February 04, 2004

Gresham's Law of History?

Earlier this afternoon, as I should have been reading the works of Norbert Elias, I came across a fun book review in The Guardian. The subject of the review, James Sharpe's Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman, sounds like a fascinating book; it covers everything from the career of the title highwayman to the nature of crime-fighting in 18th-century England and the development of the cultural myth of the English outlaw. If you want a quick but entertaining read, click on the link above.

What struck me most, however, was the review's conclusion:

Sharpe is sufficiently relaxed to find Carry On Dick funny (not the film itself so much as the idea of it). But behind his excavation of the more preposterous outcrops of the Turpin myth - the endless pubs with their hidey holes, the Staffordshire figurines, the pantomime boy-girl in fishnet tights - Sharpe is making a profoundly serious point about the way history is put together. He argues that it is only by stripping away the layers of myth and story and getting to the broken bedrock of the documentary record that we can come close to understanding what Turpin's life was actually about. Being able to bear the gaps, the puzzles and the blanks is what gets us nearer to the truth.

In a tetchy but crucially important coda Sharpe broadens his argument into an all-out attack on the boom in popular history, which he maintains is marginalising proper history, the kind that gets done in universities rather than in television studios. By presenting the past as a series of puzzles capable of definitive solution (Who was the "real" Queen Victoria? Where is the "lost" prince?), popular historical discourse makes proper, professional historical research seem bitty and, frankly, dull. In a culture where "secret histories" are constantly being brought to light, it takes quite a lot of effort to be satisfied with a version of Turpin peppered with black holes of the unknown. But to Sharpe, an academic historian, it is vitally important that we keep faith with the difficulty, ambiguity and lack that marks the tricky business of getting closer to the past. Anything else is simply a carry on.

As readers of this blog know, I'm interested in the question of "intellectual entertainment." How does the popular history decried by Sharpe fit into the picture?

Sharpe's book, unfortunately, hasn't been released in America yet. Moreover, I'm unfamiliar with his past work--though several of his other books sound like they'd be fun to read. I'm therefore not sure how to judge his argument, since I don't even know what sorts of "popular history" he's arguing against.

It would be easy for someone to make an argument against popular history from an elitist, arrogant viewpoint, but I'm inclined to be sympathetic to Sharpe. When I looked up his past work at the Seminary Co-op, for example, I found the following description of one of his books, The Bewitching of Anne Gunter:

Here is an account of one woman's experience of the practice of witchcraft in early modern Europe. It involves controlling fathers, willful daughters, nosy neighbors, power relations between peasants and aristocrats, and village life. In 1604, 20-year-old Anne Gunter was bewitched: she foamed at the mouth, contorted wildly in her bedchamber, went into trances. Her garters and bodices were perpetually unlacing themselves. Her signature symptom was to vomit pins.

This book sounds delightful, though I have no idea how well researched or well written it is. If the book is as appealling as it sounds, then Sharpe seems like a credible critic of popular history, and not like a cranky old professor incapable of writing a book that anyone in the educated public would actually want to read. (The reviews of Dick Turpin, moreover, have been overwhelmingly favorable.)

I'm not convinced, however, that "popular history" marginalizes academic research and makes the work of historical scholars seem "bitty and, frankly, dull." I'm also inclined to think that serious historical writing and the worst popular history appeal to very different audiences; by this interpretation, The History Channel and other purveyors of bad popular history fill certain TV viewers' need for shallow programming on the past, but don't necessarily divert the public's attention from "real" history. (Perhaps, however, there's a middle ground of mediocre-but-not-awful popular history books that does send readers the wrong message about the certainties of history.) I'm inclined to think that there's a market for history books that are simultaneously intellectually entertaining and academically sound, but that it's easier for publishers to make a quick buck by publishing garbage. The key is for historians to write more good books and for publishers to bring those books to the public.

Update: The more I think about it, the more I think that there is a kind of Gresham's Law of history; bad history books sometimes do drive out the good. My feeling, though, is that the main problem isn't ridiculously bad books and TV shows that espouse silly conspiracy theories (annoying as they can be), but books that appear to be good despite their mediocrity. I can think of several books in Soviet history that are far more popular than their more academically sound counterparts, and which present an overly simplistic view of the Soviet Union; this just makes the job of academic historians more difficult.

Of course, I don't know precisely what Sharpe's argument is, since I haven't read his book. Perhaps I'll have more to say when I do.

Posted by Ed at February 4, 2004 02:47 PM

Hello folks nice blog youre running

Posted by: lolita at January 19, 2005 08:54 PM
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