A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society

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"Eley brilliantly probes transformations in the historians' craft over the past four decades. I found A Crooked Line engrossing, insightful, and inspiring."
--Lizabeth Cohen, author of A Consumers' Republic

"A Crooked Line brilliantly captures the most significant shifts in the landscape of historical scholarship that have occurred in the last four decades. Part personal history, part insightful analysis of key methodological and theoretical historiographical tendencies since the late 1960s, always thoughtful and provocative, Eley's book shows us why history matters to him and why it should also matter to us."
--Robert Moeller, University of California, Irvine

"Part genealogy, part diagnosis, part memoir, Eley's account of the histories of social and cultural history is a tour de force."
--Antoinette Burton, Professor of History and Catherine C. and Bruce A. Bastian Professor of Global and Transnational Studies, University of Illinois

"Eley's reflections on the changing landscape of academic history in the last forty years will interest and benefit all students of the discipline. Both a native informant and an analyst in this account, Eley combines the two roles superbly to produce one of most engaging and compelling narratives of the recent history of History."
--Dipesh Chakrabarty, author of Provincializing Europe

Using his own intellectual biography as a narrative device, Geoff Eley tracks the evolution of historical understanding in our time from social history through the so-called "cultural turn," and back again to a broad history of society.

A gifted writer, Eley carefully winnows unique experiences from the universal, and uses the interplay of the two to draw the reader toward an organic understanding of how historical thinking (particularly the work of European historians) has evolved under the influence of new ideas. His work situates history within History, and offers students, scholars, and general readers alike a richly detailed, readable guide to the enduring value of historical ideas.

Geoff Eley is Professor of History at the University of Michigan.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472069040
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 10/25/2005
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 496,643
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt

A Crooked Line
From Cultural History to the History of Society

The University of Michigan Press
Copyright © 2005

University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-09904-7


A Personal Preface

When I was deciding to become a historian, interdisciplinarity had yet to haunt the corridors of history departments. It was further from doing so in Britain than in the United States. I came to Balliol College, Oxford, in October 1967 coveting access to a new universe of knowledge, poised at the portals of scholarship and learning. To my chagrin, the first term brought only Gibbon and Macaulay, de Tocqueville, Burckhardt, and-last but not least-the Venerable Bede. Amid this chronically unimaginative Oxford pedagogy, which sought to dampen the intellectual ardor of youth in the cold shower of antiquated knowledge, by far the worst experience was plowing through Bede's eighth-century Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The inveterate archaism of this requirement beggared belief. As I made my way through that interminable chronicling of the Christianizing of England, whose relevance for historical education in the later twentieth century escaped me, I took consolation in the marauding exploits of Bede's nemesis, King Penda of Mercia, whom I always imagine rampaging his way across the monastic landscape as a ferociously bearded avenger of truly Pythonesque proportions, heroically defending England's last redoubt of vigorous paganism.

Oxford study of history was nothing if not consistent. In our second term, my fellow students and I began a long odyssey through the entirety of British history, beginning with the burial mound at Sutton Hoo. Five semesters later, we ended safely before the outbreak of World War II. Looking back, I'm reminded of how little of my excitement about history came from these formal undergraduate studies. Oxford's Modern History School seemed organized precisely for the purposes of restraining imaginative thought, keeping our perceptions tethered to the discipline's most conservative notations. Many students in the late sixties were moved by a strong and often passionate sense of history's relevance for the present, after all. We saw it not only as an aid to effective political thinking but also as a tool for honing a critical social consciousness and for making our way toward a workable political ethics. Yet Oxford's disciplinary guardians kept such things dourly at bay. My time there was spent living inside a paradox. Any excitement at becoming a historian grew in the interstices, after hours, or beyond the Modern History School altogether. Effective learning happened despite, rather than because of, the curriculum. Its custodians willfully closed their eyes to the changes occurring outside.

This reminiscence can be chased a little further. I arrived in Oxford painfully green and ill equipped. At some point in my early teens, a bookshop had opened in Burton-on-Trent, five miles from where I grew up. Byrkley Books won no prizes for the richness of its inventory, but it did claim an extensive display of Penguins and Pelicans, which gave me a certain greedy access to the Western intellectual canon, contemporary social commentary, and serious fiction. For all its other virtues, the Swadlincote Public Library had precious little to offer in that respect, and my parents had neither the income nor the wherewithal to provide much at home. On my occasional visits to the Burton bookshop, therefore, I consumed its wares voraciously, extending my horizons in a very indiscriminate, hit-and-miss way. My first historical interests are now a source of embarrassment. I read variations on the pompous and sentimentalized nationalist history delivered by conservative patriots during the first two postwar decades in Britain, for which the grandiose multipart television documentary celebrating Churchill's war leadership, The Valiant Years, was the epitome. I could count as an antidote only A. J. P. Taylor's weekly book reviewing in The Observer, together with his various television lectures. On these bases, I made myself into an intellectually conservative, but modestly effective, autodidact.

At Ashby-de-la-Zouch Boys' Grammar School I had none of those formative mind-awakening encounters so often recorded in the memories of intellectuals. One history teacher definitely encouraged an early interest in medieval castles. A later history teacher was more attuned to the world of scholarship, opening my first window onto serious academic history. In my last year at school, he introduced me to the journal Past and Present and plied me with a series of historiographical controversies, including those surrounding Elton's Tudor Revolution in Government, Taylor's Origins of the Second World War, and the general crisis of the seventeenth century. He also had me translate a text by Max Weber on the sixteenth-century price revolution, which helped my German, if not my knowledge of the history of social thought. An academic manqué marooned in a stagnant provincial backwater, my teacher clearly kept abreast of historical debates. He must have been a contemporary of Eric Hobsbawm and Raymond Williams in Cambridge before the war, I now realize, though certainly without sharing their politics.

I wasn't the only freshman historian to arrive in Balliol underendowed with cultural capital. Nonetheless, it was hard to experience the disparities. Most of my contemporaries simply seemed to know more-to have read more of the right kinds of books, to have traveled more widely, to speak more languages with greater facility, to have the right references at their fingertips, and generally to be sure they belonged. This preparedness didn't always correlate with the advantages of class. Roughly half of the group were from public (that is, fee-paying) schools, half from state schools. Of the two most disconcertingly knowledgeable of my twelve contemporaries, the first came from an elite public school, knew several languages fluently, and was already working on the Mexican Revolution (whose place in history came as complete news to me). The other, from a Merseyside comprehensive school, arrived for our first orientation bearing a copy of Fernand Braudel's Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, five years before it appeared in English translation. Measured by this, I was definitely a late starter.

I recount these sometimes painful antecedents to make a general point. We become historians by many different routes. In my own case, nothing in my family or schooling pushed me in that rather particular direction. My early years contained no big experiences or set of affiliations driving my curiosity, no traumas or tragedies lodged in the collective memory or the family past. In grammar school, my relationship to history unfolded via pragmatics and a series of accidents-it was something I happened to be good at-with a logic not especially open to my own control. The official curriculum, whether in grammar school or at the university, never captured my imagination. What made the difference was the pressure of events in the wider political world. For many of my own generation, a relationship to history was ignited by the dramatic and exciting demandingness of the time, by the intrusion of its ethical and political urgencies. In that sense the "ordinariness" of my and many other working-class and lower-middleclass lives was made extraordinary by the educational chances we were given and by the large-scale political events that suddenly and unexpectedly supervened. And of course it's all the subsequent acquisition of knowledge-of theory, of politics, and of history-that now gives me, in Valerie Walkerdine's words, "the way to look from the vantage point of the present to the fantastic shores of the past."

Fired by the desire for understanding, rather than merely an undergraduate earning a degree, I was propelled into being a historian by 1968. As we can now see, a series of quite different historiographies were already lying in wait, eager to ambush the complacencies of the British historical scene. Exactly how this happened remains a fascinating question of intellectual history in itself. But for those of us who were undergraduates at the time, the breakthrough to new kinds of history-even more, to a new vision of what doing history could mean-owed very little to what was happening in our classrooms. For my required work in the history of political thought, I may have been slogging through Aristotle, Hobbes, and Rousseau (actually I wasn't, because my reading for that part of my final examinations came wholly at the last minute), but my real mind was on Marx. The locus of most of my reading and thinking developed a quite contingent relationship to what was needed for my degree. About the importance of constitutions and the arbitrariness of unaccountable power, I learned as much from my encounters with college and university authorities as I did from studying the 1832 Reform Act or even the February Revolution of 1917. The works that inspired me were placed in my hands only partly by my appointed teachers. They came much more from what was happening outside academia.

I still remember how I first heard about Edward Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. Chatting with me in front of Balliol opposite the Paperback Shop, which had just received its new Penguin titles (a monthly moment of excitement in those days), Paul Slack, then a Balliol junior research fellow, pondered the purchase of the Pelican edition of Thompson's book-which, at more than one predecimal pound in 1968 prices, implied a serious budgetary decision. That alone was reason to take notice. First published five years before, The Making was sniffily dismissed by the Industrial Revolution's mainstream historians-as I learned in 1968 from Thompson's new postscript, where he answered his critics. Shamed by ignorance-I had the dimmest understanding of the political and historiographical backgrounds for all this-I set about filling in the blanks. By the autumn of 1968, I was the owner of a copy of the Gollancz hardback edition and devoted a large part of the winter to reading it. At a time when my disillusionment with history in Oxford was bottoming out, it renewed my belief.

At one level, the present book lays out one person's journey through the shifting landscape of historical studies during the ensuing decades. I realize that to many readers, such a first-person account may seem self-inflating, possessing at best some minor curiosity value for a few immediate students, colleagues, and friends. But my real purpose goes far beyond this. I'm interested in charting the impact of some vital features of contemporary intellectual history on historians' thought and practice. For my own part, an ideal of politically engaged and theoretically informed history formed the lasting outcome of my Oxford time. I certainly believed strongly that history needed to meet the highest standards possible in conventional scholarly terms, based in the most creative and reliable empirical investigations and the most exhaustive archival research. But history also had to be relevant. Trying to balance that ideal has never been easy. Approaching history politically can lead to misplaced moralizing, off-putting didacticism, and unhelpful simplification. But history's usefulness can't be extricated from an appreciation of its pedagogy. Some broader ambition toward such appreciation has moved historians' best achievements during the past four decades.

This relationship of history to politics is not simple. History is more than either an instrument or a mirror. But the scholarly debates of historians are inseparable from politics in the widest sense of the term-all the partially visible philosophical, sociocultural, and strictly political baggage historians bring with them into the scholarly arena; the wider contentiousness implied by their position-taking within institutions and the public sphere; and the broader political issues and controversies that shadow their concerns. All these factors helped frame history's purpose during the past three decades. For those on the left, the new kinds of history inspired by feminism will spring readily to mind, as will the parallel challenges presented by the growing centrality of race for contemporary public life. Further illustrations can easily be multiplied. The debates among historians have in each case been finely linked to wider developments in the public sphere, sometimes in direct response, but just as frequently via indirect influence or partial borrowings, whether from the political processes themselves or through related discussions in other academic disciplines. The resulting changes cannot be isolated from the ethical and practical dilemmas facing historians on the ground-in the decisions about what and how to teach, in conflicts about hiring and the setting of academic policy, in the handling of relations with colleagues, and in the general dailiness of departmental life.

The importance of this public world for the changing purposes of historians can't be gainsaid. Historians today think, teach, and write in an environment profoundly different from the one I entered in the late 1960s. They've been required to respond not just to the various transformations internal to the discipline, including the remarkable changes in the sociology of the profession, but also to the constant pressure of events in the wider social and political arenas. Those larger contexts have encompassed passionate debates about theory and methods across the academic disciplines, as well as far-reaching conflicts over the purposes of higher education.

Recounting my particular version of this story, in careful counterpoint with the general intellectual histories it partially reflects, may have some modest usefulness as a foil for others. My hope is that mapping a series of personal encounters between the tasks of historical writing and the surrounding political climate may make it possible for others to recognize their own analogous accounts, whether converging with mine or not. By thus using my experience to explore the complex back-and-forth between history and politics-between trying to be a good historian and trying to act politically in effective and ethical ways-I may be able to add something to the more familiar historiographical narratives of our time.

As I grapple with the meanings of the extraordinary changes in the discipline of history during my adult lifetime, I'm often struck by the orderly logics and implicit progressivism that so many of the existing accounts tend to display. This is far more a feature of historiographical commentary in the United States than in Britain, perhaps, and also very much a feature of retrospectives published since the 1960s. Methods improve, archives expand, subareas proliferate, bad interpretations are junked, and better interpretations mature. Historians' understanding only gets better. Innovations are proposed, conflicts rage, breakthroughs are secured, changes get institutionalized, and new advances begin. Incorrigible upholders of earlier orthodoxies fade into the night; new priorities of teaching, research, and publication settle into place; a higher plane of sophistication ensues. Of course, I'm overstating this progression for effect. But in declaring their credentials during the 1970s and 1980s, the various schools of social historians certainly produced one genre of narratives like this. Since then, the "new cultural historians" speak another.

This "progressivist" effect has many particular forms. For those of us embracing Joan Scott's advocacy of gender history in the course of the 1980s, for example, gender swiftly graduated from being a "useful category of historical analysis" into a necessary one, whose benefits promised a higher form of understanding. The same might be said of other associated recognitions, from the growing salience of ethnicity and race or the new work on diverse sexualities to the general endorsing of cultural constructionism and its pervasive languages of analysis. But in making the case for such advances, particularly through the more confrontational types of public disputation usually involved, certain risks are always entailed.

In the course of winning one's argument and thereby establishing some influence over resources, a certain measure of pluralism easily gets impaired. Unfortunately, the temptations of purism persistently intrude on contemporary historiographical debate. Sometimes less perceptibly, but often with full and explicit aggression, the exponents of any new set of approaches all too readily equate acceptance of their insights with an approved degree of intellectual sophistication. But whether we hold the classical ground of such now-questionable grand narratives as "the nation," "science," "emancipation," or "class" or prefer such emergent emphases as "identity" and "difference," we can surely acknowledge the degree to which one epistemological standpoint all too easily works preemptively against others.


Excerpted from A Crooked Line by GEOFF ELEY
Copyright © 2005 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

I Becoming a historian : a personal preface 1
II Optimism 13
III Disappointment 61
IV Reflectiveness 115
V Defiance : history in the present tense 183
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