Historians as outsiders

In the last twelve months we have lost two great historians of the United States: William Brock and Michael O’Brien.* I remember them both with admiration and affection. They were men of different temperaments, backgrounds and generations, but beneath the surface were some similarities that tell us much about the practice of history at its best.

William died in November 2014 at the age of 98 having enjoyed (and enjoyed is the appropriate word) a long and distinguished career during which he made his name as one of the first generation of British scholars to write about the United States. In every decade from the 1930s to the 2000s, William published a book or an article, beginning with a study of Lord Liverpool, via a major body of work on nineteenth- and then twentieth-century American political history and ending with a brilliant study of Lord Bryce, a British observer of America of even older vintage than William.

William Brock's portrait in Selwyn College, Cambridge. (c) James Terence Hart Dyke; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

William Brock’s portrait in Selwyn College, Cambridge. (c) James Terence Hart Dyke; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When I was a graduate student at Cambridge in the 90s, William took me under his wing, sending me a note inviting me to dinner in his college (the note said: “Come to High Table at Selwyn on Wednesday. Bring a Gown. Yrs, W. R. Brock”). He seemed, and was, almost Victorian. He had been supervised by G. M. Trevelyan, he told me in his booming voice. He might as well have said he’d met Mr Gladstone, so impossibly venerable did that seem. With his large beak-like nose and his longish white hair, his tall stooping frame and his sharp blue eyes he looked as if he had walked out of a Tenniel cartoon in Punch. In his late years, he coped with deafness in a manner that I recommend we all adopt: when he couldn’t hear what you said (which was often) he just guffawed merrily as if you’d made an eruditely witty observation. He told me stories about Cambridge in the 30s when he had first come up as an undergraduate to Trinity College, about his war service (in Jamaica: he had a jolly good war), about a brief stint teaching at Eton and about life in postwar Cambridge where he returned as a fellow in 1947 and remained for the rest of his life, apart from a stint in Glasgow as the Chair of Modern History. As a historian, William was endlessly fascinated by how politics is shaped by institutions and by culture (though “culture” was not a term he tended to use). He wrote at a vigorous pace. His Glasgow colleague, Peter Parish (my own PhD supervisor) recalled that William would turn up every morning in the department office with sheafs of hand-written prose on yellow paper that he would press into the hands of the secretary to type up “in time for lunch”.

Michael O'Brien

Michael O’Brien

Michael, who died in May 2015 at the age of just 67, only a couple of months away from retirement came from a working class background in the West Country. His career began and ended, like William’s, at Cambridge. But unable to get a job in the UK when he completed his PhD in the 1970s (despite having published a pathbreaking article in the American Historical Review while in only his second year as a research student), he went to the US where he taught for nearly a quarter of a century, mostly at Miami University in Ohio, before returning to Cambridge in 2002. Michael had a very dry sense of humour and a wry manner that suggested he was perpetually on the outside looking in, even when, in fact, he seemed to slot very neatly into the intellectual life of Cambridge, just as he did the wider community of intellectual historians in which he had become so influential. While William launched his scholarship with a redemption of the reputation of Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister and spent much of the rest of his career studying senior American politicians, Michael’s intellectual project was to take seriously what had once been known, with a hint of irony or defensiveness as the “mind of the South.” His great two-volume work, Conjectures of Order, takes southern antebellum intellectuals seriously, reconstructing, in an amazing feat of historical imagination, how they sought to balance modernity with the slave system into which they were bound by multiple ties. Where William dealt in the language of “ideology”, partisanship and policy-making, the conceptual tools of Michael’s trade were Romanticism or historicism. No doubt perceiving William’s history as unnecessarily positivist, Michael was fascinated by the diversity and particularity of experience and understanding.

Both fierce intellects who expected a high standard of precision in the use of language, they were the product of contrasting intellectual influences. Yet, reading them both recently, and reflecting on their characters as I saw them, I am struck by how much they shared.

Most obviously they both made major interventions into their respective fields. In fact both opened up areas of scholarly research where old dogmas had long remained unchallenged. In Michael’s case the lazy assumption that the Old South had no intellectual tradition to speak of, or if it did, that it was mindless reaction; in William’s case, with his astonishing An American Crisis (1963), rejecting the canard that post-Civil War Reconstruction was a period of unmitigated disaster. Along with John Hope Franklin, William Brock laid the basis for the total reorientation of that fraught period in American history. What was once a “tragic era” became, by the time of Eric Foner’s great synthesis of 1988, an “unfinished revolution” in which the seeds of the twentieth century civil rights movement were sown.

Both Michael and William were generous to younger scholars and saw their role as intellectuals in part to nurture others and share ideas. If something was worth saying, both thought, it was worth saying well. Neither had any trace of pomposity. Confident in their own intellects, neither had the slightest desire, as so many academics so tediously do, to parade their learning on the page. They understood themselves to be engaged in a literary project when they wrote history. If the challenge of all historical writing is to show us a muddled world with clarity and precision (and perhaps wit), they both triumphed as few other historians do. They saw history as an eternally on-going conversation about how people imagine their world. Neither was under any illusion they would ever have the last word even while writing with an Olympian confidence in their own judgement.

Both used imagery to bring ideas alive. Both had a knack for describing the characters that drove their stories. No one other than Michael is likely to have described reading Francis Lieber’s letters as like “overhearing someone at the Athaneum Club” or would have written that William Gilmore Sims, “sat, like the thinking man’s Mr Pickwick, in the middle of the world he belonged to.” For William, Andrew Jackson was a man of “violent temper who had learned to control and use a rage when it suited him without letting it distort his judgement; but the temperament of a duelist remained, he would not forgive an insult and he saw his political opponents as personal enemies.” Probably no one other than William is likely to have explained in the Preface of a book, as he did in The Character of American History (1959), “the footnotes are intended to illustrate and occasionally to amuse.”

They shared a commitment to clarity in their writing and to understanding people on their own terms, including the intellectual frameworks that shaped their worlds. These things were more important, in my view, than the divergence of their subject matter or the self-consciousness of their methodology or the generational gulf that separated them.

Unlike most American historians of America who write, overtly, as citizens as well as scholars, deliberately seeking “usable pasts”, William and Michael valued their status as outsiders. (A point made about Michael in a lovely obit by Joel Isaac and Samuel James). They made no claims to superior insight because of their detachment, simply that they observed their subjects with openness, curiosity and a lack of moral judgement. They were not writing about “we”, but nor were they writing as a Victorian explorer might, about “them”.

In this, as in so many other ways, they are an example to all of us who aspire to write history. I miss them.

*This post is an extended version of remarks I made at a session remembering Brock and O’Brien at the 2015 BrANCH Conference in Cambridge. Writing this the morning after I spoke I am no doubt also channeling the thoughts and reflections of the other contributors to that session, especially John Thompson who was supervised by William and who supervised Michael. John spoke very movingly about both men, who he knew far, far better than I.

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