A Life in History tells the inside story of these now classic works – the Agesequence of Revolution, Capital and Extremes, Industry and Empire (my favourite), The Invention of Tradition, Nations and Nationalism, and so on. Will they last? Hobsbawm, ironic and realistic, assumed not: everything is there to be overtaken. Certainly, some gaps are obvious already. He never really “got” nationalism and he despised postmodernism. Disappointingly, his left-over party instinct couldn’t forgive the indiscipline of the women’s movement for charging passionately forward without waiting for the revolution. In the same way, the fractured “me” politics of identity choices made him despair.
This means that Richard Evans had an untilled field before him. Based on unrestricted access to Hobsbawm’s personal archive, this is one of those doorstopper biographies that can get published in Britain even when the subject is a historian. It clocks in at 662 pages of text and another eighty or so of notes. No stone goes unturned, but the book tilts towards the early life, with four chapters (259 pages) on the last fifty (yes, fifty) years, but five chapters (351 pages) on the three decades between 1933, when the 16-year-old Eric arrived in Britain, and 1962, the year of his second marriage and of the publication of The Age of Revolution, his first bestseller and the model for all his later work. Evans does a workmanlike job with those later years, but his real contribution is to have pieced together an account of the more conflicted early decades, and to have done his best – given that he is not one of nature’s biographers – to elucidate what he calls Hobsbawm’s ‘inner life’. I very much doubt this is the last word on Hobsbawm – after all, A.J.P. Taylor’s students and admirers found it necessary to produce three biographies of that earlier celebrity historian – but anyone coming afterwards will have to start from Evans’s prodigious and revelatory work.
The final chapter in Richard Evans’s exemplary account of an exemplary life, is entitled “National Treasure”, and in 1997 Hobsbawm duly became a Companion of Honour. Why did this notoriously unrepentant communist, convinced republican (we are told), and historian of Invented Traditions (symbolised on the cover of the Canto Classics edition by a bowler hat) accept an insignia which incorporates the imperial crown? The “my mother would have wanted me to” excuse is suspiciously de rigueur (see Isaiah Berlin, etc.). Perhaps, in some ironic way, the Ruritainian flummery of the decoration appealed to the residual Mitteleuropean in him? More likely it affirmed a profound emotional investment in English identity.
...what must be the fullest account of an extraordinarily rich and varied life. His book is very long and very detailed, affectionate but not always uncritical. Too long perhaps, but it is good to have such a full and generous biography of a man who was constantly aware that he lived in interesting, if fractured, times. The biography too is, quite rightly, written for the general reader, though I doubt if anyone sufficiently interested in Hobsbawm and history needs to have Keynes identified as an economist.
This is an immensely impressive biography, quarried from extensive original research in archive collections in (appropriately) several countries. Evans, a distinguished historian of modern Germany, provides clear and well-informed accounts of the various historiographical and other controversies that Hobsbawm was involved in, from time to time gently correcting the old master’s memory in the light of the documentary record. Drawing on Hobsbawm’s vast collection of personal papers, diaries and unpublished writings, he gives a richly detailed picture of his subject’s first four decades (if you want to know the names of the small towns between which the young Hobsbawm hitchhiked in France in the 1930s, Evans is your man), as well as a sympathetic, if inevitably more selective, narrative of his later career.
This is an excellent book. Like Hobsbawm’s own works, it should be read by anyone with a serious interest in history — though those of us with a frivolous interest in the rackety life of Bohemian London will also enjoy it.
Many of Hobsbawm’s wide-ranging historical works will be of interest for a long time to come. But the guiding principle of his life – his communism – will be of interest only in the way that most readers will see it here: as a psychological case-study in wishful self-identification and pitiful self-deception.
The great accomplishment of Richard J Evans’s brilliantly crafted Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History is how he takes us into the private, inner world of the master historian.
Evans focuses primarily on Hobsbawm’s “personal experiences”: the orphan, cast adrift into semi-alien lands in Germany and then England; the bored and lonely sapper in the war, confined to Norfolk, Dorset and the Isle of Wight; the lover, whose affair with a married student led to the birth of a child, Joshua, in 1958; the devoted husband and father who read Tintin books aloud to his kids, shouting “Blistering barnacles!” as Captain Haddock, and who, according to his daughter Julia, “could really veg out” in front of the TV; or the “cranky, warrior-like” teacher who insisted students must always choose a side, so long as it was the right one. Evans also gets behind the magic of Hobsbawm’s literary output, detailing the messy business of book contracts, agents and editors, as well as the (almost unbelievable) instances when manuscripts were rejected or projects were left unfinished.
Despite some indulgences, Evans is fair. The more you look through Hobsbawm’s voluminous works – the books (rarely out of print), academic articles, journalism, broadcasts, lectures, plus a submerged mass of unpublished letters, essays and diaries – the more you see that, yes, he could be an evil sod, but not all the time... This is fun, but in general there’s too much dull detail here about publishers’ advances, run-ins with university managements, the Italian communist party, and the vast extended Hobsbawm clan. I was, though, tickled by the inclusion, economic history style, of a line chart detailing Hobsbawm’s income and expenditure over his career.
This biography, by one of Hobsbawm’s acolytes, which it is as well to say outright is tedious almost beyond endurance, stops short of hagiography but is clearly designed to boost the posthumous reputation of a man who cared nothing for the wreckage caused by the political system that he worshipped. Hobsbawm – nauseatingly referred to as “Eric” throughout – exemplifies the moral degeneracy of so many British intellectuals who still hold that Stalinists are cosy and comprehensible, undeserving of the pariah status rightly accorded to anyone claiming there was something to be said for Hitler. But then Evans makes the grotesque assertion that “of course, fascism, unlike communism, was a political creed characterised by anti-intellectualism”. Stalin, “of course”, had a regard for intellectuals. One wonders why he had so many thousands of them shot.
Although Evans supplies engaging chapters on Hobsbawm’s early years and a sympathetic portrait of his two marriages, there is not a great deal that warrants such a lengthy and highly detailed account. Much of the second half of the book records Hobsbawm’s occasionally vexed dealings with publishers. Many pages are given over to his ascent into the vanished world of haute bourgeois academia. There are recurrent passages describing how he was put under surveillance by the British security services, which helped give him an attractive aura of persecution.
On a personal level, Hobsbawm could be warm, loyal, generous and kind. But he was also arrogant. He “never liked being bested in matters of knowledge”, he could be a “cranky, irritable man”, he did not suffer fools gladly, he was contemptuous of political correctness and he did not mince his words. Most of all, he was a public intellectual of rare ability and range — in his ideas, his writings and his audience. He made a huge impact on millions of people around the world, and it is this that Evans, in this honest and riveting biography, makes clear.
Evans is powerfully convincing and invincibly fair in all that he writes. Hobsbawm’s two marriages, his interest in jazz and in strip clubs, and his affairs (one with a druggy Soho sex-worker) are recounted in a calm and proportionate manner without a touch of salacity. There is nothing sugary in Evans’s account of Hobsbawm’s marriage to Marlene Schwarz in 1962; but he gives a quietly beautiful picture of a strong bond between two remarkable people. It is pleasant to imagine Hobsbawm, who came to parenthood late, reading Tintin books aloud to his children and shouting Captain Haddock’s exclamation: ‘Blistering barnacles!’...Whenever I encountered him, there was a gentle, musing smile on his face. He radiated grateful contentment. Reading Evans’s account of his domestic life, one understands why.
Although Evans sometimes tries too hard to dazzle us with Hobsbawm’s erudition, his psychological portrait of an awkward young man is splendidly drawn... Evans makes no secret of his fondness for his subject, and Hobsbawm emerges from this superbly researched book as a genuinely learned and generous man. What is striking, though, is how lucky he was... Hobsbawm never saw action during the war, never suffered for his political beliefs and spent his working life lecturing to adoring audiences...
Evans is honest enough to include some absolutely shaming moments... doorstop of a book, some 785 pages. An over-zealous researcher, Evans does not know how to sift material... we have more or less every book the teenage Eric... and this prolix approach is followed throughout Hobsbawm’s not especially interesting life. Clearly, for Evans, Hobsbawm was a historian in the grand league ... but nothing in Evans’s hundreds of sloppily written pages persuaded me to think he is right... The fascinating story that this book does not sufficiently explore is how the liberal intelligentsia came to endorse the Marxist world view...