Historical texts as literature? We do well to praise EP Thompson

EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class brought narrative methods to bear on historical scholarship. Wellcome Trust/WIkimedia Commons

Historical texts as literature? We do well to praise EP Thompson

EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class brought narrative methods to bear on historical scholarship. Wellcome Trust/WIkimedia Commons

This article is the third in a series examining the links, problems and dynamics of writing, recording and recreating history, whether in fiction or non-fiction. Read part one here and part two here.

Of the vast number of historical texts available to us, only a few acquire a reputation as literature. Older examples include Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1782) and Thomas Macaulay’s The History of England (1848).

A more recent example is EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, first published in 1963. What is it about this text that leads so many to praise its literary qualities?

Vintage Books

The Making of the English Working Class tells the story of how English working people, who between 1790 and 1832 were experiencing the effects of the agrarian and industrial revolutions and of an authoritarian and oppressive political system, gradually came to have a sense of identity as a working class.

It is a historical drama, in which people find their old collectivities challenged and dispersed under conditions of massive technological, economic, political, and cultural change, and respond by forming new ones.

Against both sociological conceptions of class as a static category and economic determinist forms of Marxism, The Making of the English Working Class asserts the primacy of human action, or agency, in specific political, economic, and cultural contexts. Part of the attraction for generations of history students lies in the flow and rhythm of the writing, so wonderfully quotable in an essay:

The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making.

I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships. Like any other relationship, it [class] is a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomise its structure.

Yet Thompson’s Marxism leads him into questions of structure, too, especially the changing character of the economy and its complex relations with politics and culture.

Just as frequently quoted are Thompson’s warnings against teleological and moralistic readings of history: of writing history too rigidly in light of our current preoccupations. In what have become The Making’s most memorable sentences, he writes:

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying.

Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not.

There has been no more stirring call to respect the aspirations, and to attempt to understand the experiences, of the people of the past.

Where narrative meets analysis

One of the most striking features of The Making is the way it mixes narrative and analysis. The text moves constantly from one to the other.

This happens in two ways. Sometimes the text begins with an anecdote, or story, about an individual person or event, and then pulls back to draw out the broader implications and context of this story, to illuminate some large-scale social processes.

In chapter one, for example, we read about the first meeting of a radical group called the London Corresponding Society in 1792, learning about its individual members and its rules. Then the text quickly widens the focus to comment on the nature of class relations at this time: the protagonists were, he writes, “rehearsing in curiously personal encounters the massive impersonal encounters of the future”.

Thompson’s technique here is similar to that of the historical novel, pioneered by women writers such as Maria Edgeworth and made famous by Walter Scott.

As often, though, the text reverses this process, and immerses us in a historiographical debate, perhaps even a discussion of problems of sources, before giving us a detailed narrative of particular events.

In the book’s extended section on Luddism, for example, we have a lengthy meditation on the limitations of the sources and the ongoing contest over the meaning of Luddism before we have any detailed story of the Luddite outbreaks. Whichever comes first, there is continual movement between the individual case study and the broad sweep of history.

Character studies

Readable history is novelistic and filmic, requiring not only plenty of action, a sense of agency, but also of character. For the narrative to matter, we have to care about what happens to these historical actors, and get a sense of their individuality and aspirations, their quirks and passions.

The Making has many characters, some well known, others not.

An 1831 portrait of William Cobbett by George Cooke. Wikimedia Commons

For some, such as William Cobbett, journalist and leading radical reformer of the first few decades of the 19th century, we have extensive information and the reader gets to know Cobbett well through the book.

For others, there are only brief references, such as attendance at a meeting or participation in a riot. Yet whether mentioned fleetingly or in considerable detail, these historical figures are always treated as characters, influencing the course of history in some way.

Quotations short and long appear throughout the text, bringing the narrative and the characters to life and reassuring the reader of the plausibility of its interpretation.

One of the charms of the book, to my mind, is its welcoming of historical disputation, seeing historical explanations as necessarily provisional and always open to revision.

It acknowledges the essentially collaborative nature of history, where historians develop knowledge and understanding jointly, bit by bit. “I by no means suppose that […] I have always uncovered the truth”, Thompson writes in the 1968 postscript.

“No single historian can hope to cover, in any detail, all this ground.” These are attractive ideas for a historian, perhaps for any non-fiction writer: share with your readers the nature and sources of your knowledge and the processes of exploring and extending it.

The Making’s focus was firmly on England and it assumed considerable familiarity (perhaps too much for many readers) with English history. Subsequent commentary has pointed to its limitations in giving so little attention, for example, to the wider British imperial context, even though it concerns a period in which imperial adventures were flourishing.

Thompson did, however, see English history as relevant beyond England’s borders, hoping his book would provide lessons for the developing world as it underwent industrialisation. “Causes”, he wrote in the preface “which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won”.

As it turned out, the lessons readers have actually drawn from The Making have had less to do with industrialisation than with historical method and conceptions of class and culture.

Even while we may challenge its particular arguments, and some of its lacunae on questions of empire, race, and gender, we can admire a text that combines originality of argument, depth of scholarship, and captivating writing. Little wonder, then, that it has become an enduring and inspiring international classic.

This article is based on an essay published in the academic journal Text and is the third in our series, Writing History. Keep an eye out for more in the coming days.

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