The word amateur comes from a Latin word meaning ‘lover.’ In modern parlance, it stands in opposition to the word ‘professional.’ The basic difference in today’s common usage is that the professional does what they do for money while the amateur does it for the love of doing it. This usually implies that the professional makes money because they adhere to recognized standards, while the amateur stands outside the accepted standards and probably doesn’t deserve to get paid.
None of this exactly gets to what I mean by the word.
For one reason or another (and I really haven’t yet worked through what the reason may be), my favorite historians are not professionals. That certainly doesn’t mean (in most cases) that they didn’t get paid for their historical writing. What I mean by ‘not professional’ is that they were not academics: they were not paid students and professors of history, they were not operating in the continuum of a university setting. They were not entitled by their education and position to be ‘historians.’ They just did it anyway. But they did it remarkably well, and also usually managed to get paid.
There are six portraits in the header of this blog. Five of them are amateur historians (by my definition). The sixth portrait is a cheat – it’s Napoleon, who as far as I know wrote no history unless we count his memoirs, which are in any case unreadable. He was a professional soldier, but in everything else (and in his case ‘everything else’ is a whole lot) he was the consummate amateur.
Barbara Tuchman, who appears in the first portrait in the header, is the most perfect example of what I mean by amateur historian. She took her undergraduate degree in history and literature from Radcliffe in 1933, and went on her way. By her own account, she did not begin writing history until fifteen years later, after a good deal of travel and journalism, marriage, and the birth of her three daughters. Many years after starting to write history, she became a trustee of Radcliffe and a lecturer at Harvard, the University of California, and the Naval War College — but that was the result of her independent work as an historian, not a prerequisite for it. She wrote many works of history, and won Pulitzer Prizes for two of them: The Guns of August and Stillwell: The American Experience in China, as well as a National Book Award for A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.
The second portrait is of Jared Diamond, a bird biologist. He nonetheless contributed one of the finest works of global history, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, and its sequel, Collapse. Guns, Germs and Steel suffers from having a terrible title – the subtitle, The Fate of Human Societies should have been enough. It also suffers from a terrible PBS ‘interpretation.’ Nonetheless, it provides a surprising but compelling context for all works of history that came before and have come since, and deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize.
The third portrait is of Thucydides, an Athenian general of the fifth century B.C.E. In Western Civilization, only Herodotus comes earlier (at least in the works that survive), but no one seeking to record the memory of momentous events has had the impact on the practice of history that Thucydides has had. His History of the Peloponnesian War shows clearly that the concerns and the behavior of people 2,500 years ago were no different than those of our own day.
The fourth portrait is of Winston Churchill. He is best known for his time as Prime Minister in World War II. Although he was a soldier, a journalist, and a painter, his career as a parliamentarian will always be his best-remembered role. But he also wrote histories of his famous ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, of World War I and World War II, and of the English-speaking peoples.
The fifth portrait, of T. E. Lawrence, probably deserves some additional explanation. Like Napoleon, the only history he wrote were memoirs of his service in war. He was careful to say of his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, that he hoped ‘no one mistake for history the bones from which some day a man may make history.’ He was also ‘given the leisure’ in 1919-1920 to write his tale by All Souls College, Oxford. But in my opinion, no professional historian at any time would have produced a volume like The Seven Pillars. If, as Lawrence claimed, it is less than history, it is also something more. I choose to split the difference and put Lawrence together with Thucydides and Churchill.
As I said above, I’m not sure what it is about these enlightened amateurs that makes their works of history so appealing; but it has happened so many times now that I must believe there is something especially trustworthy and compelling about history written for love.