In response to:
Through the Keyhole from the November 21, 1991 issue
To the Editors:
Towards the end of David Cannadine’s garrulous review of Michelle Perrot (ed.) A History of Private Life, Vol. IV [“Through the Keyhole,” NYR, November 21] I was surprised to find myself blamed for the supposed sins of this largely French collection, with which I am in no way connected and for which I hold no brief.
Not only so: it seems that the malign influence of The Making of the English Working Class has for nearly thirty years confused North American, British and now French historians. Cannadine develops his critique with the fine precision of an alcoholic house-painter wielding a distemper brush: slap, splosh, slop! It seems in The Making I “described the Industrial Revolution as a disaster” which displaced “an eighteenth-century golden age of freedom and rights”; subsequent social history has been a record of struggle to regain these lost rights.
I can’t recognise these arguments as mine, nor will my readers and students. Of course industrialization had contradictory and disastrous features: this was no discovery of E. P. Thompson’s. And certain rights were lost at that time: notably agrarian rights in common land—a theme I return to in my latest book, Customs in Common (The New Press, forthcoming).
But the central argument of The Making was that claims to new rights as (male) citizens and electors were asserted in the age of The Rights of Man, claims which were sometimes repressed and driven underground but which contributed significantly to the political self-image of the new industrial working class, in the formidable and undeferential agitations of the postwar years. No sentimental saga of everlasting lost rights here!
Cannadine exposes the malign influence of The Making as more far-reaching than that: it seems that I am responsible for the supposed deficiencies of feminist historiography. Once again I find his account of my views to be unrecognisable (I have never supported that notion of “social control”). Most American feminist historians will not thank him for attributing their basic historical model to me (I have had some rough handling from some of them). Whether there was a mid-nineteenth-century shift in gender roles, as between public and private spheres, is an empirical question which has recently undergone a good deal of investigation (which seems to have passed Cannadine by): it need not give the same results in different nations, classes or social groups.
Underlying Cannadine’s critique of “these two essentially outmoded historical models” is the trendy complaint that Thompsonian (E. P.) concepts of class and class struggle are thoroughly “discredited” and displaced by “recent research.” This was said loudly in 1963 when my book was first published, by much of the British historical establishment (the American was more generous). And they have been saying it ever since. I am not going to retreat from long-held positions because Cannadine has shown us a footnote to recent work by Professor F.M.L. Thompson.
It may be that the influence of The Making is now a drag upon historical scholarship. But let the matter be argued out by attention to the issues or to the text, and not—slop, slap, splosh—with a distemper brush.
E. P. Thompson
David Cannadine replies:
It was an unexpected pleasure to find that my recent review of A History of Private Life, Volume IV: From theFires of Revolution to the Great War, should have drawn forth a characteristically spirited reply from E. P. Thompson, and I greatly appreciate the irony whereby the author of an 850-page book, justly renowned for the vigor and fecundity of his prose, dismisses my 6,000-word essay, which only mentions him in two paragraphs, as “garrulous.”
As for his condemnation of my methods as “slop, slap, splosh”: this surely applies more to his letter than to my review. As I made explicitly plain at the outset, the two paragraphs which discuss his work were a summary of the “vulgarized version of [his] arguments put forward nearly thirty years ago,” and not of the arguments themselves.
Of course, Mr. Thompson is no more responsible for the misreadings of his work than I am responsible for his misreading of my review. But despite his bad-tempered efforts to depict me as a hostile critic, not even he can persuade me to change my opinion that The Making of the English Working Class is, as I said in my review, a masterly book.
December 19, 1991