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New Left Review I/201, September-October 1993


Penelope J. Corfield

E.P. Thompson, the Historian: an Appreciation

Edward Thompson was a remarkable person and a great historian. That does not mean that he was always right or that later generations will always read his works in the same ways. But he was wonderfully creative and original, full of pioneering insights, with his own distinctive style and interpretation. As a result, he became one of the most influential British historians of modern times. Moreover, he was a polymath—a man of letters, political campaigner, polemicist, and theorist as well as student of the past [1] 1 E.P. Thompson’s major historical publications include William Morris: Romantic toRevolutionary, London 1955; revised 1977; The Making of the English Working Class, London 1963; Harmondsworth 1968; and many later edns; Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, London 1975; with D. Hay, P. Linebaugh and others, Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England, London 1975; Customs in Common, London 1991; and Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, Cambridge 1993. In addition, he wrote a novel, numerous essays on current affairs, disarmament, history,and theory, memoirs of his brother and father, a critique of the early days of Warwick University (where for a time he headed the Centre for the Study of Social History) as well as brilliant and sometimes devastating private letters, which deserve publication in themselves, to his wide circle of friends.—a remarkable combination that is unique among contemporary historians. Perhaps the closest comparison is with a figure from an earlier generation—R.H. Tawney, who was like him both a historian and a theoretician of the Left. In both men, there was a strong moral dimension to their history and politics. However, the comparisons are not exact. Edward Thompson was a more passionate and public figure than was Tawney, although both were able to inspire others through their teaching and writing—which is a great gift.

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