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Present as past : forms of contemporary history in Britain, 1750-1835 Smith, Dale

Abstract

This study is concerned with identifying and tracking, across a set of disparate genres and forms of writing, a shared preoccupation with the representation of the historical present. This element of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century British historiography has not been recognized by intellectual historians, even though it ran parallel to and intersected with other forms of historical-mindedness that privileged more remote periods of the past. In various forms of writing - the novel, conventional history, anecdotal biography, the periodical register, "present states", antiquarian surveys, and the early social science of statistics - there appears to be an historiographical re-orientation towards representing contemporaneity. This trans-generic assemblage of authors and texts does not directly fit within the available frameworks which have characterized the history of British historical thought and writing during the period from 1750 to the end of the 1830s. Yet they share something in common, and once these connections are established, seemingly disparate texts such as Tobias Smollett's "Continuation of the Complete History of England" (1760- 5) and Sir John Sinclair's "Statistical Account of Scotland" (1791-9) appear as a part of a wider historiographical spectrum. Central to all of the genres outlined in this study is a sustained comparison between past and present, as well as a frequent prospective look towards the future. Rather than a shift to the remote past that many historians have argued took place after 1750, a re-configured tradition of contemporary history became an important part of the British historiographical landscape. In this modification of the Thucydidean classical model, contemporary history became a mode of social and cultural description that stretched beyond the neoclassical politico-military narrative. Moreover, in mapping the broad contours of contemporary history during this period, a set of writings not normally seen as historiographical have been re-positioned within this framework. Seen from this new perspective, such texts and projects should be seen as equally important for our understanding of the wider historical sense of eighteenth and nineteenth-century Britain as they are to understanding other emerging human and social sciences.

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