At the end of his review of Richard J. Evans’ new book on British historians, Mark Mazower writes:
Thus Evans’ book is not only a lament for a certain postwar moment in historical scholarship; it is also, perhaps, a paean to a time when history’s public role could be taken for granted. This is no longer true, at least in Britain. And perhaps this is another, sadder, reason why so many British historians find their warmest reception abroad, not least in the United States, where history still seems to matter.
I don’t know what it’s like to do historical scholarship in Britain, but considering how often I’ve heard people say that Americans just don’t care much about history, this surprises me. Are the teledons extinct?
At the same time, as I read the review, I kept wondering where the Americans fit into the story. Evans’ book is about British historians studying the history of continental Europe, and how they differ from their counterparts in the rest of Europe:
The problem is an interesting one: how to explain the divergence between Britain (and the United States), where a large proportion of historians concern themselves with the history of other countries, and its EU partners, where professional scholarship is much more nationally focused? Evans offers some rough and ready statistics to support his account of this difference, but one has no reason to doubt his basic thesis. British universities may offer expertise in Baltic, Balkan, or Iberian history, and no decent department lacks a goodly array of non-British subjects; but the poor Czech, Polish, or French student who is interested in digesting something other than the glories of his national story will find a much thinner menu.
According to Mazower, Evans offers a number of reasons for this, which he addresses in the review, and which I’ll leave you to read if you follow the link, as I’m more interested in a reason that does not come up. (Whether the omission is Mazower’s or Evans’ I don’t know – I’d have to see the book.) And this is the fact that the British speak English.
The two blockquotes above are the only two mentions of the U.S. in the review: a comment about how history apparently still matters there, and a parenthetical aside noting that just like in Britain, many professional historians in the U.S. study other parts of the world. But despite the aside, Evans’ book (as summarized by Mazower) gives only British and European reasons for British and European divergence. But how do the Americans fit in? (If they do.)
Does the fact that another large historical community, using more or less the same language, studies a similar range of areas have anything to do with the British divergence from the rest of Europe? And if so, does the influence go both ways?
I don’t know, but the impression I got from the people I knew in grad school who specialized in non-U.S. topics – especially Europe, Africa, and the Middle East* – was that they needed to have a grasp of all the English-language scholarship, regardless of country of origin. I assume those trained in Britain would have to meet similar expectations. So it seems plausible that the American historical community would have some influence on British practice (and vice versa), at least in the relevant fields. It’s too bad it sounds like Evans doesn’t take this up, even if only to dismiss it as an additional explanation.
*And then there’s the question of whether Britain, though similar to the U.S. with respect to continental Europe when it comes to studying continental Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania (to use some traditional geographical terms), is actually more like continental Europe compared to the U.S. when it comes to studying the Americas.
There are certainly a lot of departments in the U.S. with British specialists (though recent trends suggest they may be in the process of becoming Europeanists) – how many British academic historians study the U.S.? How many study Latin America? Are the numbers comparable?
I really don’t know the answer to that, though I guess I wouldn’t be surprised if more British than American historians study Canada.