➻ John Burrow [1935-2009]

por Teoría de la historia

John Burrow ha sido uno de los historiadores intelectuales más admirados de Inglaterra. Fue profesor de Historia intelectual en la Universidad de Sussex desde 1981 hasta 1995 y profesor de Pensamiento europeo en Oxford desde 1995 a 2000. Sus primeros libros incluyen Evolution and Society: A Study in Victorian Social Theory (1966), A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (1981), que ganó el Wolfson Prize de Historia, Gibbon (1984) y La crisis de la razón, publicado por Crítica en 2001. Es fellow de la British Academy, y fellow emérito del Balliol College, Oxford. En 2008 fue distinguido como visiting fellow en el William College, Massachussets.

[Fuente: Crítica Editorial]

“History is the record of what one age finds of interest in another.” John Burrow, who has died of cancer aged 74, was fond of this dictum (by the 19th-century historian Jacob Burckhardt), and his own work illuminated its truth with unparalleled virtuosity. His talents were displayed to a broad readership in his highly successful A History of Histories (2007), a panoramic study of historiography from ancient Greece to the present. In this work, Burrow’s wide learning, warm responsiveness and literary skill enabled him to recapture the ambitions and anxieties that led writers in different ages and cultures to try to recover and reanimate some part of the human past. The book was a triumph: it achieved the unprecedented feat of encompassing, authoritatively and lucidly, 2,500 years of historical writing, without sacrificing the distinctiveness and idiosyncrasy of the works it explored. Burrow’s interest in the ways that individuals and societies thought about the past was a unifying theme across a body of work that made him one of the most highly regarded intellectual historians of his generation. His assured first book, Evolution and Society (1966), challenged the assumption that the prevalence of social-evolutionary thinking in Victorian Britain was down to the influence of Darwin. Instead, Burrow showed, with some brio, how the limitations of earlier political theories provoked an anthropological interest in the growth of different social forms, arranged in a developmental sequence. English historians writing about the national past formed the focus of his next major work, A Liberal Descent: Victorian Historians and the English Past (which won the Wolfson prize for 1981), perhaps the most satisfying and perfectly achieved of his books. In it, he engaged not only with the political resonances of Whig historians’ interpretation of the national story, but with a whole sensibility, which connected their work to Gothic architecture and to historical novels and genre painting. His ear was alive to the powerful tonal effects achieved by historians such as Lord Macaulay or James Anthony Froude, and his own writing was in no way intimidated by the lushness or sentimentalism of high Victorian prose. Later works, mining related seams, included a short study of Edward Gibbon (1985), in the Past Masters series; Whigs and Liberals (1988, based on Burrow’s Carlyle lectures at Oxford University); and a dazzling exploration of European thought in the second half of the 19th century, The Crisis of Reason (2000). Burrow’s writing was renowned for its elegance, subtlety and wit, but his work is distinguished above all by its combination of intellectual penetration and imaginative sympathy, all informed by an uninhibited vitality. Burrow spent most of his early life in Devon and went to school in Exeter. A man of deep loyalties and attachments, he retained a special affection for his Devonian roots. He was the only child of parents who, though not themselves the beneficiaries of any extended formal education, indulged his early bookishness, and he won a scholarship to Christ’s College, Cambridge, in 1954, to read history. After obtaining firsts in both parts of the history tripos, he embarked on a PhD and soon won a research fellowship at Christ’s. But at a time when the discipline in Britain was dominated by the self-conscious hard-headedness of political and administrative historians, Burrow’s early interest in the history of ideas left him feeling a little marginal, a feeling exacerbated by being passed over for permanent appointments in Cambridge. In 1965 he took up a post at the then new University of East Anglia, moving in 1969 to the University of Sussex, becoming professor of intellectual history there in 1982. Sussex in the 1970s was a congenial and stimulating environment for someone of Burrow’s wide and eclectic intellectual and literary tastes. He helped to establish both BA and master’s degrees in intellectual history, making Sussex the first, and for many years the only, university to offer such courses. Together with his Sussex colleagues (and close friends), myself and Donald Winch, he co-wrote That Noble Science of Politics: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Intellectual History (1983), which challenged the orthodoxies that tended to dominate approaches to the history of the social sciences. We three authors were often identified as the core of “the Sussex school”, a misleading label but one that signalled a shared aversion to schematic and overly rationalised ways of addressing, and often appropriating, the intellectual life of the past. In 1995, Burrow took up the newly founded chair in European thought at Oxford University, becoming a fellow of Balliol College. His tenure was somewhat clouded by a controversy over the funding of this post, which was eventually withdrawn, with the result that the chair was suppressed on his retirement in 2000, an outcome that left him with an abiding sense of regret. A History of Histories, the fruit of his retirement, brought Burrow’s gifts to the attention of a wider audience, but he had long received the recognition of his peers. He was elected to the Royal Historical Society (1971) and to the British Academy (1986), and awarded an honorary degree by the University of Bologna in 1987; he held visiting posts at the University of California, Berkeley, the Australian National University, the University of British Columbia, Williams College, Massachussetts, and All Souls College, Oxford. But, for all these marks of professional distinction, Burrow cultivated his interests in a manner that recalled an earlier, less professionalised age. He published almost nothing in learned journals; he hated and shunned conferences; he did not fill his footnotes with references to the work of others (though he had often read it). He was learned, impressively so, but in the way in which a private scholar might be, reading widely in his own library, rather than as an up-to-date authority in a “field”. It was of a piece with this identity that he found academic administration a trial; though it must be said that even the most well-disposed colleagues could find his idiosyncratic performance of such duties something of a trial, too. Mastery of a filing cabinet eluded him, and he was never on amicable terms with any form of technology. In 1958, he married Diane Dunnington; they had two children, Laurence and Francesca. Burrow took great delight in his children and, later, his grandchildren, even if his friends sometimes suspected he improved their childish bons mots in the retelling. At home, he cooked for victory (though his kitchen might not have pleased the health and safety inspectors), and enjoyed the pleasures of the table with undisguised enthusiasm. It was a matter of pride for him to maintain a shockingly unhealthy way of life (especially when teasing tiresomely healthy friends), and he nursed his high cholesterol level as sedulously as any athlete does his fitness. Above all, he loved convivial gatherings of all kinds, where he could be unstoppably talkative, hilariously amusing and unselfconsciously egotistical in equal measure. It was impossible not to admire and respond to his sharp intelligence, his verbal exuberance, his quick sympathy and his sheer vitality. In his final two years he bore the disfigurement and indignity of a painful cancer with impressive resolution and grace. He was remarkable, he was lovable, he was infuriating; most of all, he was fun. He is survived by Diane, and by his children and grandchildren.

[Stefan COLLINI. “John Burrow Obituary”, in The Guardian, 17 de noviembre de 2009]