Raphael Samuel., Island Stories. Unravelling Britain. Theatres of Memory, Volume II. Edited by Alison Light with Sally Alexander and Gareth Stedman Jones. London: Verso, 1998. Cloth, Npl.

Raphael Samuel and I never met. Reading his posthumous volume of essays and critiques makes me regret my failure to seek him out. With the expert help of Sally Alexander and Gareth Stedman Jones, Samuel's widow Alison Light has trimmed, finished, and stitched together the pieces of a volume Samuel himself was trimming, finishing, and stitching together up to his last days. Volume I of Theatres of Memory assembled essays and reviews pivoting on (mis)representations of the British past. Volume II complements that effort by means of four connected clumps of essays and reviews: on ideas of Britain, the British Isles, and the British Empire; on British places and their histories; on the teaching and writing of British history; on the uses -- and, especially, the misuses -- of history in recent British politics.

Samuel and his editors have bequeathed us a volume for repeated browsing rather than straight-through reading. The luminous items a reader will find in its pages include a wry appreciation of Sellar and Yeatman's hilarious 1066 and All That, an extraordinary survey of history and myth in and about the Tower of London, a pungent critique of professional historians' pretentions and a capsule critical history of the BBC both slipped into an essay that begins and ends as a review of Asa Briggs' History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, acid analysis of Britain's Social Democratic Party as the voice of people that North Americans would call yuppies, and a rescue of R.H. Tawney from his Social Democratic kidnappers. A reader closes the book delighted with Samuel's aperçus, tantalized by ideas briefly flashed upon the screen and then erased, tempted to scrawl questions, challenges, or exclamations in the margins, and astonished by all that learning.

Founder and shepherd of the History Workshop as well as its journal and its incessant series of collective volumes, Samuel was a great initiator of historical inquiries. He was also an intellectual packrat. On separate sheets of paper he filed quotations, précis, notes, clippings, photocopies, and odd thoughts for later reshuffling into the raw materials of his writing. The writing shows it: adorned with footnotes, stuffed with quotations and allusions, often packing so many ideas into a single sentence that it begins to sag under the weight: "On the other hand 'British' is a term which is currently enjoying a small vogue, partly, it may be, because it is less loaded than English with cultural baggage, and therefore less exposed to the heritage-baiters, but also because, in current post-colonial usage as in the older imperial one, it is multi-ethnic and therefore more able to acknowledge the emergence of a multi-faith, multi-cultural society" (49). As the sentence indicates, Samuel often elbowed his enemies (here both merchants and critics of the heritage industry) on his way through the crowd. He also wrote with vivid if acerbic wit, as in a passage just three lines above the one just quoted: "The teaching of English literature is associated with the missionary position in sexuality, parochialism in high politics and tea-shop gentility in the world of letters."

Samuel did not offer a grand alternative to the cant he lambasted. Nor did his lifetime commitment to the left lead him to employ catchwords of Marxist theory. Self-conscious deployment of concepts and their attachment to general theories played no part in his historical work. Instead, he urged historical depth, particularism, tentativeness, and informed skepticism. He turned doubt against his own ideas at least as energetically as against other people's. As a result, many of these essays simply grind to a halt, or trail off unfinished, as in a rich essay on the infusion of imperial artifacts, ideas, and connections into British domestic life, which Samuel left with the note "four more pages to come." We read the papers less for argument than for insight, less for theory or even narrative than for context and connection. In the provision of historical insight, context, and connection, Samuel had few peers. Responding to Linda Colley's attribution of unifying force to Britain's militant Protestantism, for example, Samuel not only reviews many moments since 1536 when Protestants have divided with other Britons or among themselves, but quotes Haslam Mills on the aunt who "challenged by a sentry, would have said not 'English', certainly not 'British' but 'Methodist'."

Island Stories closes appropriately with an appendix containing an uncompleted essay on the built environment and its historical (mis)interpretation. As we might expect, Samuel provides a fresh guide to past efforts at constructing the past in the guise of restoration or preservation. The essay and the book end with this note from the editors: "The draft ends abruptly here." Others will have to continue Samuel's profound and restless inquiries.

Charles Tilly
Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science
Columbia University

January 1999
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