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 his finest recent work, most notably in the essays on Pocock and Braudel.
Finally, Hexter has always tended to reflect rather generally, whatever the specific task in hand, on the nature and possibilities of historical evidence and proof. This too has given rise to a book, The History Primer, which he published in 1971. But the main outcome has been to involve him in a long and fierce conflict with the assumptions of “scientific” and Marxist historiography. Hexter has been conducting this feud with undiminished vigor and increasing violence for several decades, and the pages of his Reappraisals resound continually with the cries of the battle. At the beginning of the book we already find him belaboring “the whole Marxist operation” as “a stultifying framework” which has “degenerated into sterile pedantry.” By the time we reach the concluding Postscript, his rage at the very idea of organizing the study of European history around “the decline of feudalism and the rise of the middle class” has reached truly impressive heights. It is not merely a “foolish historical doctrine,” it is “a nuisance,” it is “utterly footling,” it is a “ridiculous way of investigating the past.” Thus he rests his case.
If these are Hexter’s themes, what qualities as a historian does he bring to bear as he investigates them? Essentially his great skills are those of a duelist. Like Touchstone in As You Like It, he is happiest when he is able to “quarrel in print by the book.” He is quick to take offense at the slightest scholarly misdemeanor, and loves to throw down a challenge to all comers. When it comes to a fight, moreover, his sword-play is matchless, at least in short bouts. And since he is not unaware of his mastery, he always insists on fighting to the death.
What then are Hexter’s special techniques as a verbal duelist? Curiously enough, they bear a strong resemblance to those anatomized by Touchstone in his famous speech. It is true that Hexter has little use for Touchstone’s first degree of quarreling, the Retort Courteous. But he is greatly addicted to the second, the Quip Modest. In fact Hexter’s favorite figure of speech is the humorous use of meiosis and litotes, a device he repeatedly employs as a mode of criticism. For example, he alerts us to R. H. Tawney’s casual way with quotations by remarking that, if we wish to understand what someone is saying, “it seems pertinent to give some slight attention to the context.” He dismisses Hiram Hayden’s idea of a Counter-Renaissance by observing that any attempt “to revivify the Renaissance concept that begins by cutting its heart out will perhaps fall somewhat short of complete success.” And he bases his “new framework for social history” on a contrast between the Marxists and the “working historians,” commending the latter for perceiving “some small virtue in a work plan that places the conclusion at the end rather than at the beginning of an investigation.”
Occasionally Hexter allows himself to indulge in the next and least amiable degree of quarreling, the Reply Churlish. (See for example his intemperate essay on Christopher Hill, reprinted in On Historians.) But usually—and far more interestingly—he passes directly on to the fifth degree, the Countercheck Quarrelsome. What he likes to do is to take a generalization already reported in a work he is examining, and submit the data allegedly supporting it to yet further analysis. Often the outcome is not to underpin the original hypothesis, but rather to undermine and countercheck it in a highly disconcerting way.
Hexter uses this device against Lawrence Stone, against Christopher Hill, and especially against R. H. Tawney, whom he impales most terrifyingly in the course of his best-known “reappraisal,” the essay entitled “Storm over the Gentry.” Tawney had argued that, throughout the century preceding the English Revolution, the largest aristocratic landowners suffered heavy losses to a new class of “rising gentry.” In support of this contention he took a sample of those with ten or more manors to their names in the 1560s, and showed that their total losses by 1640 amounted to fully a third of their entire holdings. But as Hexter points out, Tawney included within this class the somewhat anomalous figure of the king. What happens, Hexter asks, if we recompute Tawney’s statistics, excluding just this one rather unusual “aristocratic landowner”? The answer is that the losses for the class as a whole drop from 33 percent to one-half of 1 percent. Hexter reverts to the Quip Modest in order to administer the coup de grâce. “Hardly a presage,” he writes, “of impending economic catastrophe.”
Most of all, however, Hexter relishes what Touchstone calls the ultimate degree of quarreling, that of offering one’s opponents the Lie Direct. As Hexter puts it himself, he is one of those historians who like to “carry around in their heads lists of exceptions to almost any rules they are likely to encounter.” He is indeed a master of the lethal counter-example, capable of skewering entire theoretical structures with a sudden thrust of apparently effortless learning.
The earliest essay reprinted in Reappraisals already shows him in full command of this technique. He begins with a traditional story about the climax of the English Revolution. The Independents, it used to be said, wrested the control of English politics out of the hands of the moderate Presbyterians in 1648. Having purged them from the House of Commons, they brought the revolution to a conclusion in their own very different style: they executed the king in 1649, abolished the House of Lords, and proclaimed England a Republic. The fundamental political division is thus held to be the one between the Presbyterians and the Independents. But the trouble with this, as Hexter shows, is that even if we restrict ourselves to the two hundred most radical exponents of Independency, we find that nearly a fifth of them turn out to be Elders of the Presbyterian Church. The two allegedly opposed groups in fact overlap with each other rather extensively. Summing up the implications, Hexter reverts as usual to the Quip Modest: the finding, he suggests “has a certain destructive value.”
Precisely the same technique is used in another of Hexter’s influential “reappraisals,” his essay on “The Myth of the Middle Class in Tudor England.” The myth declares that something unprecedented happened to the pattern of English landholding in the course of the sixteenth century: a new class of prudent and hardfaced businessmen rose to buy out the traditional nobility. However, Hexter has little difficulty in showing that “back through the centuries, as far as the record will take us,” we encounter thriftless aristocrats and parvenu merchants, the one selling his land, the other buying it. But the myth alleges more than this: it also speaks of a new commercial spirit, together with a new approach to estate management, being applied to the land for the first time by the mercantile owners of the Tudor age. Turning again to the attack, Hexter goes on to show that all these attitudes and techniques predate the sixteenth century, and that most of them were practiced with the greatest ruthlessness and success not merely by the newer middle-class proprietors but also by some of the greatest aristocrats of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As before, we watch a whole theory beginning to dissolve. Or, as Hexter more memorably puts it, we find that a concept which “at a distance seems solid gold turns out on closer inspection to be mere melted butter.”
As well as being a historian of exceptional penetration, Hexter is also something of a moralist, with an acute eye for some of the absurd pretensions of academic life. One of the conventional pieties he obviously enjoys puncturing is the idea of the dignity of history, and the accompanying tendency for works of historical scholarship to be written in thoroughly leaden, pompous, and unenterprising prose. Hexter himself writes with unfailing lucidity, but also with a subtle allusiveness and a wide variety of rhetorical effects. At the same time, however, he likes to cultivate a deliberately jocular, even a vulgar tone, implicitly rebuking his less nimble colleagues for their excessive solemnity. Thus he speaks of the ideological conflicts of the English Revolution as a “hang up,” and notes in particular that the concept of political legitimacy was “up for grabs.” He complains that some of the political theorists discussed by Pocock are “pretty small potatoes,” and proceeds to compare one of them to Bugs Bunny. He says of one unfortunate historian that his mind is “full of junk,” and of another that his theories are “not going to make it in the big time.” Admittedly these are clichés, but they suggest that Hexter is intent on reappraising the style of historical discourse as much as its standards of argument.
More seriously, Hexter also likes to remind us of the dishonesties usually perpetrated by those who write scholarly articles and then turn them into books. First there is the temptation to pretend to a complete mastery of all the relevant sources. Hexter resists this most emphatically. He much prefers to inform us that one of his criticisms of Lawrence Stone is based on nothing more than “fairly extensive if desultory reading,” and that one of the points he makes against Christopher Hill is founded on “a rather hasty look at the more obvious sources.” Next there is the insidious temptation to maintain, when putting together a collection of articles, that even the most disparate bits and pieces can somehow be shown to have an underlying unity. Again, Hexter is exceptional in his readiness to mock rather than endorse this conventional bit of fraud. He insists in his introduction to On Historians that the only unity he can readily discern in his own essays is that the scholars he discusses “are all male” and the works he analyzes are “all in prose.”
Most salutary of all is Hexter’s continual willingness to deflate any tendency to professorial self-importance. He does not hesitate to cite the embarrassing preface in which Fernand Braudel praises his own book on the Mediterranean as a classic work. And he contrives a deadpan satire on the obsessions of Braudel and the Annales school as a whole, as well as providing a number of comical illustrations of what he mildly calls their tendency to issue “statements of corporate self-praise.” By contrast, he himself seems to feel no great need to protect his own ego, and in consequence appears in the pages of his books as a most engaging and unassuming personality. He doesn’t in the least mind saying that he finds one of his essays “rambling” and another “rather long-winded.” And he cheerfully tells us which of his articles were originally turned down by the journals to which he submitted them. It needs a lot of confidence, of course, to attain this degree of humility; but it’s just the sort of confidence that the historians of the Annales school would do well to try to acquire.
Hexter the moralist is undoubtedly a warm-hearted as well as a right-minded character. But what of Hexter the duelist? Is he not too savage and destructive a force to be altogether admirable? Certainly there is something unappealing about his ingrained habit of concentrating so relentlessly on the blemishes in other people’s scholarship. But there is also a case for the defense. It is surely important that at least some members of the historical profession should devote their main attention to making it more difficult for the others to talk nonsense. Hexter in effect makes this point himself, in the one passage of his Reappraisals where he comes near to offering an explicit justification for his own approach to history. He states his credo with his accustomed jokiness, but what he says, as usual, deserves pondering: “in an academic generation a little overaddicted to politesse, it may be worth saying that violent destruction is not necessarily of itself worthless and futile. Even though it leaves doubts about the right road for London, it helps if someone rips up, however violently, a ‘To London’ sign on the Dover cliffs pointing south.” It does indeed help, which is why Hexter’s contribution to his discipline has been so valuable.
January 24, 1980
Hexter himself likes to affect a tone of mild surprise at apparent “lapses” or “oddities,” and then to add a footnote explaining his puzzlement. The reason I am puzzled by his title is this. If we look at the dust jacket, we find the version I have cited above. But if we turn to the title page, we encounter a different (and surely an ambiguous) subtitle. For there the book is called Reappraisals of Some of the Makers of Modern History. And if we move on to the introduction, we find that the title itself has changed. For Hexter himself calls the book Reflections on Historians. ↩