Monday, October 20, 2014

The Nobel Prize in History?

When history was literature: the young Mommsen. (
A little over a week ago, the French author Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature, making him the 111th writer to be so honored. The vast majority of past honorands have been poets, novelists, playwrights—people who have produced what most of us think of when we hear the word "literature": imaginative, artistic writing of the kind that you would encounter in a high school English class.

But today I would like to draw to your attention the second-ever winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1902, who was neither poet nor novelist nor playwright but rather a historian: the great German classicist Theodor Mommsen.

Mommsen is no longer exactly a household name, but in the 19th century, his magisterial Roman History was the final word on the Roman Republic. Trained in jurisprudence, his scrupulous attention to the legal structure of old Rome—and encyclopedic knowledge of not just the literary sources, but also ancient inscriptions—set the standard for what it meant to do classical history for nearly a century.

"History?" you ask in surprise. "But that's not literature!" Certainly we don't normally call it that today. But by educated people in the 19th century, writing history was seen as a basically literary activity. The great ancient historians—Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, etc.—had understood their work as basically cognate with poetry and rhetoric, part of the same kind of endeavor. And so all the great historians up through the end of the 19th century—since they were all trained as classicists—thought of their own endeavor. (Here at Oxford, history writing—"historiography"—is still taught as a literature subject.)

Indeed, all the way up until the end of the 19th century, people thought of literary style as an attribute possessed by historians more than novelists, who were generally held in disrepute—the novel still being seen as a kind of popular entertainment much like television today. Essays and anthologies on prose were far more likely to include Edward Gibbon, Thomas Babington Macaulay, and Thomas Carlyle as stylists than the likes of Austen, Dickens, or Eliot. Not until George Saintsbury's 1885 Specimens of English Prose Style were novelists taken seriously as prose stylists.

And so at the inception of the Nobel Prize in Literature at the beginning of the 20th century, the novel was still in the infancy of its intellectual respectability. But history still loomed large as the path to literary greatness. So the 1902 prize went to Mommsen, and no one would have thought anything strange about it at the time.

But history was already beginning to wonder if it was something different from literature. "Maybe we should be more like social scientists," historians asked themselves as the nascent disciplines of sociology and anthropology came on the scene. By the mid-20th century, it had become old-fashioned to think of history-writing as a primarily literary activity; and when Hayden White's book Metahistory, which emphasized the status of history as a narrative activity susceptible to all the indeterminacies of literature, came out in the 1970s, people looked on it as both extremely old-fashioned and edgily poststructuralist at the same time. Often forgotten is the fact that White was examining the history-writing practices of the 19th century, and his subtitle was The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe.

By that point, it was over a century since Mommsen's Roman History had appeared, and 73 years since he had been awarded the Nobel Prize. The only writer to have been awarded the Prize for historiography since Mommsen was Winston Churchill, and even then almost certainly because they couldn't award him the Peace Prize. 

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