Desert Island Books
Imagine yourself stranded on a desert island, when a chest floats ashore. You are hoping that it has some books to keep you company until the rescuers find you. Which books would you want to find in that box?
Back in the 1980s, when I was first invited by Oxford University Press to compose an article for the (old) DNB, Missing Persons volume, the editor sent me a sample article which described the life and work of Roy Plomley, the creator of “Desert Island Discs” which he hosted for the BBC from 1942 to 1985. Not only was the article a wonderful illustration of the type of piece that Oxford sought, but it was also a long-lasting prompt to my own thinking of what I would want to have with me as my musical collection on a desert island (Brahms, Bach, Dave Brubeck, etc.). I never transferred that concept to books, but when planning this post I thought for weeks about what I would want to have available either in print or electronic format, were I to find myself in Robinson Crusoe’s situation. (Likely print unless the island had a recharging station for my i-pad.)
My instinctive response to the invitation was to fasten on the works of great literature and great historical writing that have left a lasting impact on me. However, it took me several weeks to recognize the centering piece, which was standing right in front of me all the while. It is the New Testament. The great literature that I admire has been infused with the gospel, whether explicitly or clandestinely. The moral values which are a focal point of my study of history have been drawn from the teachings of Jesus Christ and they constitute the yardstick with which I assess the behavior of people and the trends and events that make up the fabric of history. There is some code of value embedded in every work of history (even chronicles), even for writers who might wish to be seen as value-free in their work.
In my dual biography of William Jardine and James Matheson, Opium and Empire, the question of moral assessment was inescapable. As opium merchants, the two Scots were morally suspect in the eyes of a good number of their contemporaries. My task was not to sit in judgment on the two men, but I had to say something about the moral issues which were inextricable from their commerce in a narcotic substance. My thinking was certainly shaped by the moral standards which I have drawn from the New Testament, and that was hardly unfair to my two subjects, as both of them were Christians (though perhaps not pious). I felt it my duty as a historian to offer some moral analysis of the way in which they marketed a commodity that had medical benefits as well as potential for destructive addiction. That moral commentary had to have some underpinning, whether religious or philosophical, and whether it be disclosed or implied. In my instance the underpinning comes principally from the gospels. I know that some readers, based on their own moral judgments, have wanted me to be more severe in my judgments, and I assume that others (though no one has said this explicitly) have wanted me to avoid the moral dimension of biography as being unscientific. In either case, the respondents would be bringing their own moral index to the persons and events of Opium and Empire.
Following upon the values that I bring to the study of history, there are factors influencing my presentation of historical narrative and analysis that have been shaped by historians I admire. I had the good fortune to study with the great Jacksonian historian Robert V. Remini. His dynamism in class carried over to his extensive writings on the Jacksonian era. The drama that he has brought to his writing has been accompanied by his sensible analysis of events and people. At a distance of fifty years, I am very mindful of the effect he has had on my own writing and teaching.
I am disinclined to persist with reading arid writing that tends to smother good research. On the other hand, I am tremendously impressed by historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, as in No Ordinary Time, or David McCullough, as in The Wright Brothers, or Arthur Schlesinger Jr., as in his Crisis of the Old Order, or Martin Gilbert, as in his First World War. What I admire is not simply the engaging quality of their writings, which make you want to keep reading, but the even-handedness of their assessments in bringing historical meaning out of their careful research into people and events and varied phenomena, and the depth of their understanding.
I am sure that in my own writing about Jardine and Matheson and the opium trade, as well as other subjects, I have been shaped by additional factors, such as the exceptional teachers I have worked with in interdisciplinary courses at Providence College. Every writer and teacher must believe that he or she is following the best models whether in print or in action. I think that I have been blessed with a splendid set of models. Whether I have lived up to those models is for the reader to judge.
Richard J. Grace is professor of history at Providence College. His most recent book is Opium and Empire: The Lives and Careers of William Jardine and James Matheson (McGill-Queens University Press, 2014).
The image used at the beginning of this post is by John.