Eric Hobsbawm and History in the States and Over the Water

Randall Stephens

I've been reading Tony Judt's collection of essays, Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century. One chapter in particular, "Eric Hobsbawm and the Romance of Communism," struck me. (That piece originally appeared in the New York Review of Books in 2003.)

Judt covers Hobsbawm's incredibly long, productive career:

At the age of eighty-six, Eric Hobsbawm is the best-known historian in the world. His most recent book, The Age of Extremes, was translated into dozens of languages, from Chinese to Czech. His memoirs, first published last year, were a best seller in New Delhi; in parts of South America—Brazil especially—he is a cultural folk hero. His fame is well deserved. He controls vast continents of information with confident ease—his Cambridge college supervisor, after telling me once that Eric Hobsbawm was the cleverest undergraduate he had ever taught, added: “Of course, you couldn’t say I taught him—he was unteachable. Eric already knew everything.”

It all got me thinking about the influence of historians on the continent, the UK, and this side of the Atlantic. I do recall reading Hobsbawm in graduate school, but, I believe, only in a seminar on Modern Europe. Does that towering historian--born in 1917 and still kicking--still rank as one of the most influential historians in the United States? Does his work on 19th-century history, social banditry, and liberal capitalism still drive historical debates?

Judt's essay also made me wonder about the canon of history books in the US and in Europe. What are the key differences in method, style, and interests in the Old and New Worlds? What have been the most critical 10 works of history published since 1970 in the states and in Europe? Have American historians and their European counterparts reflected on the differences that still shape the field?