A.J.P. Taylor Is Historytags: historians, popular history, A.J.P. Taylor
R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.
Seldom is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography considered an ideal place to seek pathos-laden anecdotes, but one can find them there. In the DNB’s article on Sir Arthur Bryant—for decades among Britain’s most popular non-fiction authors—there occurs such an anecdote in which Bryant, sometime after World War II, was introduced as “our greatest living historian” to A.J.P. Taylor. The alarm felt at these words by Taylor, who had long believed this title to repose safely with himself, may be readily envisioned.
How stands either man’s reputation in our time? Bryant died in 1985 and now is almost unread, his books retailing for derisory sums on eBay. Nobody would have predicted such oblivion to overtake Taylor, who outlived Bryant by only five years but had made himself a public figure as the largely pre-television Bryant had not. While the phrase “media whore” had not attained common usage in Taylor’s lifetime, it accurately—if nastily—describes Taylor’s addiction to the studio arc lights, his gift at lecturing learnedly in prime-time schedules for half an hour without a single written note, and the sheer demotic fame of his bow tie. Yet Taylor has been forgotten to an extent that middle-aged denizens of former British colonies find almost beyond belief. (This neglect has occurred despite his having inspired no fewer than three biographies since his death, much the best of which is the 2006 production by Nottingham University professor Chris Wrigley.)
As late as 1980, undergraduates on the campuses of Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand could not attend classes in post-1789 European history without confronting Taylor’s achievements head-on. Today, students in these same lands can become post-1789 European history majors—can even achieve doctorates in the field—without noticing the smallest indication that Taylor existed. It should, moreover, be stressed that Taylor’s American readership was always comparatively small, though he did score a long New York Times obit on September 8, 1990. The temptation is, therefore, to dismiss Taylor as of purely local interest....
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