Review: What is History, Now? How the past and present speak to each other (2021) 

The concluding chapter of E. H. Carr’s seminal text, What is History? published in 1961, is titled ‘The Widening Horizon’. Sixty years later, Carr’s great-great-granddaughter Helen Carr, co-editor Suzannah Lipscombe, and a selection of diverse historians have returned to this issue of historical progress in an attempt to broaden our historical horizons, asking the ever-important question of What is History, Now? 

Divorcing itself from the strict methodological and theoretical approach of its ancestor, the issue approached by this new edition is not necessarily how we should construct our histories – although this is discussed in erudite detail throughout – but rather what these histories should be.  

Returning to Carr’s metaphor of horizons, this new volume seeks to highlight a spectrum of historical experiences, exploring global histories of empire, religion, and race, and microhistories of vernacular language, sexuality, and the family. This normalisation of diverse and inclusive histories is essential to the development of popular history and the expansion of our national narratives to encompass a broader reality of experience.  

Perhaps the most compelling of recent developments in professional approaches to history is the evolving relationship between history, objectivity, and the personal. Building on Carr’s nascent emphasis of experience-driven narratives within historical scholarship, this new volume explores history at its most personal. Helen Carr acknowledges the subjective nature of history in the prologue, developing her exploration in her chapter titled “Can our emotions have a history?”. A similar ignition of traditional historical boundaries is evident in Justin Bengry’s discussion of LGBTQ+ histories, which explores the intricacies of personal identification and society’s construction of binaries along with the historical conception of queerness. This clearly signifies the professional shift away from the so-called ‘fetishisation of fact’ and the ‘empirical theory of knowledge’, and towards a style of historical study which is empathetic and actively engages with its humanity.   

In discussing contemporary social and political tendencies, Dan Hicks, in the chapter “Glorious Memory”, explores our recent affection for iconoclasm or indeed, as he articulates, our desire ‘to overthrow amnesia enacted through memorialisation (which) could never be iconoclasm.’ This consideration of visible popular approaches to historical knowledge highlights the degree of accessibility that the book provides to a non-specialist audience. This is a particular theme that arises in Alex von Tunzelmann’s chapter. He investigates the relationship between history and cinema, arguing that film provides a crucial access-point to history, albeit with a certain degree of fictionalisation. Access to this work is not only facilitated by its simple yet intellectually sharp style, but also via the inclusion of further reading suggestions is a welcome addition to each chapter.  

The consideration which is given to the methodological aspect of historical study explores how history should be conducted within the context of the current information climate and within the politics of fact. Several of the essays emphasise the importance of often neglected methodologies, such as interrogating what contemporary readings of literary and popular fiction can tell us about a society’s beliefs and prejudices, as explored in Islam Issa’s piece. Furthermore, a resounding importance is awarded to elevating the narratives of subaltern and indigenous groups, especially through the exploration of specialised sources such as oral history and poetry. Much like the original, this new volume highlights matters of archival exclusion and – in certain cases – eradication. In this sense, the new volume is an active realisation of the trajectory Carr proposes in What is History?, a filling of the archival gaps.   

Inclusive and multifaceted histories are potentially a self-evident phenomenon to specialised audiences; while revolutionary perspectives may not be replete within the volume itself and the pace may initially be slow, the existence of a volume featuring such a degree of diverse voices which has been edited by two women is in itself revolutionary.  

This new edition exists not as a defense of history in the canon of theoretical literature, much like Richard Evans’ In Defence of History, but rather stands as a forceful proclamation of the significance of history to the present and, more importantly, as an assertion of the significance of history for everyone. Bettany Hughes offers the most erudite articulation of this at the start of her chapter, stating that ‘If we deny the past, we do not simply etiolate our present, at a molecular level we cauterise our future’.  

Written by Georgia Smith  


Carr, E.H. What Is History? United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 1961. 

Carr, Helen, and Suzannah Lipscomb. What Is History, Now? How the past and present speak to each other. United Kingdom: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021. 

Evans, Richard J. In Defence of History. United Kingdom: Granta, 2018. 

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