Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Giving Popularity

There is class of writer now all but extinct, or rather, specialized nearly into extinction, to borrow a notion from R. Buckminster Fuller. These writers once not only attracted a substantial and varied readership, but also required an inordinately varied card-catalogue cross-reference. ('member card-catalogues?) They wrote on subjects as varied as their interests, ranged over vast historical time, at least in so far as human history may be so described, and were as likely to report the weather at Agincourt as the contents of Dickens' desk. Their origins in English, by my reckoning, can be traced at least as far back as Macaulay in his essays, and their decline to disappearance may not truly be marked until David McCullough sees his last book to press. (May that day be far distant.) The popular historian has been a phenomenon of the golden age of print culture, now supposedly passing, and I can not quite see how the new media will produce his equal. His primary function has been to write history, rather than either make or discover it and while he may be said to serve more than one muse, Clio has always been his first, but not his only love. Others: academics, philosophers, archaeologists, learned societies, professional theorists, may be said to have been more fanatically, narrowly devoted, but none have served history better. The popular historians, whatever the flaws in their method, whatever the failures of their research, however brief their footnotes, have kept history alive for generations. If it ceases to find its next audience, it will be largely because of the passing of those historians who write history to be read popularly, meaning widely, rather than recognized in peer-review, published in professional journals, and flatteringly referenced by undergraduates.

Christopher Hibbert, (1924 - 2008,) was an Englishman, educated at Oxford, decorated in the Second World War, who sold real estate when he came home, and only took up writing professionally in his thirties. We had a book come across the Used Books Desk today, published in 1987, by Methuen, extensively and tastefully illustrated, handsomely made, titled simply The Grand Tour. In it Hibbert tells the story of the "finishing" a certain class of Englishman came to be expected to get from travel on The Continent. It is a charming book.

Hibbert wrote charming books on Queen Victoria, Samuel Johnson, Wellington. He wrote exciting and vivid history about the Gordan Riots, Waterloo, the English Civil War, the Medici, and thoughtful books on evil, scandal, Girabaldi, and yes, Charles Dickens. Hibbert wrote enormously, across five decades, various historical periods, multiple biographical subjects, but he always wrote well; in careful, clear English prose, with great curiosity, undaunted enthusiasm, and no agenda beyond communicating his own pleasure in the subjects he undertook. If he was not a "great historian," I don't know that he ever intended to be, or would have written with that reputation in mind. And yet, as a popular historian, before that term fell to disuse and abuse, he was great. As an individual writing well about history, he begins to look greater as his kind become ever increasingly rare. Oh, there are specialists in everything from Lincoln to the production and migration of wheat, who may write as well or better, but as a writer whose subject was simply history, not the theory of, the correction of, or the minute detail of history, he was among the last of his kind, and all the more to be admired for doing what he did so well and for so long. (His first book was published in 1958, his last in 2004.) Fournier said, "Great individuals are not only popular themselves, but they give popularity to whatever they touch." By that standard, Hibbert was great.

It seems worthwhile, to reproduce here a list of his books. It would be well worth the reader's time to find them, as curiosity leads:

King Mob (Longmans, 1958)
Wolfe at Quebec (Longmans, 1959)
The Destruction of Lord Raglan (Longmans, 1961)
Benito Mussolini (Longmans, 1962)
The Roots of Evil: A Social History of Crime and Punishment (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1963)
Agincourt (Batsford, 1964)
The Court at Windsor (Longmans, 1964)
Garibaldi and his enemies (Longmans, 1965)
The Making of Charles Dickens (Harper & Row, 1967)
Waterloo(New English library Ltd, 1967)
Charles I (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968)
The Search for King Arthur (American Heritage, 1969)
The Dragon Wakes (Harper & Row, 1970)
The personal history of Samuel Johnson (Longmans, 1971)
George IV (Vol 1 Longman, 1972, Vol 2 Allen Lane
The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall (Morrow, 1975)
Edward VII: A Portrait (Allen Lane, 1976)
The Great Mutiny: India, 1857 (Allen Lane, 1978)
The Days of the French Revolution (Allen Lane, 1980)
The London Encyclopedia with Ben Weinreb (Macmillan, 1983)
Rome, the Biography of a City (Norton, 1985)
The English: A Social History (Grafton, 1987)
Encyclopedia of Oxford (Macmillan, 1988)
Redcoats and Rebels (Grafton, 1990)
The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age (Addison-Wesley, 1991)
Florence: Biography of a City (Norton, 1993)
Cavaliers & Roundheads: The English Civil War, 1642-1649 (HarperCollins, 1993)
Wellington: A Personal History (Da Capo, 1997)
George III: A Personal History (1998)
The Marlboroughs (Viking, 2001)
Queen Victoria: a personal history (HarperCollins, 2001)
Napoleon: His wives and women (HarperCollins, 2002)
Disraeli: a personal history (HarperCollins, 2004)

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