As scholars grow older and more eminent, it has been observed, they tend to write less but to publish more. Among historians, Professor J. H. Hexter is a distinguished case in point. He first began to make books out of his previously published articles as early as 1961, when he issued Reappraisals in History: New Views on History and Society in Early Modern Europe. Since then there has been no stopping him. In 1971 he reprinted six of his general essays on the historian’s craft as Doing History. Two years later he brought together his scattered writings on Renaissance political thought as The Vision of Politics on the Eve of the Reformation. And now his original collection of Reappraisals has been reissued in a second edition with two new chapters.
In the meantime Hexter has tended to move away from the production of conventional scholarly articles, and has channeled his main energies into writing an unusual series of gargantuan book reviews of major works by his contemporaries. The first appeared in 1968 in Journal of British Studies—no fewer than seventy-seven pages on Lawrence Stone’s Crisis of the Aristocracy. This was followed in 1972 by an even more extensive analysis of Fernand Braudel’s Méditerranée in the Journal of Modern History. And in 1977 came the slighter but still enormous (forty-eight page) discussion of J. G. A. Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment in History and Theory. Never a man to waste his words, Hexter has now put together all these pieces (along with three others of lesser importance) to make a further historiographical collection, this time entitled (or at least I think it’s entitled) On Historians: Reappraisals of Some of the Masters of Modern History.
Taken together, these two new volumes offer us an excellent overall view of the historical terrain which Hexter has cultivated throughout his career. As they reveal, he has mainly worked in three connected fields. He started as a student of the English Revolution, his first book (published in 1941) being a survey of the political maneuverings of the early 1640s entitled The Reign of King Pym. He has never lost interest in this period, and lately referred to it as his “old and true stamping ground.” He reverts to its problems in his consideration of Lawrence Stone’s work, as well as in several of the essays reprinted in Reappraisals in History, including the most recent one of all, a devastating attack on some current accounts of why the English Revolution broke out.
After this Hexter set out to explore the wider world of society and culture in sixteenth-century Europe. This gave rise to his second book—on More’s Utopia—and to several of the best and most constructive essays in Reappraisals, including the original and brilliant discussion of Renaissance education and its social significance. As Hexter says himself, the sixteenth century has been “the period of history that has most preoccupied” him, and this preoccupation is still evident in much of …