Synopses & Reviews
From one of our most acclaimed historians, a wise and provocative call to re-examine the way we look at the past: not merely as the story of incessant conflict between groups but also of human solidarity throughout the ages.
Investigating the six most salient categories of human identity, difference, and confrontation—religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization—David Cannadine questions just how determinative each of them has really been. For while each has motivated people dramatically at particular moments, they have rarely been as pervasive, as divisive, or as important as is suggested by such simplified polarities as “us versus them,” “black versus white,” or “the clash of civilizations.” For most of recorded time, these identities have been more fluid and these differences less unbridgeable than political leaders, media commentators—and some historians—would have us believe. Throughout history, in fact, fruitful conversations have continually taken place across these allegedly impermeable boundaries of identity: the world, as Cannadine shows, has never been simply and starkly divided between any two adversarial solidarities but always an interplay of overlapping constituencies.
Yet our public discourse is polarized more than ever around the same simplistic divisions, and Manichean narrative has become the default mode to explain everything that is happening in the world today. With wide-ranging erudition, David Cannadine compellingly argues against the pervasive and pernicious idea that conflict is the inevitable state of human affairs. The Undivided Past is an urgently needed work of history, one that is also about the present—and the future.
"Readers able to navigate the dense roundabout writing style of historian/Princeton lecturer Cannadine (Mellon: An American Life) will find a complex, thoughtful examination of the fundamental ways in which humanity divides itself. While these all stem from an innate 'us vs. them' mentality, Cannadine takes the investigation a step further, looking at how we think of ourselves in terms of religion, class, nation, race, gender, and civilization. Even then, he points out that it's never as simple as 'man vs. woman' or 'Christian vs. Muslim' a wide variety of factors can create numerous factions and differences within any grouping. Indeed, he speaks out against the 'misleading but widespread practice' of 'totalizing,' or 'describing and defining individuals by their membership of one group.' It's all a build-up for his conclusion: 'We need to see beyond our differences... to embrace and to celebrate the common humanity that has always bound us together.' Unfortunately, the message may be lost due to Cannadine's penchant for words, complex sentences, alliteration, and thesaurus abuse. It might make for a great lecture, but easy reading it isn't. Determined scholars, however, will be rewarded for their persistence. Agent: Michael Carlisle, Inkwell Management." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
From one of our most acclaimed historians, an account of human solidarity throughout the ages, provocatively arguing against the received wisdom that history is best understood as a chronicle of groups in conflict.
Investigating the six most pervasive categories of human difference--religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization--Cannadine asks how determinative each of them has really been over the course of history. Without denying their power to motivate populations dramatically at particular moments, he reveals that in the long term none has proved remotely as divisive as the occasional absolutist cries of "us vs. them" (Christian vs. Muslim during the Crusades--and now; landed gentry versus peasantry during the Bolshevik Revolution; Jews vs. "Aryan race" in Nazi Germany, etc.) would suggest. For most of recorded time, these same "unbridgeable" differences were experienced as just one identity among others; and so whatever most chroniclers, self-serving mythmakers, and demagogues would have us believe, history needs to be reimagined to include the countless fruitful interactions across these lines, usually left out of the picture.
About the Author
Sir David Cannadine was born in Birmingham, England, in 1950 and educated at Cambridge, Oxford, and Princeton. He is the author of many acclaimed books, including The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, G. M. Trevelyan, History in Our Time, Class in Britain, Ornamentalism,
. He has taught at Cambridge and Columbia Universities and has also served as director of the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. He is currently Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University.