September 26, 2004

Norman Cantor, R.I.P.

Posted by Ed

Last Saturday, the medievalist historian Norman Cantor died at 74. I wasn't terribly impressed by the New York Times obituary of Cantor, and had hoped that another paper (like The Telegraph or The Guardian) would publish something more informative, but that hasn't happened yet.

At Cliopatria, Hugo Schwyzer and Jonathan Dresner have written interesting posts that touch on Cantor's 1991 expose of the lives of other medievalists, Inventing the Middle Ages. (In particular, Cantor criticized the supposed Nazism of several colleagues.) Today's Boston Globe ideas section includes a short piece by Joshua Glenn thatadds to this discussion, describing Cantor as an "anti-obituarist." After Cantor's death, Glenn points out, "none of his peers wrote a letter to The Times Literary Supplement to suggest that his work wasn't up to snuff. That's because Cantor was the only one who might have even considered doing such a thing." Here's a longer excerpt:

After Lawrence Stone died in 1999, for example, Cantor used the TLS's letters page to rebut a eulogy in that publication for the eminent Princeton historian, claiming that Stone's work was "verbose, disorganized, and often erroneous," and that Stone was a "tedious Brit" whose "lavish patronage of Marxists and British and French cronies" was a disgrace to the discipline. And when C. Vann Woodward died in 2000, Cantor wrote to the TLS claiming the Yale historian's legacy wasn't anything he wrote but his success in recruiting 1968-ers enamored of "radical-left historiography" as students.

Questioned about his motivation, Cantor told Lingua Franca, "There are a million copies of my medieval books in print, but I regard myself as a cultural critic as well as a historian. I'm particularly concerned with the training of historians, and who trains them, and how that impacts on the general culture." Later, in his 2002 memoir "Inventing Norman Cantor," he offered a more personal explanation of his acerbity: "The best writing, for me, comes . . . when I have sustained an unpleasant shock . . . or insults and abuse from a group of academic colleagues. Then I write to affirm my own dignity, humanity, and autonomy."

I've written before that I approve (in principle) of the idea of the nasty obituary, but I don't really think this is the way to do it.

Update: Then again, perhaps we shouldn't feel too bad for Lawrence Stone, the subject of one of Cantor's nasty "anti-obituaries." If I recall correctly, Stone himself wrote a really nasty letter to the TLS marking the death of the Soviet historian E.H. Carr. Maybe what goes around comes around.

Posted by Ed at September 26, 2004 09:17 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?