The economy stinks, the election is abominable. So why not take a break from the headlines with a post celebrating the power of great historical writing to shed light on our past and, indirectly but no less importantly, on our present?
The three examples I’ll cite come from two works that on the surface don’t seem to have a lot in common: a late 19th century biography of Benjamin Franklin by American John Bach McMaster, and a History of Civilizations – which came out about a century later – from the French scholar Fernand Braudel. Nonetheless, they’re both the products of authors who share a crucial characteristic: They were pioneers of an approach to history that has steadily shifted the discipline from a tight concentration on politics, diplomacy, philosophical concepts, transformational individuals, and discrete events in general to the study of the deeper trends – social, economic, cultural, ecological, and technological – that have driven the evolution (or stagnation) of peoples on the everyday level.
The opening to the Franklin volume is a masterpiece of stage-setting – and a superb example of how history can enlighten by spotlighting the magnitude of change:
“The story of the life of Benjamin Franklin begins at a time  when Queen Anne ruled the colonies; when the colonies were but ten in number; and when the population did not sum up to four hundred thousand souls; at a time when witches were plentiful in New England; when foxes troubled the farmers of Lynn [Massachusetts]; when wolves and panthers abounded in Connecticut; when pirates infested the Atlantic coast; when there was no such thing as a stage-coach in the land; when there were but three colleges and one newspaper in the whole of British North America; when no printing press existed south of Philadelphia; when New York was still defended by a high stockade; and when Ann Pollard, the first white woman that ever set foot on the soil of Boston, was still enjoying a hale old age.”
The next paragraph, which includes a description of Boston as barely out of the hamlet stage, is just as good.
Among the many talents exhibited by Braudel is one that’s something of a mirror image of that apparent from McMaster’s first paragraph: illustrating the power (and implications) of continuity. Among the standout instances in his History of Civilizations are these two passages that render much more comprehensible the almost incomprehensible durability of certain traditions – in this case, China’s:
“Imagine,” he writes of both China and India, “”the Egypt of the Pharaohs, miraculously preserved, adapted more or less to modern life, but having kep its beliefs and some of its customs.”
Braudel writes in a similar vein about the longstanding official Chinese fondness for grandiose public spectacles – and their longstanding resonance with China’s masses:
“To gauge their effect, imagine the impact in Europe of a series of imperial dynasties maintaining the self-same style and significance from Augustus until the First World War.”
In his famous 1991 account of the rise of emergence of modern art, scholar Robert Hughes famously referred to its capacity to deliver “the shock of the new.” McMaster and Braudel make clear the rest of their discipline’s capacity to deliver “the shock of the old.”