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  • Review: Shadow Pasts April 5, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    Beachcombing has only a few minutes today before class begins – a spring cold has meant that he is sleeping double his regulation five or six hours. But he wants to take what little time he has to celebrate William Rubinstein’s Shadow Pasts: ‘Amateur Historians’ and History’s Mysteries (2007), a gem of a book he recently stumbled upon.

    Now WR set himself the task here of looking at seven historical mysteries: the assassination of J.F.Kennedy, the Jack the Ripper murders, the Shakespeare authorship question, Richard the Third and the Princes in the Tower, Jesus surviving the crucifixion, various mysteries concerning Rudolf Hess and the Pyramids and the Sphinx.

    At first glance this is not very promising stuff. We have a fairly predictable grouping of past ‘enigmas’ with a worrying tendency towards those that don’t really deserve the name. But once through the contents page the author begins to confound expectations.

    For one, William Rubinstein is not just another long-haired conspiracy type chewing on organic carrots in a bunker in Shropshire. He is a professor of history at Aberystwyth and he has a professional historian’s scepticism. Indeed, of the seven mysteries he approves controversial answers for two – Shakespeare and the Ripper, he leaves a question mark over ancient Egyptian building techniques and dismisses the others as false problems.

    What Beachcombing finds even more impressive – especially from a professional historian – is that Rubinstein – author of a whole range of histories touching on wealth, Judaism and twentieth century history – is unfailingly polite. The nastiest word that the good professor uses in this little volume is ‘nitwit’ and that is out of character. Otherwise the closest he comes to disapproval is ‘outré’!

    The whole book is readable and clear – something rare in this field. But the most original part of Shadow Pasts is the introduction, a short essay on ‘The ‘Amateur Historian’ and the Study of History’ In this essay Professor Rubinstein asks himself why professional historians avoid mysteries like those listed above.

    ‘…academics, as a general rule pointedly avoid entering into any real discussion of most of the other well-rehearsed topics in this book. Strikingly, for example, only one or two of the 25,000 college and university historians in the United States have ever written an account of President Kennedy’s assassination  which examines whether he was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone or as part of a wider conspiracy, although Kennedy’s assassination is arguably the most famous, and conceivably most important event to occur in the United States since the Second World War. So far as I am aware no university academic in Britain (or elsewhere) has ever attempted to solve the mystery of the identity of Jack the Ripper, and virtually all academic historians of late Victorian England would regard such an endeavour as outside their remit. In the case of the Shakespeare Authorship Question, the bias among academics is even more blatant: among English literature academics, any discussion of the identity of William Shakespeare is regarded as taboo and a priori impermissible. In such an atmosphere, it is only non-academic historians who have made the running, a vicious circle which has led to mutual hostility and alienation’.

    This is thoughtful stuff and Professor Rubinstein is good at paying tribute to the fine standard of history often found among  amateur historians, a label that he uses without any negative connotations.

    Of course, the simple reason that professional historians refuse to touch these questions is because (i) these problems are irrelevant OR (ii) these problems are ridiculous. (In fact, the one topic of interest to professionals from this book, Richard III and the Princes is neither).

    Let’s start with (i) irrelevance. An evil man killed a series of prostitutes in the East End in 1888. This was clearly agony for the five women and a tragedy for their families and friends. But the identity of the Ripper would matter less for a Victorian historian today than, say, a proper understanding of prostitution in Birmingham in the 1870s. In fact, what is interesting about the Ripper killings is the cult of the Ripper drummed up in the country at the time and the abiding interest as illustrated by such publications as the (outstandingly good) Ripperologist. Now that would be worth studying!

    (ii) Ridiculous problems. Clearly, Kennedy’s killing is important for the history of the US. But the lack of any convincing evidence for a conspiracy and the straightforward evidence for a fool with a mail-order rifle means that there is little to study other than the consequences. The only useful work that an academic could carry out would be one long hack-and-burn at the undergrowth of conspiracy theories that have grown up in the last fifty years. And we now have Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History – though it fell to an ‘amateur historian’ to clear the brushwood.

    There is no denying that academics also refuse to get involved – or write blogs about such subject matter using pseudonyms (ahem) – because they know that they will look silly and their reputations will suffer. Professor Rubinstein – a humanities version of Fred Hoyle – has shown the guts here to take a publicly-described walk on the wild side. It would be interesting to know if his writing on the Holocaust has since been besmirched by association: ‘he’s that guy in Wales who writes about the Pyramids’ etc etc. Many academics are petty people.

    Now again, it is true that the academic establishment does not interact with every ‘crackpot’ idea that comes along – be that idea genuinely outré (a word Beachcombing will forever associate with Professor Rubinstein) or a stroke of hidden genius. But professional historians are busy people and it is necessary to have some filters: an ‘open mind’ is quickly filled with rubbish. Certainly, if Beachcombing, in his chosen discipline, were to go and examine every ‘crackpot’ idea that is published, he would not have any time for research or (a blessing?) for blog writing. He would enter difficult to understand belief systems and spend a lot of time dismissing material that did not deserve his or, indeed, their own author’s time. Of course, he would dig up some minute quantities of platinum along with the fool’s gold. But he could be researching, instead, say, prostitution in Victorian Birmingham and be increasing the sum of knowledge!

    The truth is that the academic historical establishment is like Churchill’s democracy, the worst system of all, but better than any of the others… An important weakness is that new far-out theories do take a long time to emerge. But looking back over the last two glorious centuries what is striking is that good ideas float slowly like cream to the top. Humanity is unlikely to ever manage anything better, though the timetable is painfully long, especially for visionaries. Most academics are worker ants or Gramscian intellectuals: their role is not to change the world but to diffuse knowledge that they receive and disseminate rather than create. As such cowardice is a necessary part of their make up. Though, thank God for and let’s celebrate the mavericks…

    Beachcombing is always on the look out for unusual books: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com