A well-considered life of the influential British historian, written by a Cambridge University historian who himself is well-known for many important works.
With an unusual name that came as a result of an immigration official’s misrendering of the original Obstbaum, Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) was unusually erudite at a very early age, well-traveled, and endlessly curious about the ways of the world. He took his birth in the year of the Russian Revolution as something of a talisman, and though Evans (The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, 2015, etc.) deems it a coincidence, it was “one that somehow stood as a symbol for the political commitment he was to gain later on.” Already a Marxist as a teen, though one, fellow travelers complained, more given to debate than activism, Hobsbawm was a lifelong polymath who was equally at home in the literature stacks and the historical annals. As Evans enumerates, he devoured detective novels along with the Greek tragedies and works by authors in numerous languages, from Marlowe to Chekhov and beyond. Though a professional chronicler of the past—even the FBI, of which he would run afoul, called him “a noted historian”—Hobsbawm considered himself foremost a writer. His works, such as The Age of Capital (1975), remain widely read today, marked by what Evans justly praises as “readability, analytical penetration and vivid detail." During his long life, Hobsbawm was also a Marxist critic of capitalism, if one who also resisted Stalinism and a fixed party ideology; his opposition to the Vietnam War, for instance, was fierce but nuanced. For all that, as Evans writes with some circumspection, Hobsbawm also enjoyed an active extracurricular life that included a ménage a trois as intellectual as it was physical, a surprise in a book full of them.
Evans clearly admires his subject but does not hesitate to consider the rougher edges—a book that will rightly bring new attention to both writers.