two decades earlier at the age of 60 after having had his leg amputated. His doctor had misdiagnosed him as having gout when in fact he had diabetes. Both had fought in World War II, Gallagher as an enlisted man in the tank corps in North Africa, Robinson as an officer in the Royal Air Force. Their oeuvre consisted mainly of one article and one book. If an appointments committee were looking today at either of them, it would be clear that each reputation rested on one-half of one article and one-half of one book. They wouldn't have a chance. But their achievement was significant. The article, published in 1953 in the Economic History Review, was entitled "The Imperialism of Free Trade" and is reputedly the most cited historical article ever published. The book was Africa and the Victorians, which appeared in 1961. The book strikes a delicate balance between history as social science and history as art, which is one of the reasons for its enduring reputation. Robinson was the social scientist, always probing for a general principle, a cause, an explanation that might hold universally true. Gallagher was an artist—the historian as artist—and in Africa and the Victorians the brilliant pen-portraits of Gladstone, Salisbury, and Chamberlain are his, as is the general portrayal of the Victorian age as a complex, colorful, and rich tapestry.
The theme of the book is the partition of Africa, and it is a theoretical as well as an historical inquiry. Robinson and Gallagher were anti-Marxist. They were out for blood. Contrary to the economic theorists, they held that imperialism was more than economic exploitation, and that it involved what they called "collaboration." If there is only resistance, the result is an army of occupation. To have a functioning colonial administration, key sections of the population must cooperate or collaborate. In the 1960s that was a novel and controversial proposition, and it continues to be debated today, not least in graduate seminars.
The key to their thought lies in the article, "The Imperialism of Free Trade." There they use the metaphor of the iceberg, the part above the waterline being the familiar British Empire as represented on the parts of the map colored red. But, below the waterline, the invisible British Empire consisted of trade, commerce, and indirect control. If Britain exerted control over the political economy of a country, if a country had been reduced to the status of a client state, should it not be considered part of the British Empire? This too has been debated by generations of historians and in fact divided the authors of the Oxford History of the British Empire. The editors and contributors argued among themselves whether or not the Middle East (Iran, for example), China, and Latin America should be included. There was even debate whether or not Ireland should be excluded because Ireland in the 19th century, after all, was not a colony. But if Ireland was not a colony, then what was it? In the end the decision was taken that the OHBE should embrace not only Ireland but also China, the Middle East, and parts of Latin America. I believe that the OHBE consequently is a richer work. One detects the tangible influence of Robinson and Gallagher because many of the authors who wrote these chapters had been trained by them.
Robinson was the more ascetic of the two. It was he who was responsible for the catchword "collaboration," which was unfortunate because it called to mind Pétain and Quisling rather than the neutral sense that he used it in Asia and Africa. In the World War II meaning of the word, Robinson himself was the very opposite of a collaborator. He was a war hero and resister. If the British in 1940 had been forced to fight on the beaches, in the fields, and in the streets, he would have fought to the last ditch, bashing the Nazi invaders with the last beer bottle he could get his hands on. Gallagher also had a heroic war record, but was more convivial and effervescent, while Robinson was somewhat dour. Gallagher was a confirmed bachelor, but this didn't prevent an American graduate student from falling in love with him. At one point she kept asking him for his telephone number and, when he finally gave it to her, she was puzzled that the number would sometimes ring and ring without anyone answering, even though at other times it seemed to be constantly busy. Eventually she learned that he had given her the number of a telephone box in St. Giles Street. This didn't deter her. He inspired great affection. One of his students, now a vice chancellor in an Australian university, provided a Falstaffian dedication to him in a book: "sweet Jack, kind Jack, true Jack, valiant Jack."
Albert Hourani was the historian I was closest to intellectually and as a friend. He was the son of Lebanese Christian immigrants in Manchester. Of medium build, he watched his weight in later years because of heart trouble but never concealed his gourmet tastes. He often had a certain nervous tension about him and was easily bored. Though he spoke Arabic fluently, he did not consider himself to be an Arab. He was quintessentially English. During World War II he worked as a civilian for the British government in the Middle East, mainly in Egypt and the Sudan. After the war he served on the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine and had the distinction of being one of the first representatives of the Palestinian Arabs to present their case in a manner that was comprehensible to those in the West. He returned to Oxford as a fellow of Magdalen College and then became for many years the director of the Middle East Center at St. Antony's College, Oxford. Much later he read every paragraph and every line of my book, The British Empire in the Middle East. Working with him month after month, week by week, and sometimes day by day gave me a far greater understanding of historical reasoning, evidence, and judgment than any comparable experience in my life.
There is no doubt that Albert Hourani was one of the great historians of the Middle East of the last century. But he was not a stylist. His most significant work is Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, which is a classic study of the development of Arab nationalism to 1939. His most famous book, A History of the Arab Peoples, became a best-seller but only because it was published in 1991 at the time of the Gulf War. Albert watched with astonishment when it crept up the best-seller list of the New York Times and so did I because I thought it was almost unreadable. I once edited an essay that Albert had written, asking him if he would mind me trying to give it a little more punch. I shortened his Teutonic sentences and made other improvements, but he sent it back asking me to restore it as it was because I had destroyed the nuance of his thought.
While Albert Hourani wrote on intellectual and religious history, he was above all a social historian. He was interested in the peoples of the Middle East, the difference between life in cities and rural areas, the basis of wealth, the distinctions of class, the way in which the rulers of the Middle East usually represented combinations or coalitions in the professions, the army, and the landowning classes, but also in the way a particularly ruthless individual might influence the destiny of a nation. He believed one must study individuals to understand society and social structure. It is in fact his essays on such figures as T. E. Lawrence that future generations will see as some of his most important work. But his legacy as an historian endures beyond the written word. I have never known anyone who possessed such ability to listen patiently to students as well as fellow historians, to ask questions, and to draw out the best in others according to their own natural talents and interests. He was what T. E. Lawrence called the "creative achiever"—the person who enables others to achieve what otherwise would not have been possible. This is one of the reasons why there is an Albert Hourani Prize awarded every year in the American Middle East Studies Association.
In the 1990s I was preoccupied above all with the Oxford History of the British Empire. It must have been about 1991 or so that historians in Oxford, Cambridge, London, and elsewhere first began discussing the idea of an OHBE because we talked about it for at least a year before I was appointed as editor in chief in 1992. All five volumes were completed by 1999, in other words within seven years. This was a pretty good track record, I feel entitled to say, considering that the old Cambridge History of the British Empire was begun in 1929 and was not completed until 30 years later in 1959. We wanted the project to have a clear ending within a reasonably short period of time before the chapters had grown stale and before the enthusiasm for the project had withered. This was in every sense a postcolonial and post–cold war venture that could not have been undertaken even 10 years earlier because the ideological currents of anti-imperialism were still running high and because the climate of the cold war was not hospitable to a balanced assessment. Since the 1960s there had in fact developed a chasm between area experts and those doing mainstream British or British Empire history. For an Africanist or an Indianist to have joined hands with historians of the empire would have been regarded as going over to the enemy, of embracing imperialism, and so on. There are some who still feel this way, but by the early 1990s there was a spirit of reconciliation. I tried to reach out to those in area studies who might be willing to participate in a reassessment. On the whole I was successful, and we were thus able to devise a project in which the history of the empire would be approached not merely from a traditional British vantage point but from the perspective of the inhabitants of the colonies. This combination of historians from different areas is, I think, what gives the OHBE its vitality and makes it different from comparable projects in the past. But, though they represented different areas, all were historians, and that gives the series a unifying quality.
It was my emphasis on getting perspectives from such places as India and Africa, how it was to be on the receiving end of British imperialism, that brought me into conflict with Max Beloff, who from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s had been Gladstone Professor of Public Administration at All Souls. Max had not been invited to contribute to the OHBE. This was one of the problems. The editors insisted from the beginning that no one already in retirement would be invited to participate. We wanted the OHBE to be the work of a younger generation of historians, and not what in Oxford, or the University of Texas, are irreverently called the old farts. Most of the senior historians acquiesced in good grace, though Max did not. At one stage I calculated that the average age of the contributors was less than 50, which I thought was pretty good. But Max thought differently, and in a sense he had solid ground for his complaint in view of his own interests and background. He had written on Tocqueville and America, on the Soviet Union, on federalism in Europe. His most important work, perhaps, is Imperial Sunset, which traces the history of the British Empire as a prelude to Britain's entry into Europe. He was an omnivorous reader. The first question he would always ask me was: "what books have you been reading?" It was Max who first recognized the historical value of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet and rescued it from literary oblivion. He remarked that one could learn more of the history of the Raj by reading Paul Scott than from the collected works of all the historians who had written on the subject. It was a typical Max statement, but there was an incisive element of truth in it.
I used to see Max Beloff virtually every day during my stays in London because he lived at the Reform Club. We would meet for breakfast. The Reform Club, an architectural mid-Victorian jewel in central London, was the perfect place for the planning of the OHBE because it was equidistant from Cambridge and Oxford and also convenient for two of the other editors who were both based in London. It was there, under the portraits of Cobden and Bright and the slightly incongruous portrait of Lord Durham, that we mapped out our plan to achieve a balance between historians of the empire and historians of India, Africa, and elsewhere looking at the empire from their respective vantage points. Max did not like this approach. He believed that the history of the empire was the history of British rule, British administration, British justice, British district officers, and so on. When Max found that I would not yield, he opened a barrage of public criticism against the editorial plan.
What really set Max off was a lecture he heard in London at a meeting of the annual conference sponsored by the North American Conference on British Studies, the "Anglo-American." The lecture was by Susan Pedersen of Harvard, who was not a contributor to the OHBE. But Max took a dislike to her and nothing could persuade him that she was not a sort of evil genius behind the project. In one of his more preposterous remarks, he said to me, "I will not have the history of the British Empire held hostage to hysterical American feminists." (When Susan later learned of Max's comment, she wryly remarked that she is a Canadian, and hence by definition not hysterical.) He feared also that an anticolonial bias would creep into the series because of American participation even though I told him that this was one of the things I would be most on guard against. Nothing could deter Max, and he published a highly critical article in History Today. I should emphasize that Max never attacked me personally; he attacked the editorial plan. But Max's article triggered the controversy over whether it was wise or prudent for the Oxford University Press to have appointed an American as editor in chief.
This was the point when I acquired brief international prominence. I began to receive telephone calls from as far away as Australia, often to Dagmar's dismay in the middle of the night. Articles appeared in such publications and newspapers as the Spectator, the Sunday Times, and the Daily Telegraph. "How is it that the Oxford University Press has appointed an American to a position so vitally important to our national heritage?" "Why are we allowing the Americans to rewrite our national history?" One article described the history department at the University of Texas as a hotbed of radicalism! I tried to make the point that it doesn't matter where one comes from; it is the quality of the work that counts. In any event this was a controversy that was so ridiculous that it collapsed under its own weight. If followed to its logical conclusion, it would have meant that British historians would not be allowed to write about the American Revolution, American historians would not be permitted to write about the French Revolution, whites about blacks, blacks about whites, and so on. We emerged with a substantial amount of publicity for the project that we would not have received had it not been for Max. In fairness to Max, he eventually admitted that he was wrong. Before he died in 1999, he wrote a review of the first two volumes that came as close to an apology as I have ever seen from him.
The first two volumes of the OHBE were published in 1998, the remaining three in 1999. If I were doing it again, there would be many things that I would do differently. But I believe it stands as a good effort made by a team of some 125 historians at the end of the 20th century to reassess the history of the British Empire, one of the great themes in world history since the 17th century, and that it will stand as a work of reference as well as analysis and interpretation. I emphasize it as a work of reference almost despite some of the authors. I sometimes have the feeling that we live in an age of sloppy scholarship. It may be an unrepresentative sample, but a shocking number of the OHBE authors, though a small minority, could not be bothered to check their references. We therefore had to verify lots of footnotes ourselves. I can thus offer assurance that the series as a whole has a reasonably high standard of accuracy. This is a modest claim, but to me it is supremely important.
I have had the good fortune of benefiting from the guidance of historians from not one but two earlier generations, and I especially profited from their help because each of them read my work carefully, corrected errors, and made suggestions about style as well as substance. They had one thing in common: though each could be ferociously critical of work in his or her own field, all of them upheld a high standard of intellectual honesty. Each was tolerant of different approaches to history. I like to think that I'm the same way, so much so that if there is anything as AHA president that I'm intolerant of, it is lack of tolerance toward the work of other historians. To put it another way, it is the diversity of approach in our profession that helps to make the discussion of controversial historical issues exciting and productive. There will always be tension among those in different fields and of different generations. In my own experience, AHA forums are most rewarding, whatever the degree of tension or controversy, when such matters are openly discussed with intellectual candor. Controversy is the heart and soul of historical debate. And in this debate nothing—nothing—is more vital than that the AHA remain representative, diverse, and tolerant of its members' beliefs and approaches to history.
Wm. Roger Louis (Univ. of Texas at Austin) is president of the AHA.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.