About this blog

This isn't designed to be a blog per se, but just a place to store things I've written for easy reference. Most of it will be book reviews, with a few random essays about the stuff that interests me outside work (i.e. nothing on politics and government).

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Amazon Review of an Honourable Englishman

An Honourable Englishman
Adam Sisman
2012, pp. 672

Adam Sisman’s biography of English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper harkens us back to a time when the writing and teaching of history mattered.  From the 1930s through the 1980s the world was highly ideological, and the interpretation of even the distant past was hotly contested as being intimately relevant to contemporary events surrounding the rise of first fascism and then communism.  As the gladiators in this particular coliseum, certain historians became celebrities in a manner not seen before or since.  Appearing on television and the radio, and writing in newspapers and journals both academic and popular, they were much in demand to provide perspective on events such as trials of Nazi war criminals, the JFK assassination and the Warren Commission. 

Country homes, fancy cars, and exotic foreign travels play as large a role in the Trevor-Roper story as journal articles, conferences and books.  The reader is invited into the arcane world of Oxbridge and the vicious politics that consumed its scholars.  Flamboyant, brilliant, garrulous and out spoken, Trevor-Roper is a particularly engaging protagonist.  One author likened him to a “pop star” in terms of his standing with the public.  Although his academic work focused mostly on the 16th and 17th centuries, Trevor-Roper’s framework for understanding “his” period was in competition with those offered by Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm.  Which interpretation prevailed was not seen as irrelevant at a time when a Marxist superpower was claiming that “the West” was irrevocably doomed because of natural historical forces.
Trevor-Roper with his wife:
a passionate yet stormy

Sisman does a particularly fine job covering the historical issues about which Trevor-Roper and his colleagues discussed and debated, sometimes in vituperative terms.  At the same time, he avoids turning the book into historiography.  The reader will understand just enough about the historical controversies to understand Trevor-Roper, and the controversies in which he engaged with relish, without getting too bogged down.

A typical "young man in a hurry" Trevor-Roper
would come to be frustrated later in life with his inability
to create a masterwork on the 17th century.  His inability
to navigate between complexity and narrative still eludes
many in academia.
Sisman’s generally sympathetic portrayal does not lead him astray when recognizing his subject’s shortcomings.  For example, his summation of Trevor-Roper’s involvement in the controversy surrounding the Warren Commission’s report is particularly harsh (“rashness,” “poor judgment,” “ obstinacy,” “arrogance”).  Trevor-Roper habitually separated the personal from the professional in a manner many others could not and consequently was frequently caught off guard at how personally colleagues took what he intended to be purely professional criticisms.  Sisman’s reliance on Trevor-Roper’s voluminous correspondence reminds us of the daunting challenge that will be met by anyone attempting to chronicle the life of the historians of today.

One final note: the American title of the book is a curiosity (it was not used in England where readers would recognize Trevor-Roper’s name more readily).  Trevor-Roper was not particularly honorable (except that he was incapable of keeping his honest opinions to himself, a sort of academic integrity perhaps) and he might wince at being identified as being more “English” than any other historian of the period, as he was very critical of those who failed to look beyond England’s borders when chronicling events.  Still anyone looking for a biography of Trevor-Roper in particular or for exposure to the world of Oxford dons and historians during their golden age will enjoy Sisman’s book tremendously.


  1. Nicely done, Alec. The gladiator simile worked perfectly here, and "a sort of academic integrity perhaps" made me laugh. Thanks to you, this bio just may make my reading list

  2. Thanks Karen - it's very well done and certainly piqued my interest in the world of 20th century academic historians. Henry Kissinger once famously remarked that academic politics was so vicious because so little was at stake. This was one period in time when there was more at stake (or at least perceived to be). I.e., If the Marxist historians were right about the 17th century, perhaps the Soviets were on the "right" side of history, and fence sitting nations better get with the program, etc.