What ever happened to conclusions in books?

As per previous posts, I’ve just finished reading Malcolm Chase’s new history of Chartism. It’s a great piece of work, which achieves the difficult task of offering a clear narrative without sacrificing cogent analysis of the movement. The interspersing of Chartist biographies into the text helped to humanise a story, which, inevitably as a treatment of a mass political organisation might have become a bewildering blizzard of names. Chase also has a great eye for detail: the text is larded with evocative quotations and telling anecdotes, (this one in particular obviously grabbed my attention):

‘Reflecting on Oliver Cromwell and the parliamentarian cause, Hanson jolted awake. He rushed to find Elizabeth: ‘I say, lass, thah mun find me a white handkerchief for my neck ready for next Sunday; I am going to praech.’ To this she replied, ‘What ar’ta going to turn Methody na?’ ‘Noa,’ said Abram, ‘but I am going to praech for all that. I’ve just fun aght that t’Charter is to be gotten by praeching and praying.’ (p. 29)

BUT, Chase’s book doesn’t really have a conclusion, only a series of further biographies and a final ‘comment.’ And it’s not just Chase. I’ve been noticing that a large number of recent books that I have been reading are, well, inconclusive (see my review of Mike Braddick’s God’s Fury below.)

Of course, both Braddick and Chase make good cases for leaving their books open-ended. As Braddick suggests, aiming for over-arching conclusions about a period as historiographically contested as the 1640s is a somewhat fatuous task. Equally, as Chase points out, like many works on the success or failure of the English reformation, works on Chartism tend to offer either pessimistic or optimistic conclusions on the movement largely depending on where the authors draw the “finishing-line” chronologically. This makes such summaries inevitably rather artificial.

Reflecting on these historiographical uncertainties and/or issues of focus is valid and worthwhile. On the other hand, there a books like Diane Purkiss’s People’s History, which just, well, stops, with no thorough reflection on what the reader is supposed to have gained from the proceeding 570 pages. I’ve seen this trend in recent scholarly monographs too, so it appears to be a disease that doesn’t only afflict works written for a popular audience.

Where is all this inconclusiveness coming from?


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  1. I suspect that this reluctance to offer conclusions has two sources. One arises from the difficulty of offering conclusions likely to last very long when writing on areas of high historiographical turbulence (like the events of the 1640s in the British Isles) and rapidly developing research. The second is derived from the influence of postmodernism. I do think that such failures are regrettable. A reader is entitled to know where you or I stand on the matters we have analysed, especially if he or she has spent money on purchasing our works. I also believe that it is important for those who study these matters at later dates to be able to point out where I, for example, may have drawn the wrong inferences or may have overlooked relevant material that affects my conclusions. If historians do not offer ‘targets’ to their successors, the discipline will wither. So, I hope that the temptation to reach no or few conclusions or to fear the wrath of postmodernists will be firmly resisted in the future.

  2. I agree on all counts!

  3. I am grateful for the attention, of course, but I did just want to contest the view that I fail to offer a conclusion, or that I adopted a post-modern position (which Christopher’s comment perhaps implies). The final chapter lays out an explanation for why politics in England became so creative, the hesitancy surrounding the regicide and subsequent constitutional measures, the lack of resolution achieved on some of the fundamental questions raised during the war and draws attention to some of the unintended consequences of the upheaval. That amounts, in my view, to a summary of key themes in the book, and those who come after can certainly take issue with them, if they see that as the way forward. I am sure they will.

    I did not though insist that readers should accept that there was one particular significance to be derived from these experiences, or one voice which was really representative of the revolution. That is not a postmodern position, it seems to me–there are multiple (but not infinite) potential meanings to be attached to these events, and we can, potentially, learn from or be enriched by any or all of them. Some of them have not yet come into view, and what they will be is very difficult to predict.

    I found warrant for this position not among left bank intellectuals of the 1960s and 70s but in contemporary views: for example, in the very general view that all coherence was gone; in Thomas May, arguably the first historian of the period; and more particularly in Butter and Bourne, pioneer newsmen, who felt that momentous events provided ‘knowledges for our discourse’ rather than simple lessons.

    A modest, but I hope respectable, aim of a single volume history of such momentous events is to provide such ‘knowledges’ for the discourses of our own day. Civil wars can be ‘good to think with’ in ways that an author can prompt, but not dictate. That position, it seems to me, is compatible with the best (or worst) empirical traditions of our discipline. On the other hand, perhaps the response to this kind of conclusion suggests that we should be as interested in early post modernity as we have been in early modernity–Nathaniel Butter and the archaeology of knowledge, anyone?

  4. There was nothing, may I assure Professor Braddick, in my earlier comment to imply that he could be criticised for having taken a post-modern position or had failed to reach conclusions.

  5. […] at it. I was reminded, for one, of Michael Braddick’s comment on Ted Vallance’s blog (yes, it’s so not Lakeian that it’s even getting posted on the internet). On the […]

  6. As a past student of history I thought the conclusion was satisfying enough, but I’m not a scholar, which will probably explain why I have no idea what ‘Nathaniel Butter and the archaeology of knowledge’ is or refers to- any help?

  7. Nathaniel Butter was the bookseller whose pamphlet Mike Braddick took his last line from – I think – and ‘archaeology of knowledge’ is a Michel Foucault reference.

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