This is a short book bought on impulse at the wonderful bookshop in Wemyss Bay station, the ferry port for Bute, on the south side of the Clyde estuary down Glasgow.
I think at the time I’d just read Richard Evans’ In Defence of History, which steers a path between Carr’s modernist revisionism (i.e. that history can’t be objective, but is created by inevitably partial historians) and Elton’s certainties (i.e. that historians can communicate truth about the past), and was eager for more “what is history?” stuff. Jenkins, publishing in 1991, is on the face of it very much to one extreme, arguing strongly, in this undergraduates’ guide, that for all sorts of obvious reasons we have to let go of “certaintism”, of claiming for history any definitive truth about the past. “History” is what historians create, using “the past” as source material (we’re well into inverted comma land here). Modernism has shown the impossibility of an unbiased position, or of a single interpretation, so the only route is a post-modern one, rejoicing in the variety of different histories, and suggesting that historians ought to write self-consciously biased accounts, ones which shed light on the historical process itself. A little incestuous, I thought, writing for the academy.. He talks here about Foucault’s phrase “histories of the present” (history whose purpose is – even more than usual – designed to explain the present); which reminded me very much of Virgil’s attempts in the Aeneid to justify Augustus’, and Rome’s, rule.
But Jenkins, as Evans, can’t quite go the whole way: historians, quick to undermine notions of a fixed “past”, can’t, for the reason that it takes them outside the boundaries of their subject, follow this through philosophically to undermine any kind of fixed external world. Jenkins still clings to the absolute truth of historical events, just knocking the idea of absolute interpretation; he doesn’t, as far as I can see, realise that this contrast (event:interpretation) is another of his false pairings, in that to even name or think of an event is, at least, a little, to interpret it also.