The past put down

The Past and its Presenters - Modern Historiography - A Short Guide To Writing About History. Third Edition
February 26, 1999

There seems to be no shortage of books on historiography and historical method. Several new ones appear each year as publishers and authors sense opportunities. Fortunately, they are not all the same. Each of these three offers useful approaches for different readerships. Richard Marius's Short Guide is, in essence, suited to US graduate students. It explains how to write at that level and includes a sample research paper on Woodrow Wilson's attitudes towards black Americans. Compared with the second edition, there are additional sections on how to use and document sources taken from the internet as well as several addresses of reliable web-sites. There are also new examples from cultural, social and women's history. Non-US readers ought to be impressed by the professionalism of the enterprise.

Michael Bentley's Modern Historiography is also well suited to graduate students, but, in addition, offers much to bright undergraduates and to non-specialist academics seeking a thoughtful and sound guide to the western tradition. Alas, although Bentley writes clearly, his book is pitched above the level of the average undergraduate. Largely extracted from his editorial contribution to Companion to Historiography (Routledge, 1997), this book benefits from a bracing prelude and an up-to-date postscript. Bentley argues that historiography is necessary because we are all more self-conscious about what we are trying to achieve in writing history. He is sceptical about postmodernism.

John Warren is a schoolteacher, and his book, The Past and its Presenters , would work best at the sixth-form level. Warren is less sceptical than Bentley about postmodernism, arguing that "we must build upon the postmodernist insight into the fictive elements in texts to at least consider a new side of historical writing". Warren is open about his own preferences: critical of narrative and keener on Marxist history than its Annales counterpart.

All three books share as a central fault a concentration on the western tradition. No more than most works of their type, they offer no equivalent to the careful discussion of non-western approaches in Chicago University Press's History of Cartography series. More specifically, much of the discussion of historiography is overly theoretical for many students and insufficiently ready to consider evidence and processes. It would possibly be more useful to employ case studies, for example on the impact of cars on social assumptions in postwar Britain and Japan, or the problems of assessing popular culture in "pre-contact" societies and 1930s Bolton, in order to make methodological and theoretical insights coherent and readily comprehensible. Another major omission is that of a serious discussion of the role of publishers and the nature of the pressures affecting publication.

Clearly, there is only so much that can be included in the average-length book in this field, but space could be made by omitting much of the all-too-frequently repetitive discussion of such luminaries as Butterfield and Thompson, Elton and White.

Jeremy Black is the co-author of Studying History .

The Past and its Presenters: An Introduction to Issues in Historiography. First Edition

Author - John Warren
ISBN - 0 340 67934 4
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Price - £15.50
Pages - 233

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