Wednesday, May 18, 2016

May's Book: History's People

History's People by Margaret MacMillan
History (2015 - 348 pp.)

History's People has an admirable goal: to explain and illustrate "the important and complex relationship between biography and history, individuals and their times." (front dust jacket) Margaret MacMillan, of Paris 1919 fame, does so using disparate tales of historical figures grouped into five rough categories: Persuasion, Hubris, Daring, Curiosity, Observers. These categories also serve as the five chapter names, with the introduction being part of the first and the conclusion being part of the fifth.

Most of the book consists of extended anecdotes about MacMillan's couple dozen chosen historical figures. She brings out their personalities through drifting between their impacts on the world and their more private times, such as in her comparison between Otto von Bismarck the diplomat and Bismarck the disaffected rural young adult. Analyses of the Prussia of the 1860s are balanced by a portrait of a Bismarck who gleefully wrote: "I shall get pissed on the king's birthday and cheer him vociferously and the rest of the time I shall sound off regularly and my every other word will be; 'Gad, what a splendid horse!'". (30) Max "Lord Beaverbrook" Aitken receives a similar treatment: MacMillan oscillates between his wit and his politics, including the timeless quotation, "Nothing... is so bad as consistency." (168) Aitken and I agree on that. MacMillan uses Margaret Thatcher as an example of a strong-willed democratic leader who ruled by her principles until that no longer worked: "Standing up for principle, showing leadership, being tough - these had served her well in the past. And she had driven away almost anyone who would tell her she was making a huge mistake..." (116) Thatcher rose to her height during the Falklands War and fell from grace over a poll tax; as always, it is seemingly boring taxation issues that decide the fates of titans.

Followers of the past few decades' growth in women's history should be delighted to read "Curiosity", in which MacMillan tells stories of women who discovered more in their societies than was thought possible. They tended to be British, and they tended to live in the colonies, such as Elizabeth Simcoe (Upper Canada), Fanny Parkes (India) and Edith Mary Durham (the Balkans). Among Simcoe's observations is a description of a raccoon, which "resemble[s] a Fox, are an exceedingly fat animal with a bushy tail." (235) The most surprising Simcoe-related tidbit is that in 1790, Upper Canada's population was only "around ten thousand". (226) Its remoteness in the context of the British Empire and its extremely low population make it almost like an 18th-century analogue to what Nunavut (pop. 31,000) is within Canada now.

History's People is an easy, accessible read. This is good for anyone wanting to read it in a less-than-traditional-academic setting, like on an airplane. Each chapter is readable in one sitting, so the book only takes about five hours to read in total. (It may take longer if you lack a history degree but I have no data on that.) The page count is deceptive because the margins are almost an inch on the top and sides, with an A4-style bigger bottom margin. History's People is readable in a week if you're willing to devote some time to it, which is ideal for a book-a-week-style undergraduate history capstone seminar course.

The downside to the book's accessibility is its lack of citations. There is a good list of sources at the end, but there are no pinpoint footnotes or endnotes. Although I am inclined to trust MacMillan's research based on her previous work, this is nonetheless bothersome in the event I would want to cite History's People in anything else. The upshot is that it reads like a lecture series. I wouldn't be surprised if she'd told these stories as lectures before.

The stories often don't feel relevant to each other. Although MacMillan draws parallels between the subjects' experiences, especially in "Curiosity", many of the facts appear arbitrary. The book would have been improved by more frequent reference to the central thesis of intersection between history and biography "Hubris" especially falls victim to disjointedness. Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin can be grouped in a time period if for no other reason. Grouping Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Thatcher as Anglosphere democratic leaders lacks insight considering the drastically different backgrounds they had and circumstances they faced. Aside from the disastrous attempt to join the League of Nations, Wilson never really fell. His refusal to send any Republicans to the Paris Peace Conference, though, including either William Howard Taft or Henry Cabot Lodge, portended more recent American events.

Tunnel vision, the superimposition of contemporary values onto people who lived in previous worlds, is all too common in history. MacMillan warns against it in her discussion of characters whose problems largely reflected their time periods: "We cannot expect, for example, Queen Elizabeth I of Britian to have behaved like a twenty-first century feminist. And whenever we are trying to understand why historical figures behaved as they did, we must always try to gauge what they themselves could plausibly have seen as the alternatives before them." (85) Much like Monday morning quarterbacking tells us little of how NFL players should have won championships, history's people are limited to the facts and ideas before them. In History's People, and especially in its well-written conclusion, MacMillan takes on a difficult but rewarding topic: how the world shapes people, and in turn, how they shape it.

Ease of Reading: 7
Educational Content: 7

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