Can historians disappear from history?

Posted by Helen Sunday, August 09, 2015

The character and achievement of Lord Acton, quondam Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge (though he had not been allowed to study there as a Roman Catholic) and editor of the Cambridge Modern History remain fascinating and controversial among historians. On the whole he is now considered to be of greater significance than he was at one time when all his work had been dismissed by such men as G. R. Elton and A. J. P. Taylor. There have been numerous books written about hims and most of his writings, including letters have been published.

I was rather pleased to find a short summary of his life and work by Hugh Tulloch, published in the series Historians on Historians. (In fact, I am now on the look-out for other volumes in the series). Tulloch's attitude, as he says himself, wavers between admiration and dislike, thus making it possible for him to give a more or less objective account of this complex man and his voluminous writings (oh yes, he did write).

This is what he says at the end of the introductory chapter, which charts Acton's reputation during his live and after his death:

For I do not believe that he was whig or naive, innocent or optimistic, and in hoping to rescue him from his detractors I have had to to treat him in a profoundly un-Actonian way. He always insisted that the historian must disappear entirely from his history:  I am unable to separate the two. Despite his many disavowals, the man and the historian were not distinct, nor were his historical writings separate from his personal history.

At each juncture of his life, as combative Catholic, as arch-enemy of ultramontanism, as Gladstonian Liberal, the pressures of his current preoccupations subtly intrude, moulding and distorting his vision. I hope that a study of the historian enmeshed in his time will contribute towards a clearer and more balanced understanding.
The historian whose personality and preoccupations do not intrude into his (or her) writing is, I suggest, impossible to find.


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