Fighting over History

Anthony Grafton is one of the world’s most gifted historical scholars. His field is the history of learning, particularly the learning embodied in the philological, historical, and scientific literature of Europe between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. This is abstruse and difficult territory, partly because so much of it is locked up in huge volumes of densely printed Latin, partly because it is impossible to write illuminatingly about learned people without being equally learned oneself. Early-modern scholars were polymaths who were expected to know about more or less everything. A comparable amount of erudition is required by those who wish to interpret their work.

Fortunately, Grafton is well grounded in the Greek and Roman classics, fluent in modern European languages, and voraciously energetic. He brings to what might have been a merely antiquarian pursuit a keen historical intelligence, honed by his over thirty years as a member of the Princeton history department, for much of that time the most dynamic historical powerhouse in the US. As a prolific writer and an inspiring teacher, Grafton occupies a position at the very center of the modern republic of letters. His references to other scholars are invariably generous, even effusive. (In What Was History? their works are repeatedly described as “splendid,” “superb,” “brilliant,” “wonderful,” “magnificent.”) His large, bearded figure is familiar in many of the libraries and archives of Europe; his magnetic presence has graced the podiums of innumerable lecture halls; and his writings have achieved a far wider readership than their often arcane subject matter would have led anyone to predict.

Grafton’s particular strength is his ability to write vividly and wittily about remote and difficult subjects. He knows how to engage his readers in the recondite scholarship of the past, so that they share his exhilaration when he exposes a sixteenth-century forger or discovers a previously unnoticed marginal note by some long-dead scholar. Admittedly, this easy accessibility is not apparent in his magnum opus, an austere study of Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540–1609), the greatest classical scholar of the early-modern period. Only the most dedicated students can have read their way through those two crowded volumes, the first containing three hundred pages on Scaliger’s textual criticism and exegesis, the second 750 pages on his studies in historical chronology. But most of Grafton’s other writings are highly seductive.

What Was History? exhibits all his customary virtues of wit, learning, and literary sprightliness. It originated as a set of four Trevelyan lectures at Cambridge University, and its title is a deliberate reference to What is History?, an earlier series of Trevelyan lectures given in 1961 by E.H. Carr, author of a monumental (and, nowadays, unfashionably sympathetic) history of Soviet Russia. The published version of Carr’s lectures, still in print, has sold over a quarter of a million copies. It is an iconoclastic polemic against the supposed objectivity of the historical profession, and is particularly famous for its cautionary advice: before you study the history, study …

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