Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History
By Richard J. Evans
Oxford University Press, 2019
Richard Evans is the author of, among other things, a critically-acclaimed trilogy of WWII books charting the lifespan of Hitler’s Germany: The Coming of the Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power, and The Third Reich at War, and his newest book, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, is an 800-page biography of a bestselling historian written by another bestselling historian. If this sends a clammy shiver down your spine, you are a canny book-shopper.
As anybody who’s read those Third Reich volumes could attest, Evans is an extremely readable author, and in this book he’s been granted open access to Hobsbawm’s enormous archives. But historians generally overestimate the intrinsic interest of, as Evans’ subtitle puts it, “a life in history.” A worry that the general-interest reader might find a nearly thousand-page life of an academic historian a bit of a crawl is not unfounded.
Two things save this book from falling entirely into this kind of purgatory. The first is that, as mentioned, Evans is a smart, smooth writer. The second is that Hobsbawm led a more interesting life than most historians. He was on the faculty of Birkbeck, University of London, for decades, which threatens a kind of monotony. He was also a vainglorious heel, a charismatic teacher, a lifelong storefront-window Communist (the book toils on for 300 pages before Evans nonchalantly mentions “Eric was anything but a militant Communist”), and, most famously, perhaps the world’s least-likely bestselling author. As Evans writes, his 1962 book The Age of Revolution was a sensation:
The Age of Revolution was an outstanding success. It has remained in print continuously since its first publication and was eventually translated into eighteen foreign languages including Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew and Japanese. Some of its arguments, for example the thesis that early industrial capitalism experienced a falling rate of profit, now seem outdated, and its portrayal of political movements as direct products of social classes reductionist, but the clarity with which it expresses these views make it a continuing and fruitful source of discussion and debate for students, academics and the general reader alike.
This despite the fact that AJP Taylor sniffed that the book was “all done by sleight of hand,” and Cambridge historian Peter Laslett wrote damningly: “It is in ugly taste ... Anyone who could believe in this as a cultural history can scarcely be trusted as a scholar.” Evans’ assessments don’t read all that much better; we can sincerely doubt that Evans himself would like any of his own books described as a “fruitful source of discussion.” It’s marginally preferable to “boring,” but then, Hobsbawm’s books have been called that too.
The book is uneven. There’s far too much detail about Hobsbawm’s garrulous, bookish, but otherwise unremarkable youth, and the book’s two best chapters, dealing with Hobsbawm’s burgeoning professional life from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, cover fewer than 80 pages. “This is a very long book,” Evans writes, “not least because Eric Hobsbawm lived a very long time,
He remained active, intellectually undiminished, and politically committed, into the second half of his tenth decade, writing and publishing all the time. But the book is also long because I have tried to let Eric tell his story as far as possible in his own words. He was a compelling and engaging writer, not just in his chosen field of history, but in many other genres as well,. His immense output included short stories, poems, descriptions of the natural world, travelogues, political tracts, personal confessions, and much more besides. He knew how to tell a good story, not only about the past but also about his own life.
That varied and always-interesting synopsis of a long writing life is realized inconsistently throughout the book that follows it; the adventures of a writer constantly hustling for better stories, better contracts, better conversation, better extramarital affairs, and better professional treatment (he claimed throughout his life that his Communist sympathies hampered his academic advancement, but readers who make it all the way to the end of Evans’ book will be able to think of a few alternate reasons) are regularly bogged down in the kind of departmental minutiae that would perhaps have been curtailed or cut by a more practiced biographer (this is Evans’ first).
The portrait of Hobsbawm that results from all these pages of effort and detail is almost certainly lifelike, and although that’s of real value to future biographers, it’ll provide some challenges for normal civilian readers who might want a more generally likable subject instead of the sniping, egotistical, smarmily gregarious swanning pedant inadvertently revealed in these pages. The book has a pervasive feeling of a long-standing debt being paid, and a private conversation being brought to a close.
--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.