This special issue on E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) grew out of a symposium I organized at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in October 2013 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication. I am, on the face of it, one of the least likely modern British historians to be organizing such an event. I can remember the first time I held the weighty tome in my hands: I was a junior in college, in the fall of 1982, and it was on the syllabus for a course I was taking on Victorian Britain, taught by Jonathan Schneer at Yale University. As did many feminist and postcolonial historians of my generation, I struggled with what I saw as Thompson’s indifference to women and gender (oh, those deluded followers of Joanna Southcott!) and his incapacity to see the evidence of race and empire in his sources even when they cried out from below the footnote line for all to see.
Radical Book History
E. P. Thompson and The Making of the English Working Class
Religion(s) and the Enlightenment
David Allen Harvey
Despite its long-standing reputation for skepticism and irreverence, the Enlightenment took religion quite seriously. Historians have long recognized this fact, and have often represented the intellectual history of the eighteenth century in terms of the struggle between religious faith and philosophical skepticism. One common view of the period holds that religious dogmatism and intolerance, memorably condemned by Voltaire as l’Infâme, served as the negative pole against which the positive Enlightenment ideals of secularism, reason, and tolerance were articulated. Nearly a century ago, Ernst Cassirer characterized this view (which he did not entirely share) by writing, “French Encyclopedism declares war openly on religion,” accusing it of “having been an eternal hindrance to intellectual progress.” Around the same time, Carl Becker argued that the eighteenth-century philosophes sought to recast the “heavenly city” imagined by church fathers such as St. Augustine into a vision of a terrestrial utopian future. A generation later, Peter Gay described the philosophes as “modern pagans,” who “used their classical learning to free themselves from their Christian heritage.” For such scholars, the historical signifi cance of the Enlightenment lay in its break with religious tradition and embrace of “modernity”, defined primarily by secularism and rationality.
War, Occupation, and Empire in France and Germany
Jean Elisabeth Pedersen
“What is a nation?” Ernest Renan’s famous rhetorical question to an audience at the Sorbonne on 11 March 1882 has remained vital for a wide variety of scholars in fields as diverse as history, literary criticism, sociology, philosophy, and political science. Renan initially posed the question barely ten years after the close of the Franco-Prussian War, which had sparked the establishment of the French Third Republic, the unification of Germany under the leadership of Wilhelm I, and the transfer of the disputed territory of Alsace-Lorraine from French to German control in the months between July 1870 and May 1871. Renan made no overt mention of these events while he was speaking, but he rejected any possible answer to his question that might attempt to base the creation of nations and national identities on shared “race, language, [economic] interests, religious affinity, geography, [or] military necessities.” This explicit refusal constituted an implicit rejection of the entire range of German justifications for the acquisition of the two recently French border provinces.
Reconsiderations of the Idea of Nostalgia in Contemporary Historical Writing
Patrick H. Hutton
Scholarly interest in the topic of nostalgia has come late to discussions of the workings of memory, a popular topic in contemporary historiography, but its moment may at last have arrived, bringing with it perspectives unappreciated a generation ago. As an emotional response to time’s passage, nostalgia has long been viewed with suspicion. From the dawn of the modern age, critics have explained that it plays into life’s illusions, drifting into sentimental idealization of a past on the fast track to obsolescence. From the earliest critical commentaries on its nature in the late seventeenth century, nostalgia has been equated with homesickness, futile longing for lost places, lost times, and lost causes. For the most part, it was diagnosed as a psychological disorder that immobilized individuals susceptible to the tug of its emotions. It was in this guise that discussion of its nature entered the lexicon of medical discourse during the nineteenth century. The impairments of those who suffered from its sadness were real. The remedy was to awaken them to life’s present realities, and so to teach them to adapt with vigor to their own times.
In July 2012, President of France François Hollande recalled the Vel d’Hiv roundup seventy years earlier. He opened his commemorative speech with the usual reference to the “horror of a crime” and used the familiar expression of the “sorrow of those who experienced the tragedy.” What stood out, however, were his allusions to the violation of France’s, and by extension Europe’s, social contract with its Jews. The men, women, and children who were assembled for internment and deportation “could not have known the fate that awaited them.” They believed that the ties that united “the great French family [were] too strong,” he said, quoting a distinguished rabbi just after the 1940 decree depriving Jews of their citizenship, too self-evident “to be broken.” President Hollande then struck the memorable chord: “Therein lies the betrayal.”
Claude Langlois's Vision of France
Regional Identity, Royal Imaginary, and Holy Women
Claude Langlois’s work points the way out of a long-standing whiggish view, not only of French, but also European historiography. If Western Civ textbooks or respectable general histories reflect the consensus of the profession, it is still easy to find themes of progress toward equality, secularism, and modernity. Such themes are defensible, of course, but they are one-sided. They omit a lot, like the experiences of those left out of the march of progress, of religious institutions, and of unintended victims of revolution and civil war. A more sophisticated rendering would be more satisfactory since it would emphasize resistance, the apparently marginal, and the richness of historical experience. It would replace assumptions about inevitable outcomes with a greater awareness of contingency. Claude Langlois’s work on women, religion, and the French Revolution illustrates how such a complicated history might look.
The editors have taken this opportunity to feature four articles that investigate the ways in which women are embodied by, or embody in themselves, the social, cultural, or political ethos of a particular era or region. Although very different in both topic and approach, these articles discuss radically new ways of approaching discussions of women, their sexuality, and notions of the feminine in historical discourse.
History Writing as a Public Calling
This introductory article raises questions about history's work in the contemporary public sphere and sets the stage for the issues addressed in the special issue as a whole. Drawing on my experience at a public university in fiscal crisis, I argue that historians can and should contribute to debates about the future of higher education, the role of the humanities in the twenty-first-century liberal arts curriculum, and the fate of intellectual work in a global world.
Shona Kelly Wray, 1963-2012, beloved colleague, friend, and member of the Historical Reflections/ Réflexions Historiques Editorial Board
Linda E. Mitchell
In Memoriam Shona Kelly Wray, 1963-2012
By lucky circumstance, this second issue in our continuing series on historians reflecting on their craft gave us the opportunity to feature the work of one of the most innovative and creative scholars writing French history today: Yves Pourcher.