Sir Geoffrey Elton's latest reflections on the state and status of his subject illustrate the Coleridgean maxim that a man is more likely to be right in what he affirms than in what he denies. Arising from lectures delivered, one imagines, off the cuff to an audience at the University of Michigan, they consist for the most part of soundings-off against a rogues' gallery of ideological and academical types and tendencies which he believes constitute a threat to the proper study and use of the past. Like High Church Tories in the reign of Queen Anne announcing that the Church is in danger, he wrests the sacred ark of history out of the defiling hands of sundry Marxists, Whig progressivists, structuralists and deconstructionists. Reminding one of those early 20th-century French hard-liners who insisted on calling themselves Catholics sans epithète, Elton pleads for plain, unadorned history as he himself has practised it. As we learned from The Practice of History (1967), history for him is practice - doing, not theorising - which makes for some difficulty, since Return to Essentials is necessarily a book about the theory of the subject. Yet another polemical book ended with these words: 'Enough of these reflections. It is high time to return to the thing itself.'
LRB 11 June 1992 | PDF Download