Here’s a cultural paradox: Even as American universities and their students are fleeing history at a frightful rate, movies, at least of the sort that contend for awards, are digging ever deeper into nooks and crannies of the past. On the academic front, the Harvard scholar Niall Ferguson has described some trends that should depress anyone who would rather study history than repeat it. Accepting an award from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni late last year, Ferguson, in remarks entitled The Decline and Fall of History, noted that the study of history is collapsing at U. S. colleges “faster than Gibbon’s Roman Empire.” The most recent available data shows the number of history undergraduate degrees to be dropping at roughly 10 percent a year, with even steeper declines in the most prestigious colleges. Overall, the percentage of degrees awarded in history and the social sciences dropped from 18 percent of the total in 1971 to 9 percent in 2014. In addition, said Ferguson, the count of history majors kept by the American Historical Association shows that the number of degrees in that discipline will be even lower by 2018. But the movies are another story. Anyone who follows film has been struck by the long list of titles that have been mining the past, often in search of overlooked stories that seem to delight or instruct in ways that, presumably, academic history does not. Last year brought Hidden Figures, about forgotten African-American women who contributed to the space race, and Hacksaw Ridge, about a heroic conscientious objector during World War II. The list of prominent historical dramas on Oscar rolls in the past five years is too long, and familiar, to repeat. 12 Years A Slave, The Revenant, Argo, Bridge of Spies, The Imitation Game and a dozen others have either won the film world’s top prizes or came close. By early fall, as Prof. Ferguson and his colleagues’ peer anxiously at the empty seats in their lecture halls, film festivals and guild screening rooms will again ring with debate about the reliability and import of history-based dramas like Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, about that city’s 1967 riot; or Stephen Frears’ Victoria and Abdul, about Queen Victoria and her relationship with an Indian clerk; or Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall, about the young Thurgood Marshall’s role in a racially charged rape case. In their weaker moments, some of those films will commit the cardinal sin of anachronism. As described by Ferguson, that is “an impulse to judge the past by the moral standards of the present—and indeed to efface its traces, in a kind of modern-day iconoclasm, when those are deemed offensive.” But the better movies will attempt what the study of history has always done—that is, to challenge easy assumptions by bowing to the often messy facts. Thus, for instance, Marshall, set for release by Open Road Films on Oct. 13, will probe the uncomfortable realities in a 1940 court case that found a black butler, Joseph Spell, played here by Sterling K. Brown, testifying that his white employer, Eleanor Strubing, portrayed by Kate Hudson, actually invited asexual encounter they both came to regret. Was it sex without consent? Was it a racist attempt to hide an indiscretion? History, and the movies, will tell.
Hilary Mantel is a novelist of great power, wit and intelligence, one of the finest now writing in England. Her early novels were hideously funny accounts of professional families with lives verging on dysfunction. Even darker themes followed, the brilliant Beyond Black presenting a female medium beset by real fiends. Mantel’s Catholic education set her moral compass, and her experience of living in Africa and then Saudi Arabia opened up new areas of darkness in her always fierce imagination. Her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, is as remarkable as her fiction.
Unlike most historical novelists, she writes without sentimentality. Her two hefty volumes on Thomas Cromwell, brutal adviser to King Henry VIII — the King who destroyed the English monasteries and beheaded two of his six wives — have captured the British reading public and carried off all the prizes with the vigor of the narrative and minutely evoked detail of Cromwell’s day-to-day life. Amazingly, she makes a man renowned for nastiness into a sympathetic hero.
Tomalin, a biographer, has written about the lives of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen
"This is a recurring theme of revolutions. Any sort of immediate, violent change means tearing apart identities and reconfiguring the status quo—at least cosmetically—but too often the change is hijacked by the old guard. A large share of Romania’s political elite was part of th ancien régime, ruling class shaped by a totalitarian understanding of power. These leaders have a poor appreciation of parliamentary representation, a feeble capacity for cohabitation with other viewpoints, a lack of consideration for citizenship, a weakness for populist demagoguery, and a dangerous tendency to personalize all power dynamics."
"Two decades into our democratic experiment, we should by now have seen a maturation of our political elites and electorate, a refinement of our dialogue, a new wisdom in making choices, an improvement in our strategic thinking, and maybe more than anything an affirmation of professionalism. Sadly, what characterizes Romania’s present political scene is the opposite of the above. What we see is incompetence, patronage, and demagoguery. We are left with no good role models, no healthy civic culture to build upon."
"As a political scientist student eager to examine, explain, and try to predict political events, I was once excited about democracy. Now I feel the need to get out of my profession. Political journalism here means getting mixed up in a dirty game. There’s no respect for the substantive merits of ideas and policies. Writing against a idea, policy or action s considered to be writing against someone."