August 26, 2007

Don't get mad; get historiographical

The New York Times preview of Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms has prompted a flurry of responses by people who haven't yet read the book. Hrrmrmrmrm... Obviously, it's touched a nerve among historians, perhaps moreso than the flurry responding to Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel. Both books are orthogonal looks at the "rise of Europe" in ways that are couched as "new explanations."

For historians who know the extensive literature on early modern Europe and industrialization, these books are provocative and somewhat discomfiting, in part because they appear at first glance to be ignoring the existing literature. I've already read  one criticism of Clark saying he was just reworking Fernand Braudel's annaliste approach. I understand this (I had similar questions when reading the NYT article), but I haven't read the book and feel it's better to hold that as a question until specialists have a chance to read the thing.

But even without reading it, I can suggest an approach that can accommodate criticism and provocation, which is to treat it as an extension of a long line of provocative arguments about the rise of Europe, from Lynn White to Jared Diamond and beyond. As an undergraduate, I had a wonderful experience taking a course in early-modern Europe, where Susan Stuard used every week to explore a different explanation for the "rise of Europe," thereby turning historiography into a puzzle. It was fabulous, and it also provided a way to think about Clark's book, regardless of the merits: "Yes, dear, you're quite clever. While I'm cooking, could you please go join that bookshelf over there? I think you'll find lots of friends with similar interests."

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Posted in History on August 26, 2007 8:57 AM |