Letters from Oxford (2006), by Hugh Trevor-Roper


Hugh Trevor-Roper of Oxford, perhaps the most famous and notorious historian of his generation (he passed in 2003), befriended the famed art historian and critic, Bernard Berenson, many years his senior; and, from 1947 until Berenson’s death in 1959,  Trevor-Roper wrote numerous much-delighted-in letters to “BB” which, now that both men have gone, have been edited and published.

Berenson, a Jewish refugee from regions which ended up behind the Iron Curtain and who came with little means and notice to America and graduated from Harvard, became wealthy in the first third of the twentieth century on numerous sizable commissions and consultancies and board appointments. These were given him by the most prominent rich and the most ambitious of museums and the most famous of government institutions who knew him to be an impeccable connoisseur who in his young years explored (often by difficult hikes) many palatial and cathedral European nooks and crannies of art to render the most authoritative discernments before the wonders all had been discovered and the true masterworks become as easy to identify as buying the most proverbial of reports from the sluggish fields of European art, namely, the Christmas-perfect coffee-table art books. These collectors wanted Berenson to authenticate and value art-paintings and sculpture, most notably Renaissance masterworks, before the collectors payed the large sums demanded for those works.

Berenson set himself up lavishly for the rest of his long life of ninety-two years in a beautiful Italian villa near Florence and called I Tatti which became a sort of Salon of salons for the prodigiously intellectual and financially accomplished and politically powerful, a star member of the cast of visitors being the brilliant conversationalist, polemicist, historian and, especially, letter-writer, Hugh Trevor-Roper, eventually Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, Lord Dacre of Glanton, and, as a precursor to all that, a star of a youngster in the British Secret Intelligence Service during WW2.

Among other things in his task of reading classified Abwehr reports, Trevor-Roper conclusively and profitably (via his then-famous book, The Last Days of Hitler) showed (a) that the highly damaging Soviet agent Kim Philby, intelligent but “empty,” was, contrary to shamefaced official post mortems on that wretched traitor, in no position during the war to have influenced the Canaris plots to overthrow Nazi leaders (and hence Philby had no claim to nobleness); and (b) that Hitler, contrary to false claims by the Soviets in the immediate postwar that the Fuhrer was alive and in hiding (claims whose motives Trevor-Roper admitted puzzled him, i.e., none of his several hypotheses about Soviet thinking here ever satisfied him), indeed killed himself and was buried outside his Berlin bunker as the Red Army closed to within a few city blocks of that desperate place.

Letters from Oxford is a marvelous read. The least important things in it have gotten most of what attention it has claimed: Trevor-Roper’s scathingly funny Come’die Academe in various letters about political games at Oxford; his savagely funny portraits of important (and especially self-important) idiots and charlatans; his telling characterizations of oppressive and/or repressive countries such as Russia, East Germany, Mexico and Iceland; and his famous public duels as an arch anti-papist and anti-communist/-socialist/-facist (in short, antiauthoritarian) fought in print with Evelyn Waugh, Eric Hobsbawm, Arnold Toynbee, C.S. Lewis and others. He was, among other things, happily quite a rude and arrogant and combative jerk. Often, he might well have not cast the first stone. He seldom refrained. Occasionally, friends prevailed on him to restrain himself, especially during the prelude to his being made Regius Professor. His wife very occasionally made him unwillingly forgiving of some of the fools and foolishness he saw about him in a sadly declining world, one in which many of the great historians had come to be pessimists.

Trevor-Roper has often been called a “conservative” but he confesses in one of the letters that such is most probably a misrepresentation if not a serious simplification. I certainly agree with him, having read some of his historical writings, notably his Renaissance Essays.

To me what is most interesting about Trevor-Roper is that he was admittedly a failed historian. The most enlightening of his many letters is one in which he spells out for Berenson the dilemma of the ambitious historian. The task of history is impossible. We desperately strive to understand dark revolutionary change–its anatomy, conditions, precursors, dynamics. But how to do so? Trevor-Roper would say of Santayana that his famous curse on those who do not know history begs the true question: how can we imagine we can know history in the first place? Trevor-Roper never finished a huge history he was attempting about revolution in England. He pilloried Toynbee, and convincingly, as a peculiarly silly charlatan for attempting Grand History. And he is devastating in attacking Marxist historians and their cohorts for their big systemic histories. But what about doing Toynbee one better? Trevor-Roper says there is a barrier, a great dilemma: You can be a highly readable “narrative historian” and treat simple periods successfully. But you won’t solve deep interpretive problems. You might think you have, but you haven’t. If you try to do the most crucial history–namely, revolutionary periods–you must go deeply into the available historical materials and use your imagination and understand that among the essential historical forces to be grasped are key people’s decisions. But here narrative fails “because it cannot penetrate to the depths of society which are then stirred up, or the heart of those intractable problems round which human muddles are woven like some great untidy cocoon. …Social analysis must, to be effective, be fitted into a narrative form. …But what a problem of form this necessity imposes!”

Pp. 249-50 spell out Trevor-Roper’s crisis. They’ll make you think. Perhaps his doubt is a saving challenge to the mind. Being stuck is motivating.

Highly recommended.

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