BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 3, 2011
History and the Enlightenment
By Hugh Trevor-Roper
(Yale University Press, 314 pp., $40)
Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson
Edited by Richard Davenport-Hines
(Orion Publishing, 326 pp., $25)
Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography
By Adam Sisman
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 598 pp., £25)
At the beginning of July 1973, my wife and I arrived in London from Chicago to spend a year doing research in the British Library. Many things conspired to show us that we were not in Kansas anymore: the headlines (“Temperatures Reach 70s: Britons Flock to Beaches”), the food in cafeterias (Welsh rarebit, bubble and squeak); the improbably polite policemen in Islington with whom we registered our presence as Resident Aliens. But nothing made the strangeness of Britain clearer than the copy of The Spectator for July 14 that we bought on our first or second visit to a London newsagent.
The magazine contained a long article by Hugh Trevor-Roper, the Regius professor of modern history at Oxford. It was the Presidential Address that he had delivered to the Joint Association of Classical Teachers in May, and it had a Latin title: “Apologia Transfugae,” or “A Deserter’s Self-Defense.” It explained, at length, why Trevor-Roper, as an Oxford undergraduate, had abandoned the classics for history. He had been a devoted and successful student of Greek and Latin at Charterhouse School and then at Oxford, where he had tutorials with J.D. Denniston, the great authority on Greek particles, and he spoke with emotion of what it had meant to him to realize that he could actually read Greek texts, not just construe them. Moreover, the many prizes he won for his prowess “kept me in claret all through my undergraduate days, and enabled me to keep a hunter at livery in a Buckinghamshire village.”
The thought of using prize money to stable a horse was startling enough to a student from Chicago. But TrevorRoper’s reasons for abandoning classics for history made an even stronger impression, because I had come to London to study the history of classical scholarship with Arnaldo Momigliano. Now Trevor-Roper proclaimed that it was precisely the tradition of classical scholarship that had impelled him to “repudiate that golden inheritance.” As he gazed back in memory on his student days, “two grim, frowning Faces” appeared before him: “the remote, patrician visage” of Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff and “the sour, crabbed figure of the spent English poet, A.E. Housman.”
Wilamowitz and Housman had cut great figures as scholars and teachers, the former in Berlin and the latter at Cambridge. Both of them had written brilliantly about the pre-eminent Renaissance philologist Joseph Scaliger, on whom I planned to work. Trevor-Roper dismissed them as arrogant pedants who had wasted their lives on the vain task of restoring the corrupt texts of classical literature—a pursuit that he himself finally abandoned as hopeless when he saw what typists did to his copy. His diatribe worried me. I suspected that some of what he wrote made sense—above all, his demand that classicists do justice to the cultures and the contexts that they studied, as well as to the texts. (In fact they were already doing so, as classical scholarship revived to become one of the most powerful humanistic disciplines of the later twentieth century.) But I also wondered how seriously to take his Hogarthian portraits of the philologists whom I tended to revere.
For I had met Trevor-Roper in the flesh. He had come to Chicago, where he delivered a series of lectures on the European witch-craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, then the most fashionable of subjects for historians. He shredded his colleagues’ efforts to explain why the persecution of thousands of witches had taken place not in the Dark Ages, but in the time of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. Theories withered under his attack like flowers caught by a late frost. True, his own efforts at explanation were no more convincing than those of his rivals. When he argued that the thin mountain air of Switzerland had bred delusions of witchcraft, he lost us, confused by what seemed his recourse to a long-obsolete style of explanation, rather like spontaneous combustion. But his denunciations of human folly—the folly of the friars who crafted the manuals for witch hunters, the folly of the moderns who hoped for enlightenment from anthropology—were almost musical in their eloquence. We listened and we chuckled, delighted as much by the artistry of his prose as by the sting in the tail of each long set of balanced clauses.
Invited to have dinner with a few students, he agreed. He pretended not to dislike the food and the wine, and he seemed genuinely to enjoy seeing the Chicago skyline at night. And he treated us to another rhetorical set-piece—a denunciation of All Souls College, which he described as a bastion of Old Corruption, where the idlers who won fellowships remained for generations, reading little and writing less, but pickling their livers in the very best port. We barely knew that All Souls was in Oxford, much less what made it different from the other colleges. But hard as we laughed at the malevolent periodic sentences that Trevor-Roper smoothly extemporized, we found ourselves wondering, afterwards, how much to believe. Could a college that included Isaiah Berlin, Leszek Kołakowski, and Jean Seznec among its members really be quite such a resort of idleness and prejudice?
Trevor-Roper’s brilliance and learning were unmistakable. None of our teachers, none of the great scholars we had heard at Chicago, could use the English language as he did, combining the brash polemical voice of Mencken with the tight formal discipline of Gibbon. He ranged across languages and literatures, history and the humanities, with a freedom that we barely knew enough to envy. It seemed clear that he had led a life of travel and adventure that we could never hope to duplicate, that he had read the books and seen the paintings and visited the castles and the prisons that he talked about. Had we known the work of Patrick Leigh Fermor—A Time of Gifts would appear a few years later—we would have had some sense of how to locate him in an English tradition. And yet, and yet—it was also clear that one would be foolish to take his descriptions as literally accurate. He was a master hyperbolist as well as a master historian: how then should we read his work, how should we take what he offered us?
Trevor-Roper died in 2003, but the questions remain urgent. The reason is that he continues to be a living presence in English culture. He is now the subject of an excellent biography, thorough and measured, by Adam Sisman. His letters to Bernard Berenson—every one of them a firework display—have been edited with care, insight, and learning by Richard Davenport-Hines. And distinguished historians—above all Blair Worden and John Robertson—have edited volume after volume of his work, finishing what he left incomplete and collecting his scattered articles. Europe’s Physician, his immensely learned biography of the medical man Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, appeared in 2006; The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History in 2008; and most recently, History and the Enlightenment. Eight years after his death, Trevor-Roper remains not only one of the most influential, but also one of the most productive, British historians of British and European culture—more productive, so far as books on early modern European history are concerned, than he was when alive.
In many ways the early stages of Trevor-Roper’s journey seem familiar, at least to anyone who has misspent time reading the lives of British dons. Born into a reasonably prosperous but loveless family, he flourished at school and university, and is said to have received the top result of his year in the examination for Honour Moderations, the first half of Oxford’s classics degree. A shift to history did not slow his progress. He took a brilliant first and made it to the short list for an All Souls fellowship, though he did not win. (Our experience at dinner in Chicago, more than three decades later, attests to his excellent memory for slights.) He stayed on in Oxford—with frequent expeditions to parties and to London—to do research on Archbishop Laud, the highest of seventeenth-century High Churchmen and the great object of Puritan hatred.
A junior research fellowship at Merton College gave him a firmer base to work from. His life of Laud appeared in 1940. Deeply researched and elegantly written, the book established him as a solid historian. Though Trevor-Roper wrote better than most dons, he must have seemed, to more distant observers, rather normal: a hard-working young historian, specializing in Britain, who believed, as most did, in R.H. Tawney’s thesis that the seventeenth-century crisis of the British monarchy was caused by economic and social changes associated with the rise of capitalism. He looked like just the sort of person who might—as he actually did—become a professor at Oxford and the master of a Cambridge college.
Yet friends—and some who were not friends—knew a second Trevor-Roper who seemed radically different from the first: a hard-drinking outdoorsman whose warmest memories of Oxford were of exercising hounds in the crisp chill of winter dawns. Not a natural athlete, he loved to hunt, even though doing so led to frequent falls from his horse and endless searches in muddy fields for his spectacles. He persisted until he broke his back. Brave, restless, bored to extinction by Oxford’s petty rituals, this second Trevor-Roper could never have spent his whole life drilling undergraduates in the details of the English constitution and worrying about the college wine cellars (both activities that mattered to him).
What saved him was World War II. Trevor-Roper had a marvelous time in the London of the blackout and the Blitz. In addition to other adventures, he made a friend who mattered to him very much: Logan Pearsall Smith, the American-born essayist and expert on the English language, who had written the life of the seventeenth-century virtuoso Sir Henry Wotton. Through conversations with Smith, he formed a clear idea of the sort of writer he wanted to be: one steeped in the tradition of the great English historians, Clarendon, Gibbon, and Macaulay, and able to give it new life appropriate to his own time. For the rest of his life he would pursue this goal, endlessly rereading his favorites and always discovering more in them.
Recruited into the intelligence services, Trevor-Roper turned out to be very good at collating and interpreting the disparate bits of information harvested by listening to German radio traffic—though also very impatient with the stupidity of some of his superiors. (He called one superior “that farting exhibitionist.”) As the war ended and rumors spread that Hitler had somehow escaped from Berlin, one of the great intelligence bosses, Sir Dick White, suggested that Trevor-Roper should put an end to these rumors by determining how Hitler had actually died. He set to work, and found the travel and interviews that the job demanded vastly more stimulating than any normal form of historical research.
Elected a student (that is, a fellow) of Christ Church when the war came to an end, Trevor-Roper needed a new task. White urged him to make his study of Hitler into a book. He did so, writing this time not for professional colleagues but for Smith, the ideal cultivated reader. The Last Days of Hitler was a mordant exercise in Tacitean historiography, which followed with pitiless clarity and biting wit the dissolution of Hitler’s court. It became a sensation and made a fortune for its author. Trevor-Roper found himself in possession of a Bentley and of opportunities to enter social and intellectual worlds even more appealing than that of the Christ Church aristocrats whose company he enjoyed: letters of introduction to Bernard Berenson, whose wife was Logan Pearsall Smith’s sister, and who made his home in the splendid Villa I Tatti outside Florence, and requests from editors to write about the great subjects of the moment, such as the development of a divided Germany. New worlds of art, history, and politics opened before him.
A flâneur who stood out brilliantly against the subfusc world of Austerity Britain and the dull, tweed-clad prisoners of Oxford, Trevor-Roper broke academic norms again and again—notably when he fell in love with Lady Alexandra Henrietta Louisa Howard-Johnston, daughter of Field Marshal the Earl Haig. She was already married, but he took her from her husband and made a marriage—sometimes a difficult one, but also a long one—with her. He loved to break out of Oxford and explore the world, the more uncomfortably the better: nothing pleased him better than a two-day bus journey through the wilder parts of Iran or a long and potentially dangerous walking tour in the dusty Spanish or Greek countryside. He was no ordinary professor.
What made Trevor-Ropernotorious was his penchant for polemic. Again and again he waged take-no-prisoners campaigns against academic adversaries: for example, his fellow Carthusian Lawrence Stone, another larger-than-life historian, whose errors about the aristocracy and their manors Trevor-Roper pulverized in a memorably brutal polemical article, its key made even sharper by the author’s belief that Stone, whose work rested on material Trevor-Roper had uncovered, had failed to show the older scholar proper gratitude.
To judge from the language that Trevor-Roper employed, he took these conflicts with deadly seriousness. One of his pupils, who arrived to find his tutor confined to bed by illness, was startled to see him holding a file folder titled “Death of Stone.” For years he and Stone devoted lectures to rubbishing one another’s work, to the great entertainment of undergraduate historians. Less amusingly, Trevor-Roper made it impossible for Stone to win a university job, eventually forcing him to depart for Princeton, to the immense benefit of my own university and department. And as the controversy moved into the public realm, Trevor-Roper found himself invigorated: “I really rather enjoy a fight.”
He would continue to pursue this pleasure when writing against Arnold J. Toynbee, whose massive theory of history he denounced as an effort to create a new mystical religion, with Toynbee as its prophet; against A.J.P. Taylor, a fellow historian who produced a revisionist theory of the origins of World War II (and gave as good as he got when he replied to Trevor-Roper); and against the Balliol historian Christopher Hill, whose Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution he took apart, brick by brick, in a review essay that is a splendid treatise on how to do intellectual history. Some laughed, but some were made uncomfortable by the ruthlessness of Trevor-Roper’s attacks and the finality of his language. R.H. Tawney, for example, was impressed by Trevor-Roper’s arguments but upset by the ferocity with which he dispatched the erring Stone—so much so that he insisted that historians who made mistakes were not Amalekites, “to be smitten hip and thigh.” (He should have said Philistines.)
Yet Trevor-Roper had another side—open, hospitable, generous to a fault, and this too was on display in much of what he wrote. In Berenson he found an interlocutor whose mastery of European art and culture opened new fields to him. Berenson inspired Trevor-Roper, a lifelong skeptic about all aspects of the Germanic intellect, to study the thought of the Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt, whom he came to revere. As an astonishingly prolific reviewer for the New Statesman and other papers, Trevor-Roper did for English readers, again and again, what Berenson did for him. In long, eloquent, and deeply informed essays he wrote of Fernand Braudel’s history of the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century; of Moses I. Finley’s anthropological approach to the world of Odysseus; of Marcel Bataillon’s recreation of the religious world of Erasmus’s followers in Spain.
In his capacity as a reviewer, Trevor-Roper had one supreme gift. He could appreciate the depth and the interest of historical works that specialists failed to value at their true worth, precisely because they did not fit the narrow guidelines of accepted scholarly inquiry. Raul Hilberg, the pioneering historian of the Holocaust, recalled in a bitter memoir how hard he had found it to publish his Destruction of the European Jews, and how little public recognition the book received. The sole early exception was Trevor-Roper, who devoted a substantial and learned essay in Commentary, some eight thousand words long, to explaining the book and its achievement to American readers, and did the same for British readers in a second major review in the New Statesman. “His grasp,” Hilberg wrote, “was total.”
To read the massive reviews, with their untranslated quotations in Latin and French, that Trevor-Roper composed for weekly magazines is to gain a new appreciation for the much-maligned literary world of the 1950s. It is also to see Trevor-Roper at his best: as an open-minded, endlessly generous reader, who blazed up with enthusiasm when other historians devised new ways to see the past. True, he had a taste for high society and maintained a frosty façade, especially when confronted by bores. No one ever practiced the supreme British conversational art—that of remaining icily silent while a North American interlocutor fidgets and babbles—more skillfully than Trevor-Roper.
Yet his castle had a postern gate, through which all sorts of unlikely figures gained entrance to the master’s affection (and, in many cases, his unstinting support): poor students, quirky and angular scholars, and genuinely unusual figures such as Frances Yates, the magnificent Miss Marple-like historian at the Warburg Institute, whom Trevor-Roper deeply admired and beneficently helped. This side of Trevor-Roper completely escaped the attention of the Tories of Peterhouse when they elected him master of their college, a bastion of conservatism. Sisman does a good job of narrating the epic battles that followed on their discovery that Trevor-Roper was in fact not an enemy of change but a Tory reformer who despised the littleness of their vision of the past.
Despite the Taylorite pace that Trevor-Roper kept up as a journalist, in some ways the most distinctive writing that he did took the form of letters. The eighteenth-century thinkers he admired most had made arts both of letter-writing and of the friendships that letters sustained. Trevor-Roper set out to beat them at their now-archaic game. Even more vividly than his wildest polemics, the letters in which he described to Berenson the characters of individuals and the quarrels of Oxford dons show him at his most inventive, wielding all the resources of English literature and his own imagination.
Gossip became a full-blown form of comic narrative art in Trevor-Roper’s hands. When Edgar Wind was elected to a chair of art history, he interrogated Maurice Bowra on Berenson’s behalf and reported: “He tells me that Wind is a spellbinder, a wonderful lecturer, and that being a man of great resourcefulness, when he runs out of matter, he invents.” Asked how “this terrible charlatan of Smith College” could then have been elected, Bowra replied that the opposition “could think of no-one except a very boring old hack called Pächt who delves laboriously in some recess of the Warburg Institute.” For the climax of the story, Trevor-Roper used the language of Swift’s The Battle of the Books: “ ‘Pächt,’ chanted Tom Boase and the two Dry Sticks in timorous unison, and Echo feebly answered ‘Pächt’; whereupon the Vice-Chancellor flapped his wings and hooted derisively at them and they were scattered; and so Professor Wind, fleeing from Smith College, arrived at Oxford, to the delight of some—the gay and frivolous, I fear—and the chagrin of others, the grave scholars who know that he is a plausible humbug.” It’s all delightful—but it must not be mistaken for an accurate narrative. Edgar Wind, though given to over-interpretation, was a formidable scholar, and Otto Pächt, a pioneering medievalist and a profound theorist and critic, embodied the cosmopolitan, liberal Europe that Trevor-Roper most admired.
The Trevor-Roper of the letters, the self-fashioned eighteenth-century satirist who attacked the reign of Dullness as boldly as Pope and Swift had done in their time, made relatively few full-blown appearances in print—except in the wonderful mock newsletters that he published in the Spectator, under the name Mercurius Oxoniensis, describing the takeover of Oxford buildings in the late ’60s by radicals like “one Cobb, a Ranter,” and the efforts of the Warden of All Souls, John Sparrow, to drive a road through Christ Church Meadow. Taken together, Trevor-Roper’s letters amount to a magnificent, if sometimes malevolent, commentary on European and British culture, politics, and education in the middle and later twentieth century. It would be wonderful to see more of them appear. Yet it is also important to see these extraordinary letters for what they are: set pieces, hyperbolics, written more to dazzle than to describe or inform in any literal sense—and to realize that the Trevor-Roper who wrote them regularly peeped for a moment through the dignified mask of the Regius professor, especially when he was heating up rounds of rhetoric to fire at an opponent. He somehow managed to be a hunter for archival truths and an unreliable narrator, and to miss either element—as Sisman does, once or twice, taking letters a little too literally—is to go wrong. No wonder he baffled us in Chicago.
Chosen, when hewas only forty-three, to be Regius professor of history, Trevor-Roper had not yet produced a major and mature work of scholarship. He set himself big projects: a work on the seventeenth-century crisis of the English state, in its European context, which he envisioned at one point as stretching to three volumes, and a searching critique of Max Weber’s thesis about Protestantism and the origins of modernity. He scoured archives, read documents and pamphlets in many languages, mastered the secondary literature, and took positions—some of which he supported with articles learned enough to make another historian’s books. But the synthesis eluded him. After John Elliott, who would himself become Regius professor, showed him that a massive draft of his big book on England still suffered from weaknesses of framing, he gradually gave it up. Yet Trevor-Roper found time for work of far less significance, much of it suggested by editors and publishers—from reportage and controversies to a set of lectures on “The Rise of Christian Europe,” which revealed that he had noticed only a little of the brilliant work being done on late antique Christianity and Byzantium in his own university and others.
But if Trevor-Roper could not find a form that encompassed the crisis of the Stuarts, he plunged with extraordinary energy into a vast range of subjects closely related to it. He did brilliant work on the intellectual life of Europe in the years around 1600 and after. Strongly attracted to Jacques-Auguste de Thou and Hugo Grotius, the activist scholar-statesmen who tried to end the endless miseries of religious and civil war, he not only read their works, but also traced the networks of communication that sustained their relations. In recent decades, the Republic of Letters—the informal world of scholarly communication that reached its zenith in the seventeenth century—has been an increasingly fashionable subject. Like Scott’s party heading for the South Pole, many of us have glimpsed the vital importance of the subject and slogged toward it across the vast glacial fields of the sources, only to realize that Trevor-Roper had swooped in before us and left his indelible mark on the field. The articles that he dedicated to this learned world—notably a charming and perceptive study of Archbishop Ussher—and his posthumous book on Mayerne remain central to scholarly discussion, and will for years to come.
Sometimes it seemed as if an imp of the perverse dogged the great historian’s steps. A connoisseur of con men, forgers of texts, and inventors of genealogies, he loved their clever ways of duping the good and the great, and enjoyed nothing more than making fun of the learned men who had believed that the kilt was a genuine item of ancient Scottish clothing or that the poems of Ossian were the genuine work of an ancient bard. In 1977, his expertise enabled him to score an unexpected popular success with Hermit of Peking—an artful, erudite, and riotously funny demonstration that Edmund Backhouse, an English baronet famed for his gifts of Chinese manuscripts to the Bodleian, had been a pornographer, a forger, and a con man. Yet only a few years later, in 1983, the biter was bitten. Under extreme pressure from Rupert Murdoch, Trevor-Roper authenticated a set of Hitler diaries that had been bought by the London Times—and were rapidly revealed to be crude forgeries. It is a cruel irony that Trevor-Roper, the passionate believer in reasoned criticism, is remembered as a dupe.
In some ways, moreover, both Trevor-Roper’s situation in Oxford and his own sense of his vocation limited what he could achieve. The American historian William H. McNeill, Trevor-Roper’s contemporary, did not have the English historian’s mastery of languages, as he confessed in his autobiography. He found inspiration in Toynbee for his own work and even wrote a critical but admiring life of Trevor-Roper’s bête noire—but McNeill developed an even more cosmopolitan vision of history than Trevor-Roper did. The Gibbonian model to which Trevor-Roper professed allegiance left little space for such subjects as agriculture and technology, and even less for the history of barbarous peoples. McNeill dwelled profitably on topics such as these, and wove them into the fabric of The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, his pioneering world history.
And yet as a practicing historian Trevor-Roper’s achievement looks more extraordinary by the year. Consider History and the Enlightenment, the collection of his articles recently edited by John Robertson, who has also contributed an eloquent introduction. As Robertson shows, in the 1950s and early 1960s, historians in Britain had little to say about the history of their discipline in earlier times. Most saw themselves as writing in a mode created in the nineteenthcentury university by Leopold von Ranke and his German and English heirs—the men who had replaced the superficial optimism and surface-skimming narratives of Enlightenment history with deep histories, their facts carved from the sources in the archives.
But Trevor-Roper never fully shared his colleagues’ admiration for the accomplishments of nineteenth-century historicism: he called the document-obsessed Oxford medievalists “Manchester mice.” In the early 1960s he began a long series of inquiries into what Enlightenment historians had actually believed and written, and after turning to other fields in the 1970s, he came back to the subject in later life. Time after time Trevor-Roper asked powerful new questions. He saw, for example, that the Scottish historians of the eighteenth century had brought a new philosophical perspective to bear on the past. They were less interested in individual kings and battles than in the reasons why civilizations rose and fell.
How, Trevor-Roper now asked, could this new historical outlook, which inspired Gibbon and many others, have arisen in a country that contemporary travelers described as a cultural desert, one that even lacked wheeled carts: “those long treeless wastes; the squalid towns in the plains; the savage, unvisited tribes in the hills.” He traced the capillary diffusion of new ideas, showing how medical men trained in Leiden penetrated the universities, and revealing that the work of the Neapolitan radical historian Pietro Giannone came out in English thanks to the Scottish Jacobites who paid for the edition and the Scottish naval officer, James Ogilvie, who did the translation. Trevor-Roper argued that it was precisely the unique contrast between the new thought of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as it became accessible, and the primitive conditions of Scottish economic and social life that inspired the historians to ask new questions.
Tireless research and wide reading underpinned the lucid and eloquent essays, many of them originally lectures, in which Trevor-Roper elucidated the historical thought of Hume and Gibbon, Giannone and Conyers Middleton. Technical questions that most intellectual historians ignored until much more recently—questions about how ideas move, how books actually pass from manuscript to print and from one language to another—fascinated him, and he pursued their answers deep into the archives. Above all, he was capable of seeing what the specialists missed: that the Enlightenment’s reflective and sober vision of history was not replaced by the positivism of the nineteenth century, but continued to flourish, if not in imperial Berlin, then in Burckhardt’s tidy, independent Basel, and to provide resources that historians and other intellectuals need.
Trevor-Roper rarely scrutinized the textual details of past historians’ work. True, he loved to quote Gibbon. At least once he had to leave a lecture when, after starting to read aloud “one of the more scabrous footnotes” from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he broke into uncontrollable laughter. For the most part, though, he preferred to characterize texts and arguments in brief, elegantly crafted paragraphs. What interested him most, always, were the conditions—historical and biographical, social and particular, cultural and technical—that had shaped a historian, and the individual’s response to them. From these materials he created a history of the origins of modern historiography that is unique not only for its depth and range, but also for its vivid sense that the historians studied were active thinkers, working in distinct settings to build structures that not only deserve close study, but can still provide their successors with a habitation.
Life became harder in the last years. Trevor-Roper endured in a large house in Didcot, outside Oxford, where he looked after his wife, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and did the cooking, and coped with the decline in his eyesight and other powers. (Friends tell terrifying stories of being driven to Oxford by Trevor-Roper, then nearly blind.) His courage did not fail, and many felt his warmth and generosity. He worked until the end, at projects whose depth and richness we are only now coming to appreciate. Much of his work remains alive. Trevor-Roper once explained to Berenson that he saw himself as in the service of a “party of Light,” which “regards a University as a place of Learning and Pleasure,” against a “party of Darkness” which “regards it as a place of administrative efficiency and Dullness.” As Dullness covers the earth, we see that he usually fought well, and understand better why he did not always keep his satirical persona from overwhelming the historian that he so powerfully was.
Anthony Grafton is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the March 24, 2011, issue of the magazine.