When Arthur Marwick sat down to draft The New Nature of History he likely thought back to a time three decades earlier, when he penned The Nature of History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1971) to confront the "historical relativists," with their "varieties of history, embodying the notion that all great historians are essentially equal, though they may find it impossible to agree upon any one interpretation of the nature of history." (p. 22) In that earlier work, Marwick cautioned that "to stress the variousness of history is to turn one's face in the wrong direction." (p. 23) The aim of The New Nature of History is to shift historians' faces in the right direction, to secure the place of history against the assault of the discipline's post-modern critics. He argues that history, unlike literature, is dependent upon previous bodies of knowledge, primary sources, and precise writing, maintained by professional standards. As such, the book's subtitle "Knowledge, Evidence, Language" serves poignantly a three-word thesis statement.
Knowledge is essential to Marwick's view of history. He offers a definition of history as "bodies of knowledge about the past and all that is involved in producing this knowledge, communicating it, and teaching about it." (p. 269) Accordingly, "what historians do is produce knowledge about the past." (p. xiii) Marwick sets forth a distinction between the past, "what actually happened in the (human) past (whether or not historians have written about it)", and history, "the accounts of the past provided by historians." (p. 25) Marwick views the search for universal meaning or universal explanations as futile; yet, contrary to post-modernist assertions, historians do not construct history. "History is about finding things out, and solving problems, rather than spinning narratives or telling stories." (p. 28) For Marwick, "a reasonable degree of objectivity" in history is achievable when historians adhere to the precedence of accumulated bodies of historians' work and respect the peer-reviewer system of professional scrutiny. (p. 45, 48) Marwick's conclusion places a great deal of faith in his fellow historians' observance of methods and principles that "govern" professional history.
Marwick also shows much deference to the evidence upon which historians base their knowledge. In particular, he views primary sources as the bedrock of historical knowledge. "The only way we can have knowledge of the past is through studying the relics and traces left by past societies. (p. 26) Secondary sources are necessary to commence research. However, "primary sources...form the basic `raw material' of history." (p.26) He emphasizes that archival work with primary sources, while essential to the historian's trade, can be arduous and boring. According to Marwick, historians do not search the archives for facts, but for "material conditions, and changes in them; states of mind; the working of institutions; motivations, mentalities, values; the balance between intention and accomplishment." (p. 153) Yet, the sources do not speak for themselves. Historians analyze and corroborate source material. They employ technical skills to garner indirect knowledge through inference and to refine nuances within texts. Moreover, ready access to primary sources, such as those in the French archives or the new archeological sites in the Mediterranean, opens up new avenues for historical study.
After the historians labor in the archives, the task of communicating the knowledge of the past presents itself. Marwick expends much energy discussing the need for historians to write precisely and explicitly. He agrees with the post-modernists on the importance of language to the discipline's proficiency. He rejects, however, their proposition that the historians' narratives do not significantly differ from those of novelists. Marwick contends that history and literature, as disciplines, use language differently. An important distinction is that "all history should be written clearly and unambiguously." (p. 195) For him, it is possible to write history that communicates narrative, description, and analysis. Emphasizing the importance of an adequate structure for writing, Marwick says "structure is devised, and revised, by the historian in order to produce an account,...which best conveys to the reader what actually was happening, what interactions there were, what changed, and what did not, as perceived by the historian. This is no the way novelists work." (p. 263)
The New Nature of History acts not only as an obvious-lover-of-history's overtly retaliatory strike on the discipline's post-modern critics, but also as a labor of love by a loyal practitioner dedicated to the relevance and credibility of his profession. Marwick's writing throughout the book displays a pained quality, as if the critics have affronted him personally as a historian. The impetus for the book is his understanding that post-modernism is not a scholarly discipline, but a belief system--one that has no business criticizing the historical profession. He wants to set the record straight: history is not in a state of crisis. History, like science, evolves from evidence and remains "of central importance to society." (p. 268) In addition to fending off the post-modernists, The New Nature of History, with its instructive chapters on sources and writing, can serve as a professional reference to would-be historians of any philosophical persuasion. Moreover, the lucidity and vigor with which Arthur Marwick argues his case can encourage graduate students that "historical study, conducted in accordance with the precepts set out in it, is important, as well as interesting and, sometimes, exciting." (p. 19) Even when one has done it for as long has Marwick has.