On popular history

This post was kicked off by a grumpy preface from Morris Rossabi to his 20th anniversary edition of Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times. Wherein he almost regrets writing so positively about Khubilai, since his work has been fuel for the popularizers. He doesn’t name names, but Jack Weatherford is the target of this ire: “One popularization, based on a doubtful and distorted use of scholarly studies, even reached the best-seller lists…”

I’m tired of Weatherford getting stick from historians. Let me blog. You’d think from this Weatherford was a mad popularist with no original research or intellectual standing of his own: in fact he was a cultural anthropologist (here’s his staff page – Mr Weatherford now enjoys a retirement in Mongolia), and if historians were less grumpy, they might notice that his cultural anthropology, and his application of it to the primary sources, has things to teach them.

As you know if you’re on this blog, my Mongol researches have stretched back fifteen years, fifteen conflicted years in the historiography, over which we have witnessed not only the advent of Weatherford, one-man-band for Genghis, ruffling historians’ feathers, but ‘The Rise of Cultural History’. That’s the title of a recent contribution by none other than David Morgan [in Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change].

Can not a cultural anthropologist and a discovery of cultural history live in peace? Find common ground? (yes, they can: that’s at the end of this post).

I said ‘none other than David Morgan’, because in my household, that’s me and the stuffed bears, his name has the sort of notoriety (excuse my outspokenness; he won’t read this blog) that Weatherford’s name has among your traditional historians. What did David Morgan ever do to me, and my stuffed bears? Believe me, my bears have been a comfort, from angst induced by the good Mr Morgan, before he discovered cultural history. It’s been told to me that historians get angry at mention of Jack Weatherford. Understood. But what about my anger at the Morgan book? Can I be angry too? I’d keep my despair between me and my bears, except – even though the good Mr Morgan now writes about how Mongol historiography has changed, his 1986 book is still disseminated as a standard work. In a book I read two days ago, with new ideas on the Central Asian background of Mughal India, Lisa Balabanlilar was content to use the Morgan as her main information on Chingis. So I am in a position like Rossabi’s: Weatherford bothers him in that Weatherford is everywhere. I meet the David Morgan everywhere, and other than Morgan’s own wish to be superseded, his stated discomfort with its continuance, I don’t see the book criticised. For me, every page – I exaggerate; every three pages – said, loud and clear, ‘I am written from a European perspective; I don’t try to look through Mongol eyes, or understand why a Mongol does what he does, in terms of his own culture.’ The pages scream that at me.

Does nobody else hear them?

His book has been my Exhibit A for why we need culture study: this is the type of history we have in its sheer and utter absence. I don’t see that hostility towards a cultural anthropologist – who, I grant you, has written for a general audience – helps toward the integration of culture study into a historiography that used to be happy to work without cultural knowledge.

The ‘rise of cultural history’ (art history; material and technological transmission) is a fantastic thing; but if you are still afraid of anthropology, you haven’t gone far enough. Can we not acknowledge the good Mr Weatherford for his injection of anthropology into Mongol historical studies?

What I suspect is that historians acquaint themselves with Weatherford due to his NY Times bestseller feats, but don’t otherwise keep a close eye on the popular output. They have no real idea of what he had to combat. From my observation post, Rossabi’s fear, expressed in his preface, that Weatherford has infiltrated the public mind until everybody is now given to ‘hagiography’ of Genghis, isn’t necessary, and he can rest assured Saint Genghis remains rare. You can find him in my novel, but Jesus, I wish I saw more of him elsewhere. [1]

Popular history doesn’t always keep up with ‘the rise of cultural history’. Exhibit: a review of John Man’s latest, where he is quoted thus on the legacy of empires: “[T]he Romans, the Greeks and the British had something to say… The Mongols didn’t.” To be plain-spoken, I was upset that a magazine called the Asian Review of Books didn’t rebut this statement. Well, I rebut it. It’s where we used to go wrong: to expect, from a nomad people, those achievements that have defined our idea of civilization (you notice the etymology of that word). Hence we missed most of what the Mongols did. To judge the Mongol ‘empire’ against the Roman and the British empires, is to ask to fail to see what they meant to do, and what they achieved. I’ll say, to be fair to popular history, that this is no different to the Morgan book.

One of the grooviest things I’ve seen happen lately is histories that truly do bridge the scholarly and the popular, and that give the latest news on Mongols. I’d name a couple in this category: Timothy May, The Mongol Conquests in World History, and a book that Morris Rossabi is involved in: Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire. The Timothy May comes out of the rise of world history, which again, has a different perspective on the Mongols, one that appreciates their cross-cultural activities and even ‘what they did for the world’ – which, let me iterate, isn’t what an agrarian civilization might have done but is entirely different. May also looks at ‘Mongol image’ which I wish the scholarly set did more of (instead of just investigating that Weatherford book). The other, kept in publication by the Smithsonian, is a joint effort that includes Mongolian scholarship. I suspect – I may be over-suspicious (Weatherford gets no cred for winning Mongolian awards) – we have had a bit of an attitude that Mongolians are only going to write apologetics on Mongol history – that ‘we know your history better than you do’, which is nothing if not rude. This one is a get-together of well-known scholars, who yet are going to ‘respect the feelings of Mongolian people about their past.’ It can be done.

[1] ‘in my novel’: I’d better add, a tragic saint involved in slaughterous wars. What else do you expect from a novelist?

4 thoughts on “On popular history

  1. I wonder how much of what you describe is due to the post-colonial influence on scholarship. One, it seems, can’t go around sating the current market for sanctimonious denunciations of the evil, evil West for not staying put where they belong and then attempt to understand the world from a mobile culture like the Mongols. Weatherford’s Mongol books display a much greater appreciation of context than does his earlier moralizing tracts about the conquest of the Americas which seems to be the type of products most in demand of the market today. Herbert Butterfield’s1931 book “The Whig Interpretation of History” pretty much nails it: “The dispensing of moral judgments upon people or upon actions in retrospect, is the most useless and unproductive of all forms of reflection.” IMO Bernard Bailyn’s essay on “Context in History” in his latest book addresses this conflict clearly and persuasively.

    • I can’t describe these other guys as writing a post-colonialist history. I don’t think Mongol history has been an arena for these trends — unlike, say, Crusades history, where Runciman denounced the West, if you like; but he’s out of fashion now and we have defenders of Crusaders in. Having just done a short survey of that history, with unfamiliar eyes, I saw how political it is, and how much run by our present-day quarrels and ideology. There’s nothing like that in Mongol history; perhaps each sphere of history works differently; perhaps Mongol history has been an isolated pond. But with Mongol history, up until the very recent, if any of them recognised a post-colonialist, except for Jack Weatherford, I can’t point to the evidence.

      Weatherford may have written richer books in his later works; but he set out to study the tribal peoples of the world; I don’t think his viewpoint changed throughout his career, though his pen may have deepened. As an Australian, I found his Australia visit brief, when he came to write about our colonial and postcolonial conflicts; but I’ve found that of other visitors.

      • Ah. Thanks for straightening me out, Bryn. Probably overreacting on my part to some of the literature I’ve been reading lately. Some of the novels about colonial Australia seem enraptured in the condemnatory. And surely everyone condemns the treatment of the indigenous there as elsewhere. But still, seems hard to find non-celebratory, non-condemnatory popular accounts of cross-cultural collisions.

        • “But still, seems hard to find non-celebratory, non-condemnatory popular accounts of cross-cultural collisions.”
          — You’re not the only one to think so. As I was walking by the sea I thought further on this conversation: In my Crusades studies venture I read a scholar’s complaint that the popular conception of the Crusades and the in-fashion scholarly conception, have drifted to be currently wide apart (hey, at least they take notice of the popular). In short, the popular view remains with Runciman, while the scholarly is over him, past that, and in rejection of his attitudes.

          On Australia, as I’ve confessed to you before, I don’t have a wide acquaintance with either the fiction or the historiography. There have been fierce wars in late years — they are called the History Wars, in the Australian setting — about whether our history accounts have been ‘too condemnatory’. We’ve had a loose cannon called Windschuttle who says nothing so bad happened in Tasmania, it’s been a beat-up. Nobody wants to know him. Nor do I, he sounds mad as a cut snake to me. For my purposes, I’m going to stick to the SBS effort I mentioned in the Flanagan discussions — documentary, book, website — First Australians, which is from an indigenous viewpont, and which I found trustworthy and well-told history. Also, I liked what you said, in a review I think, on primary sources — you mentioned Ned Kelly and a couple of people from the time, as worth reading — better worth reading, if I understood you. I’m for that. And I’m more interested in reading 19th century Australian fiction.

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