Take Niall Ferguson, for example. The Pity of War, his controversial reassessment of the First World War, met with both rapturous praise and protracted criticism when it was first published. Much of the negative reaction to the book could be justified on entirely scholarly grounds. Some did not care for his unorthodox conclusions, while others did not think they were adequately supported by the facts. Yet more scholars took issue with his use of the counterfactual to elucidate tricky historical questions; to them his mode of analysis was little more than a parlour game. There are legitimate historical defences of his work too, but the point I wish to make is this: a great deal of the criticism Ferguson received seemed to be based on little more than a dislike of his tone.
Here was a young, energetic historian writing a bold, revisionist work, but all many could think to say in criticism was that he did so in an entirely unbecoming manner. His writing seemed too showy, too glib – too much like journalism. But there was something that these critics had overlooked: the effect of Ferguson’s book on those who operated outside of academic circles.
Ferguson’s book was one of the first works of ‘serious history’ I ever read, and its effect on me was electrifying. Irrespective of his arguments (which, it must be said, were dynamic and exciting in and of themselves), the book was elegantly and engagingly written; it seemed like a literary achievement – and that was true regardless of all that was said about its historical merits.