“You often use literary sources as well as archival ones. What can they offer that the ‘documents’ cannot?
“… Well, they cover a wide range of experiences essentially, and clearly they present serious problems of interpretation, but no more serious than the traditional documents did. I mean, a play or a poem is a certain literary genre, is subject to certain conventions, and is influenced by certain models, and therefore you must be careful with what you are quoting. But if that is true, the same points can be made with equal force about anything in the Public Records Office. The documents there also need interpretation and sensitive handling…
“Arguing, in 1988, that the distinction between fact and fiction is a matter of prevailing convention, you’ve urged, against powerful current trends, in favour of the reconciliation of history and literature. Would you say that in the last ten years this has gone too far?
“Yes, I do think it has gone too far. I believe that there is a difference between fact and fiction and that, no doubt, dates me. For me it’s true, and not fiction, that we are sitting here on this Thursday, the 28th of July. So I certainly think that the tendency to blur the genres is unhelpful. As is the new historicism, I welcome it to an extent, but their history, their historical dimension doesn’t strike me as very rigorous.
“I found most of the writings of Hayden White, La Capre and others ultimately a little disappointing because they don’t get to grips with the sort of historians we actually read. I mean, I don’t want to be told what particular tropes Michelet employs, for example, because I don’t use Michelet. But if they really got to work on the latest numbers of Past and Present and said something about the tropes there, then I would find that much more illuminating. The case with these writers reminds me a bit of the analytical philosophers writing on history. What they discussed was always far away from what historians actually did.”1
I haven’t read half of what Professor Thomas has of course, or even a tiny fraction, but I think that if I had it would not change my tendency to agree with pretty much all that. On the other hand that doesn’t mean that I reject the efforts of someone like Magistra to try and get some information out of literary sources, despite what she seems to think I think; the post of mine that she was protesting about was on a seminar where, it seemed to me at least, the conventions of the genre in hand weren’t being given enough space, because they might have considerably weakened the case being argued. I found the trope there easy enough to guess at…
1. Keith Thomas, interview with Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke, Oxford, 27th July 1998, ed. Pallares-Burke as “Keith Thomas” in eadem, The New History: confessions and conversations (Cambridge 2002), pp. 80-105 at pp. 100-101.