, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
(Norton, 2012) 368 pages
Verdict?: 2/5 Never let history get in the way of a good Pulitzer Prize
Back in 1931 a young Oxford don named Herbert Butterfield published a slim volume on historiography that almost no-one read and which virtually passed without review notice. Butterfield's book, which at a mere 80 or so pages was really more of a longish essay, would probably have vanished without trace if, in 1949, he had not published Christianity and History
; a book that became a surprise best-seller. His publishers reprinted his earlier book, The Whig Interpretation of History
in 1950 and it went on to become one of the most read theses on how history is studied of the last century or so.
The "Whig interpretation" of Butterfield's title was summed up in his essay as "studying the past for the sake of the present" as opposed to "trying to understand the past for the sake of the past" (Butterfield p. 13). Butterfield criticised most of the English historians of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries for a blatant tendency toward "dividing the world into the friends and enemies of progress". Anything that historians like Macauley and Acton saw as moving toward things of which they approved (liberalism, Protestantism, democracy, industry, "progress") was judged as "good" and written of approvingly. Anything that could be seen or painted as not doing so was judged as "bad" and its agents or proponents became the villains of the historian's story. At the heart of the Whig interpretation was the historiographical fallacy of "Presentism": the idea that what we have now is (mostly) good and wise and intelligent and all of the past has been a stumbling and wandering path progressing towards our wonderful and oooh-so-right present. ....Read the rest of this review here
: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt