Thursday, May 5, 2022

Did Anyone Actually Read Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers?

I have recently remarked what makes for a nonfiction bestseller generally--which, of course, leaves little space for anything that could be called "history." Of course, we do see history reach a wider audience--but only within that demand the public makes for the affirmative and the entertaining. Thus it is what Michael Parenti called gentlemen's history--history by, of and for the comfortable, who are supposed to feel comfortable during and after reading it; history which is conservative and "patriotic" (in the sense of loyalty to those in power, rather than to their country's well-being) and in line with all that self-congratulatory (from the standpoint of the elite in question).

Meanwhile, in its tending to be Great Man-centered it tends toward the personal and the narrative--to, indeed, being biography rather than history. (As A.J.P. Taylor remarked the two genres are actually very different--in the former the individual everything and society nothing; in the latter, the individual nothing and society everything.) It also tends toward, even while presenting its figures in a heroic light, also the gossipy. (Taylor remarked, too, that a "glamorous sex life" was a prerequisite for a successful biography.)

As Jeremy Black demonstrates all of this translates over to military history, which is dominated by biography-memoir-operational account--by the Great Captain subgenre of the Great Man genre, in which such Captains are presented as the dominating figures of the Decisive Battles of History, the same battles over and over and over again (with Britain's portion of the Napoleonic Wars, the U.S. Civil War, and the portions of the two world wars those countries experienced pretty much it for the more popular market in Britain and the U.S.).

One may add that, even in comparison with much other history, it tends especially heavily to the conservative and patriotic--to the hero-worship of generals, nationalistic flag-waving and the rest.

All of this was much on my mind when considering the reception of Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. Certainly a work of history, and very reasonably readable as a work of military history, it stayed on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list for 34 weeks--in spite of its being a very different book indeed. Far from offering personal narrative in it Kenndy presents an academic thesis resting on a detailed examination of five hundred years of Western and world history, where the "characters" are not individuals but entire nations and empires, whose development and clashing, ascent and descent, are construed not as the deeds of so-called Great Men, but the hard material facts of geography, technology, demographics, of industries and institutions. Of battles, campaign and wars there are plenty, but little of tactics and strategy and even less of generalship, with what really mattered the way resources, and the matching of resources to objects, told in the crunch.

Covering so much territory even in a seven hundred page volume, of course, means that Kennedy treats any one bit in only so much detail (as is the more evident if one compares it to, for example, his earlier, Britain-focused treatment of the same theme in The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery, which I recommend highly to anyone interested in the subject, by the way). Still, the quantitative data alone is, by the standard of popular works, immense, as testified by the inclusion of over fifty charts and tables, with the academic character of the work underlined by the 83 pages of notes and 38 pages of bibliography appended to the over five hundred page main text. Kennedy writes clearly and well, but it is an undeniably data-heavy, analytically-oriented work, with no attempt to enliven the proceedings with what an editor might call "color."

And of course, it was anything but self-congratulatory in the sense discussed here.

Considering Kennedy's book I find myself also considering another major--and similarly unstereotypical--bestseller of 1988, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Hawking's book was much shorter (256 pages to the 677 pages of Kennedy's book), and while intellectual hierarchy-addicted morons such as Hollywood writes for take it as a given that physics is the most demanding field of intellectual endeavor, the reality is that even by pop science standards it seemed to me "easy," while I might add, Hawking's tone was sprightly. He clearly meant to produce a book that a broad audience could get something out of, and in my view did so. Kennedy's book most certainly did not. The result is that, if Hawking's book is, as I have seen it called, the most widely-selling unread book in history, I would imagine that very few bothered to read Kennedy's book all the way through--an opinion that Kennedy himself seems to share. He has publicly remarked--joked?--that he didn't "think many people read more than the final chapter on the US and the USSR"--and I would imagine that many more simply knew the alleged contents of the chapter secondhand.

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