‘Thinking the Twentieth Century’ – and a Historian’s Education – with Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder

Writing to F. Scott Fitzgerald with comments on an early draft of The Great Gatsby, Maxwell Perkins, then an editor at Scriber, wrote back to the author:

“The general brilliant quality of the book makes me ashamed to make even these criticisms. The amount of meaning you get into a sentence, the dimensions and intensity of the impression you make a paragraph carry, are most extraordinary. The manuscript is full of phrases which make a scene blaze with life. If one enjoyed a rapid railroad journey I would compare the number and vividness of pictures your living words suggest, to the living scenes disclosed in that way. It seems in reading a much shorter book than it is, but it carries the mind through a series of experiences one would think would require a book of three times its length.”

I have a similar feeling as I sit down and try to recollect my thoughts on Thinking the Twentieth Century, the splendid new book of conversations between Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder that has just appeared with Penguin. It marks the last of what we might see as a trilogy of works by Judt to appear in what were, tragically, the last few years of his life.

Tony Judt (1948-2010)

Some background: in 2008, Judt, already then an accomplished historian of both French intellectual history as well as postwar European history more generally, was diagnosed with ALS. By autumn of that year it became that Judt, essentially paralyzed below the neck, would be incapable of writing in the conventional sense. While ALS cut short several other more conventional projects Judt was considering (among them a history of rail travel), it prompted what turned out to be three productive and inspiring undertakings. Judt devoted himself to a defense and attempt at re-invention of the social democratic tradition of the 1960s, giving a series of lectures that became the book Ill Fares the Land. Second, trapped in his body, Judt also undertook a project that he called ‘The Memory Chalet’: dictating into a tape recorder, Judt produced a number of oral recollections of his life, from reminiscences about a meritocratic moment at King’s College, Cambridge, to an exploration of Judt’s fondness for American state universities’ enormous (by comparison with provincial British universities) libraries. He might have been trapped in an impotent body, but by ‘walking’ through the rooms of a ‘memory chalet,’ Judt could reconstruct his life and continue to operate as an intellectual and writer.

At the same time, as Timothy Snyder writes in the introduction to Thinking the Twentieth Century, it was clear to Judt’s colleagues and friends (Snyder had gotten to know Judt as an undergraduate at Brown when Judt gave a visiting lecture, and their interests as historians of Europe were complementary) that something more had to be done. And so, in the summer and fall of 2009, Professor Synder of Yale would take the train from New Haven to Manhattan and tape-record a series of conversations with Judt that attempt to cover the intellectual transformations throughout his life. The result is Thinking the Twentieth Century, broken up into chapters that more or less trace these inflection points in Judt’s life: ‘English writer’; ‘East European liberal’; ‘social democrat’, and so on.

I start these reflections on Thinking the Twentieth Century with the quotation by Perkins because the book is simply delightful – if a bit overwhelming at times – in its sheer erudition and intellectual range. Judt and Snyder’s conversation, which centers quite a bit on Judt’s relationship with Marxism and how to write a history of the 20th century (a major joint interest in light of Judt’s aforementioned Postwar and Snyder’s Bloodlands), is a testament to two lives of largely shared reading. While Snyder never directly studied under Judt – the reading interests of both historians (that is, outside of a technical historical-scholarly literature) was similar, and the ability of the two to lose themselves underscores how important some sense of canon, a shared reading list is to conversation in a time when self-identity studies and narrow reading interests (whether in popular media or scholarship) can seem common.

So where to start with a book whose bibliography includes Keynes, Boris Souvarine, Sebastian Mihail, and Margarete Buber-Neumann? I hope to devote a couple of blog entries to Thinking the Twentieth Century, and maybe even a podcast or two, but in this opening salvo – reading the book as I am as a graduate student midway through a doctorate – one aspect of the conversation that I would like to highlight is Judt’s attitude towards his own education, the education of a historian, and professional history vs. being an intellectual.

Oxford's Faculty of History, my current home

We take it for granted today that history is a subject that you can train for professionally in a roughly similar fashion to how you prepare for molecular biology, sociology,  medicine, or law. Tell your friends that you’re going to a doctoral program in creative writing or dance, and they might think that you’re throwing away money, time, CV space, or all three, but among the educated American élite going to a PhD program in history is more or less an acceptable thing to do (other than the fact that you will likely never be employed after making this terrible decision).

Once inside these programs, students pursue structurally similar educations in spite of the differences in their intellectual interests. Historians, partly for pedagogical purposes, have created things called ‘fields’ (post-Petrine Russian Empire, Soviet Union, ‘modern European history’) the historiographies of which students often spend months and years reading in order to be able to relate works to one another. They learn the historiographical controversies of the day (‘What kind of state was Vichy France?’), they maybe learn or deepen their language competencies, and they learn how to write in a way that conforms to best practices for scholarly journals or the major scholarly presses, so that they can get their articles and eventually dissertation-turned-into-books published and carve out a niche for themselves.

Perhaps most importantly, they’re also trained to think of themselves as a community of professional historians, as distinct from amateur or mass-market writers. I am often struck, for example, at dinner parties and in routine conversations by the extent to which non-historians view the work of, say, David McCullough or Edmund Morris as ‘real history,’ when in my experience many graduate students, if not always professors of an older generation, are hugely dismissive of these authors. Jealously of sales might be one factor here; but as Judt and Snyder observe, good history (from the point of view of professional historians) is often like pornography: you know it when you see it. It feels right. It has a voice that reflects years of deeper reading, and it partly addressed to a fellow community of historians rather than just a mass-market audience. The best works – consider Snyder’s Bloodlands or (an interesting contrast) Mark Mazower’s Hitler’s Empire – manage to do both.

Interesting in Thinking the Twentieth Century is Judt’s complex relationship to this community of academic, professional historians. While Judt completed a PhD in French history at Cambridge in 1972, had a distinguished academic career between King’s, Berkeley, St. Anne’s at Oxford, and NYU, and obviously taught professionalizing graduate students for many years in that capacity, it might not be an exaggeration to describe him as an autodidact. Cambridge and Oxford are, then as now, notorious for providing less a directed undergraduate education in history than a huge list of books to read and the attitude of ‘read this and tell me what you think.’ When Judt pursued his PhD, he was essentially unsupervised, and as he points out, he completed most of the necessary work (on the French Socialist Party in the 1920s) by making all the necessary contacts himself in Paris in the late 1960s, sitting down at libraries and archives, and – when not working as a short-order cook in Cambridge and desperate about post-PhD prospects – reading a lot outside of any defined field of French history.

While neither Snyder or Judt highlight historical education as a major theme in the editing of their conversations, I find Judt’s reflections on the pros and cons of amateurism versus pre-professionalism interesting and relevant to the context of the book; you could make a case that between Snyder, Judt, and, say, Timothy Garton Ash and Mark Mazower, some of the most creative Anglo-American historians of the last twenty years emerged from this combination of an unstructured, autodidactic Oxford education, combined with mucho traveling to and contacts in the regions they would be interested in. (Of course, at least within the States, the majority of historians – including some of my favorite authors – found ways to pursue similarly unorthodox educations under the rubric of an American PhD.)

True for history?

Of course, one downside to pursuing this semi-autodidactic education was a permanent sense of being the outsider. Judt writes:

‘By studying French history at Cambridge – a hotbed of new scholarship in the history of ideas and English historiography but largely moribund when it came to contemporary European history – I was left to go my own way. As a consequence, I never became part of a “school” in the way of my contemporaries who worked with Sir John Plumb at Cambridge or Richard Cobb in Oxford. I thus became by default what I had always been by affinity: something of an outsider to the professionalizing world of academic history.’

‘There are downsides to this, just as there are disadvantages to joining a socio-academic elite from the outside. One is always a little suspicious of the “insiders,” with their bibliographies, methods and inherited practices. This proved more of a disadvantage in America, where professionalism conformism is valued more highly than it is (or was) in England. I would often be asked at Berkeley and elsewhere what I thought of such-and-such a book which had taken my younger colleagues by storm and would have to admit that I had never heard of it: I never worked my way through “the literature of the field.” Conversely, those same colleagues would be taken aback to discover that I was reading political philosophy when my official “slot” was Social History. When I was young, this made me quite insecure, but in middle age it was a point of pride.’

These are all familiar themes and moments of maturation for almost anyone pursuing a graduate education in history, but perhaps especially for someone like myself who finds him or herself moving between similar but professionally different communities of historians in the UK, the United States, and (to a lesser extent) Germany. As someone who recently made the decision to stay in the UK to complete my graduate education – but who is also often in touch with friends in US PhD programs and others contemplating Oxbridge or LSE versus longer American doctoral programs – the dilemmas and tradeoffs of insider versus outsider, pre-professionalism versus perhaps a broader intellectual reading agenda, are well known.

Judt with Snyder, 'Thinking the Twentieth Century'

Perhaps because of this, I find Judt’s description of his own intellectual and professional development reassuring, comforting, and maybe even inspiring because he represents someone who was able to combine, or at least appreciate, the virtues of these two traditions: autodidacticism but perhaps wider reading (roughly, the UK agenda) versus a more in-depth and professional education but sometimes at the expense of broader horizons.

For example, when describing the second of his three marriages (romantic adventures with various female academics and graduate students punctuate Thinking the Twentieth Century), Judt goes into a long aside about the two years he spent at Emory University, in Atlanta, a city which he detested. Judt – there as a visiting professor since his wife was on an exchange there, too – found himself struggling to deal with what he describes as ‘Midwestern social science types’ across a number of the departments: people obsessed with quantitative social sciences, area studies, modernization theory, and generally illiterate.

The sociology department with which Judt was affiliated at the time had the opportunity to hire a new professor, and Judt found himself on the decisive committee. He sat through several interminable presentations by the dead social science types – ‘the relationship between democracy, average age of first childbirth, and voting rates in Eastern European countries,’ that kind of stuff – until he managed to convince his colleagues to bring in Jan Gross — then a young but not established PhD from Yale who was looking for a job. As Judt writes, Gross ‘gave what must have seemed to his audience an almost entirely incomprehensible talk: Galicia this, Volhynia that, Belarus the other – drawing on material from what would become his classic study of the wartime Soviet annexation of eastern Poland, a topic of no interest to Emory’s sociology department.’ (I would only add that the book Judt is referring to, Revolution from Abroad, really is excellent.)

Jan Gross, author of 'Revolution From Abroad,' 'Neighbors,' and other works

Needless to say, the ‘rather dowdy’ members of the sociology department wanted one of the ‘generic clones of the midwestern quantitative model in American sociology.’ But Judt, desperate for intellectual companionship, ‘went behind the department’s back to the dean: you can [he told him] reproduce this mediocre sociology department if you wish, or else you can bring in Jan Gross, a true European intellectual and major scholar, a man who understands sociology, but many other things as well, and who would transform the standing of your social studies division. The dean relented and hired Gross, who went on to produce several huge contributions to Eastern European history – the aforementioned Revolution from Abroad and Neighbors.

So maybe part of the lesson is that we shouldn’t strive to be the midwestern clones of our day – although there certainly are a lot of them running around universities still in my experience – and need instead to strive for a broader intellectualism and variety of experience (Gross was part of the major Polish student protests in 1968 before being encouraged to emigrate as a Jew and beginning his PhD at Yale). The former might promise a certain modicum of job security – important – but the Gross episode strikes me as to the importance of continuing a broader intellectual conversation (of the kind that Judt and Jan and Irina Gross were able to carry out in Atlanta) rather than mere pre-professionalism. It’s more interesting, and if Judt and Gross are any example, it produces better scholarship, too.

At the same time, there are moments in Thinking the Twentieth Century where Judt’s respect for aspects of the more conventional historical education come through. It’s true that Judt – who had to deal with a ‘cultural studies’-obsessed Berkeley in the late 1980s – has some pretty harsh things to say about contemporary professional culture in history. Speaking on the proliferation of ‘Theory’ in history departments, he says:

‘This sense of inferiority [among historians with respect to scientists] goes a long way to account for the fascination shown by today’s historians with theory, with models, with “frameworks.” These tools, such as they are, offer the reassuring illusion of intellectual structure: a discipline with rules and procedures. When people ask what you do, you can confidently reply that you work in “subaltern studies,” or in “the new Cultural History” or whatever it might be – much as a chemist might describe himself as specializing in Inorganic Chemistry or Biochemistry.’

I’ve definitely seen this phenomenon quite a bit – political scientists, with their distinctions of realists, institutionalists, and other schools seem prone to this. As Judt emphasizes, such a strong emphasis with a particular field or sub-discipline usually reflects a lack of intellectual self-confidence, and it produces ‘books that are unappealing to read, too.’

However, elsewhere Judt recalls a dinner with a group of employment-insecure Yale grad students, working mostly in diplomatic history (considered then as now sort of a dowdy subject) at a time when their friends doing French theory and cultural studies were having no time finding great post-docs and jobs straight out. Judt’s response to them showed a fine balance between the dismissal of categories like subaltern studies and older, more established traditions of writing history: you’re right to be upset about all the gobbledygook getting attention nowadays, but this, too, shall pass, and by then you will be the ones with a solid historical education, the ability to parse the necessary documents in Russian, German, French, Italian, etc. Rigor, Judt insisted, will eventually win out in the end.

Given the continued presence of some of the cultural studies types in major university departments, Judt might have been partly naïve, but I buy his overall analysis: look for established historical traditions you can write in and finds ways to re-energize and innovate – English economic history or French intellectual history, say – but be wary of anything that markets itself like a cult. (Seems like easy advice to take but again, I see numerous examples to the contrary frequently at Oxford and conferences …).

That’s sort of what I’m trying to do as I figure out my own plans and priorities for the next couple of years: I have interests in ‘Eurasia’ broadly conceived (Russia, Central Asia, Turko-Persia, and the subcontinent down to, say, Delhi), and am trying, alongside learning the languages, to figure out projects that put it all together and show the coherence of the region in the 20th century. In doing so – along with several other scholars who have similar broad interests if different language combinations, time periods of interest other than the Cold War, etc. – I’m broadly keen to reinvigorate scholarship on, say, Russia or the USSR or Iran. At the same time, the broader attitude has to be one of reading widely and empiricism, rather than the pseudo-scientific attitude that Judt describes.

As I mentioned earlier, this will be only one of what I expect to be several posts on what has been a tremendously rewarding book – one whose real content I have barely scratched the surface of in a shamelessly pre-professional post about … outsiderness and anti-professionalism. Expect more in-depth commentary on 20th century history, Judt, and Snyder in a couple of days.

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