The origins of a historian


September 15, 2000

Brian Brivati applauds a scholarly new biography of A. J. P. Taylor

The heart of this biography is the history. The process of researching and writing each of A. J. P. Taylor's major works is faithfully and engagingly recounted. The arguments with publishers, whom Taylor treated with heartening disdain for their inefficiency and greed, are complemented by fascinating discussions of the reviews and receptions of the books. Taylor's compulsive writing and command of sources come across as powerfully as does the way in which the major works produced flurries of debate and argument, nationally and internationally, for months and sometimes years.

The chapter on the main period of writing, "The Oxford years, 1938-1965: the books and their publishers", is a quite marvellous and even piece of biographical and historiographical writing. Kathleen Burk is fulsome in her praise and her judgements on the books that matter - The Hapsburg Monarchy, Bismark, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 and, my own favourite, English History, 1914-1945 - are intelligent, calm and balanced. She is critical of much that Taylor wrote, dismissive of much that he broadcast, though not the fact that he broadcast, and ambiguous about the book that most people will have heard of or read. Of The Origins of the Second World War she writes that it was "seminal in that it broke down the barriers which had blocked any new consideration of the origins of the war", but that it was also "stimulating, thought-provoking and maddening".

Burk is the essential read for Taylor the historian, easily supplanting Adam Sisman's 1994 biography and the other studies in her assessment of Taylor's career, the genesis and significance of his books and his relations to and within the profession. She even makes the intrinsically tedious story of his life within Oxford colleges engaging and amusing. The story of Taylor's failure to be appointed to the regius professorship is priceless. She is also quite wonderful at showing the way in which he accumulated a reputation and built his freelance career. There is a highly amusing appendix that catalogues his freelance earnings from 1934 to 1990 (Taylor earned £259,529.64, at 1995 prices, from book reviewing between 1934 and 1990). Burk provides an analysis of Taylor as the historical entrepreneur in a career that did so much for the "history business".

Though a magnificent work of scholarship, this book is not as strong on Taylor the man. It lacks a theory about the way in which Taylor's identity was formed. The theme of personality is not woven into the analytical texture of the book. Often such a theme is distracting and one disagrees with it as much as one agrees, but not to have a slowly developing picture of the private person seems a bit too resolutely old-fashioned for as engaging a character as Taylor. This is biography as Robert Blake, in my favourite political biography, Disraeli , would have it. It is definitely not Leo Abse. For much of the book, this choice of style works triumphantly, though it occasionally comes across oddly, for example when Taylor's first two marriages are described as background to the decisions of college committees.

It is only in considering Taylor's politics that Burk's firm Blakeian grasp slips. He came from a left-wing family. He had influential friends in the Labour movement. He always argued, in a sort of an old English radical way, against the status quo: intellectual, social, political and, yes, historical. He was also at times revolutionary in his political instincts, especially after his visit to Russia in 1925. Burk tends to dismiss these beliefs as merely postures. For example, Taylor's support, in the 1920s, for revolutionary ideas is dismissed as a pose; she finds curious the fact that he did not want to use Italian government archives because Mussolini was in power; and she is not exactly generous in her assessment of his role in CND. I think this is too reductive. For many, the allure of the Soviet Union survived the knowledge of the horror of Stalinism, much as Catholicism survives knowledge of the Inquisition.

It is about faith and the choice which politically engaged young people faced between communism, fascism and democracy. In many ways, that made the decision of those to stick with Stalin morally worse rather than better, but it was not a posture, it was a choice that shaped the lives and consciences of a generation. Taylor came to despise the Soviet Union but he did not despise his early enthusiasm, in the way that some others did. Though Burk quotes his wonderful speech to the World Congress of Intellectuals in Poland attacking Stalinism, she also quotes, without comment, someone describing it as conservative. An accurate description of Taylor's views at this time would have been the label that his old friend Michael Foot favours for his own brand of awkward-squad politics: libertarian socialist.

These criticisms should not detract from the fact that Burk has written a wonderful book about an extraordinary man. Burk describes The Hapsburg Monarchy , one of Taylor's finest works, as "a melancholy book, shot through with historical resignation". This struck me as catching something about Taylor himself. The central paradox of Taylor's life was that he achieved every kind of worldly fame that he wanted and yet it did not seem to satisfy him. He was born too late and too early. His values were for professional recognition in traditional academic ways; his skills for a new media age of mass communication, sensation and simplicity. He despised the medium that had given him fame because this fame had proved a hollow substitute for the professional recognition of an Oxford chair.

But then, having read Burk, I was left with the impression that he was a cantankerous man who liked being difficult, liked being controversial, and, to an extent, liked being unhappy. He enjoyed having quarrels to pick at, people as enemies, as much as people as friends. He quite liked scenes. A different set of career choices would probably not have made much difference to these sides of his character. The more difficult question is the extent to which this character forged the history that he wrote, especially the later books, the extent to which the personality drove him to challenge the conventional wisdom in so many of his essays, reviews and books and to push the evidence further than it ought to have been pushed.

In The Anxiety of Influence , Harold Bloom writes: "My concern is only with strong poets, major figures with the persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors." He argues that poets fear the anxiety of influence and the anxiety of influencing. Taylor was a strong poet among historians but the contemporary profession seems to fear his influence. In turn, Taylor himself suffered from an anxiety of influence. As Burk makes clear he was at pains, the older he got, to try to make himself more and more retrospectively original. His vanity was immense but probably equalled by his achievements. In his time, Taylor did more to popularise history than any other individual or institution. As he once said: "I am a special historian."

He played a crucial part in building contemporary history as a respectable branch of historical research. He encouraged British universities to acknowledge and even sometimes teach the historical background to the era in which their students lived. He was the moving spirit in the mid-20th-century obsession with diplomatic history, publishing standard works in the field. He popularised history through the press, radio and television.

I remember seeing one of his last performances, on Question Time with Robin Day, when he rather gloriously answered one particularly banal question by saying: "I don't think I think anything about that at all." But that was towards the end. The real impact of Taylor as broadcaster was in the straight to camera talks, made mainly in the 1950s and 1960s but still being shown in my sixth form in the 1980s - recently emulated much less convincingly by Brian Walden. He was also tireless in speaking to Historical Association audiences. Many of his books remain in print and are still read. What price would the current historical profession, faced with dwindling undergraduate numbers, pay for a Taylor who actually holds a university post, rather than the dozens of bestselling historians who see university history as a self-referential irrelevance? Perhaps David Cannadine and the reinvigorated Institute of Historical Research will now provide a "Taylor effect" for our era.

But for all the propagandising he did for his discipline, Taylor has few open disciples, and, as Burk concludes, he did not found a school. Indeed, there are very few professional historians who would unreservedly embrace Taylor as a role model. This is in part because many of the things that made him successful - the fact that he could write well, that he broadcast and popularised and that he was a radical - are still treated with suspicion by those who sit in professional judgement on historians. In part, and more seriously, as he got older, he sometimes sacrificed truth to the argument, a vice which can justifiably stop a historian being taken seriously.

Diplomatic history is an academic backwater today, compared with the 1960s and 1970s. Aside from a couple of superstars in the field, such as John Young and David Reynolds, there are few to encourage young postgraduates towards the subjects that Taylor made his own. Reading this wonderful book, which succeeds triumphantly in exploring Taylor as a historian, I was struck over and over again by how large the questions were with which Taylor tried to grapple, and how small so many contemporary PhD titles appear. In his own words, diplomatic history was about the "relations with states, with peace and war, with the existence and destruction of communities and civilisations". Why study such things when we could be writing about the history of sexual deviance, or indeed, doughnuts?

Brian Brivati is reader in history, Kingston University.

Troublemaker: The Life and History of A. J. P. Taylor

Author - Kathleen Burk
ISBN - 0 300 08761 6
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 512

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