In large measure, the experience of a common, cooperative humanity is to conventional historians what “good news” is to journalists: an accepted reality too lacking in drama to be interesting. What V.S. Naipaul termed “that missing large idea of human association” is the overarching subject of Sir David Cannadine’s The Undivided Past: Humanity Beyond Our Differences.

“They take it for granted and do not write about it,” says Cannadine, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University. “But historically, there is quite a lot of good news.”

Cannadine mines the strata of religion, nation, class, gender, race and “civilization” to critique the persistence of thinking in terms of arbitrary group “identities” that set us in opposition.

“While they are often adversarial, most people do not live out their lives within the context of these us-vs.-them identities,” he says.

At first blush, the notion that we exaggerate animosities and fail to recognize how cooperation, at least as much as conflict, has marked humanity’s experience, may appear a rather mundane observation.

Even Cannadine suspects there are critics who will say about his new book, “‘Well, it’s all completely true but it’s such a banal observation and there’s not a lot that we can do with it,’” as Cannadine puts it. “But it seems to me there was a case to be made for trying to lay out as fully as I could the arguments for each of these modes of identity,” he adds, “and to present them side by side in a way that I don’t think anyone, as far as I know, has done before.”
The author of 14 books, Cannadine has taught at Cambridge and Columbia Universities, as well as at the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London. Born in Birmingham, England in 1950, he was educated at Cambridge, Oxford and Princeton Universities. From 2005 until relinquishing his post last summer, he served as Chair of Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.

Cannadine’s contrasting perspective on the role of historians reflects, to some degree, changes he has observed in the profession.

“The study of history has changed enormously,” he says. “I started out as a young researcher and graduate student in 1972.” Social history was “fashionable,” as Cannadine puts it, then. So was economic history. “Quantification was all the rage; if you couldn’t count it you shouldn’t write about it. Those were modes of history being presented as rebellion against what was argued to be very parochial, high-political history and also the very arid history of international relations, which according to this view of things, had prevailed from the 1900s through the 1950s.”

Since then, says Cannadine, social and economic histories of this sort have faded from view.

“There has been the history of women, the history of race, the history of gender and the history of culture. All have become hugely important. Also, history written within the framework of a single nation has been much challenged by global history. The sense of global history is now high on the agenda. To some degree at least, my book is influenced by that set of developments. It’s a book I could not have written 40 years ago.”    

Cannadine, among whose books is the biography G.M. Trevelyan: A Life in History, says the idea for his latest history emerged from several sources, not least the “preliminary tryout” of delivering the Trevelyan Lectures in the University of Cambridge in 2006.Cannadine Cover

“It was also partly sparked by the events of 9/11 and by the ratcheting up of adversarial rhetoric that came out of that on both sides,” he adds. “It seemed to me that was, and is, not a very helpful way of looking at the world, because it is so grotesquely over-simplified and does not do justice to the much more complex realities of how people see themselves and see themselves in relation to others. In some sense, the book is a plea to be aware of these reductive and often very dangerous modes of thought so often contributed to by politicians, religious leaders, military figures and, in some cases, journalists and historians.” 

Cannadine’s writing regimen typically involves a brisk first draft followed by seven or eight revisions. Throughout, the work is guided by a strong sense of his audience, namely “this much-maligned creature the intelligent general reader.” He is also keen to make each book different from the one before, and believes The Undivided Past is a more engaged and contemporary work than any he has produced.

“It is in some ways a very deeply felt book because it is trying to make the case about how we ought to see the world,” he says. “Though not the sort of book one should write too often, it is a book at which one should have a go at least once in one’s life. It’s a rather broad landscape of historical evidence and material. I suppose there is a sense in which this book, more than any other I have written, might actually have an impact on how we see the world now. I hope it does.”

Bill Thompson writes about literature and film.