Reading the wars

April 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

In preparation for tonight’s tutorial, in which we’ll discuss the last chapter of Diane Purkiss’s The English Civil War (Basic Books, 2006), I wanted to reflect on it and the other history I asked you to read this semester, Blair Worden’s The English Civil Wars, 1640-1660 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009). (I’m leaving out your other text, Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down (Penguin, 1984), because I’m interested here in attempts to capture broad swaths of history. No disrespect intended.)

Why did I assign the Purkiss and Worden texts? My basic reasons: they’re both recent, pitched at intelligent readers with little familiarity with the doings in England in the mid-seventeenth century, and lucidly written–no small accomplishment when the subject is as tangled as the civil wars. Both refer you to other useful books. Neither uses footnotes.

Mostly, though, I chose the books for their differences. Worden’s English Civil Wars is admirably concise, careful, temperate, and reassuringly divided into five chapters with no-nonsense titles–Origins, War, Regicide, Republic, and Restoration–that emphasize what happened and why. As far as I can tell, the characterizations of the more contested regions of civil war history are informed by the latest and most even-handed historical scholarship we have. I asked you to read it first, quickly, because I thought it would be a useful overview. I’m not sure that strategy was useful (especially since my idea of a quick read seems not to have been yours!), so I welcome your thoughts.

Purkiss’s The English Civil War is wonderfully unruly, funny, passionate, memorable, digressive, and human. If Worden’s bird’s-eye map of civil war territory failed to interest you in the mid-seventeenth century, I knew you might not be able to resist it after reading Purkiss’s anecdotes and stories. (She had us hooked at the end of our very first session when we read the description of those stool-throwing women in St. Giles.) You pointed out how like a 19th-century novel it is in shape and scope (think Middlemarch) and in its suggestion that character is a primary shaper of history even before we read the introductory “Epistle to the Gentle Reader,” in which Purkiss writes that

once upon a time, our courteous readers enjoyed academic history because it was grounded, as was the novel, in a drama of character. Macaulay and Carlyle were read and loved because their version of history was a guide to human nature. For complex and very good reasons, their approach has been largely abandoned by professional historians; indeed, for many a focus on individual character in history is now an irredeemable sign of the amateur. In all my work I am trying to seduce the academy into taking this human approach back…and thus giving its revived force to the subjects of our ruminations. If the past is not to be dry, then it must live, and so must its people. I hope I may be forgiven much that is faulty or imperfect for my attempt to return to a moment when history was a vital part of the nation’s idea of who and what human beings are (xxiii).

This is a bold rejection of a once radical (French, of course 😉 notion the academy now accepts as a commonplace. Crudely put, there is no such thing as stable and immutable human nature, that the identities we construct for ourselves are responses to cultural pressures we may be only dimly aware of. When Purkiss writes about taking back the “human approach,” she’s attacking a basic assumption within academia (and slapping Foucault and co. in the face with a glove). I wish that she’d addressed, if briefly, those  “complex and very good reasons” human nature was banned from the social sciences and humanities, but perhaps she’s written about that elsewhere? She’s right that the-individual-is-a-fiction assumption presents us with problems. For instance, it’s difficult to swallow the notion that individual agency either doesn’t exist or is a at minimum a lot less potent than we’d like to believe.

The defensiveness you hear in the quote above also has a lot to do with institutional and disciplinary divisions. Unlike Worden, a professor of history at Holloway College in London, Worden, Purkiss is a fellow in English at Oxford’s Keble College. It’s probably safe to assume that Purkiss received her academic training in an English department. Given the historicization of English studies–the idea that literature is inseparable from social and political contexts (derived from the notion that individual identity is inseparable from the same)–that began in the 1980s (at least this is true of the U.S.), that Purkiss should have turned to history writing is not unusual.

The different characters of these two histories a great deal to do with different scholarly values and habits that characterize the discipline of history on one hand, and the discipline of English on the other. Think for instance about how history and English are conceived at Bard–history is in the Social Studies Division, English in Languages and Literature. They’re  more like neighbors than cousins. Despite near universal academic commitment to the necessity of interdisciplinary approaches to nearly everything, in practice the disciplines are often resistant to learning from and sharing knowledge and habits of inquiry with each other.

Is it primitive human nature that makes us want to guard the gates of our precincts? Or is it that we have been so thoroughly steeped in the idea that the right to property is natural? This brings us back to the civil war and the Putney Debates and the magnificent quarrel between Ireton and Rainborough on just these questions.


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