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.
History Writing as a Public Calling
E. P. Thompson and The Making of the English Working Class
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.
When Was Brexit? Reading Backward to the Present
This introductory article lays out the stakes of thinking through the temporalities of Brexit history across multiple fields of vision. It makes the case for books as one archive of Brexit subjects and feelings, and it glosses all the articles in the special issue.
Barbara Pym's fiction has been viewed as an anthropological approach to the social mores of postwar Britain. In this article, I use one of her last novels, Quartet in Autumn, to sharpen that reading to think through how Pym articulated an aesthetics of decline by trumpeting the dying world of the White English spinster. Quartet fictionalizes the agony of what Ramon Soto-Crespo calls “decapitalized Whiteness,” that is, where economic loss and a sense of racial disenfranchisement go hand in hand. The transatlantic desire it satisfied for a world that was lost yet redeemable through good old-fashioned English “women's” literature prefigures the nostalgia for a preglobal Britain that has underwritten much of Brexit's affective appeal.