Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Boreham's Call for Human-Centred History

Teaching By Examples
In commem-orating the centenary of the completion of Macaulay’s History of England, F W Boreham sought to explain the “extraordinary sensation” that the book had upon its readers.[1] He believed its success could be in part attributed to Macaulay’s human-centred approach to the writing of history.[2] Borrowing Lord Macaulay’s definition, he stated, “History is Philosophy Teaching By Examples”.[3]

Communicate the Human Element
Boreham frequently called for historical writing that contained the human element that was evident in good fiction. For instance, he once commented: “One sometimes wishes that the average novelist and the average historian could be shaken up in a bag and their qualities distributed. The result would probably lend a new grandeur to fiction and a new realism to history”.[4]

Passion for the Personal
In an editorial entitled ‘Passion for the personal’, Boreham said, “We humans have an insatiable passion for personalities. It is the dominant factor in our conversation and our correspondence”.[5] The importance of ‘the personal equation’ was, according to Boreham, one of the reasons why the writing of history must deal primarily with people’s stories. The human-centred approach to history gave good scope for writing in concrete language about the admirable virtues and qualities that a person embodied. Boreham’s passion for personalities found expression in the number of historical editorials he wrote in which abstract principles were clothed and movements found expression in the colourful stories of human lives.

Individuals as Representative Figures
While Boreham wrote numerous editorials on one person, his aim was not only to inspire individual readers but also to let his subject serve as a representative figure who embodied a national aspiration or a type of the ideal human.[6] Levin elaborated upon this approach when saying, “The representative man was both an historical phenomenon and a literary device. For an age that glorified individualism, for historians who emphasised moral responsibility and to whom self-reliance was a moral duty, the historical character had to be influential”.[7] Boreham illustrated the way that the passion for personalities is the same impulse that drives people to associate the name of a person with a historical movement or tradition in the following manner:

“In recalling some impressive period of human history, we instinctively summon to the mind the face and features of some outstanding individual. Our naval traditions become incarnate in the heroic figure of Nelson; the abolition of slavery automatically recalls the dwarfish frame of William Wilberforce; the industrial revolution expresses itself in the thought of Lord Shaftesbury. In contrast with all the other sacred books, the Bible consists of a ceaseless pageant of personal records, and the redemption of the world is revealed in a thorn-crowned face.”[8]

Crystallized History
Asking the famous question, ‘What’s in a name?’ Boreham argued that if in ordinary life names are more than mere identification tags then how much more meaning do names possess in history? Referring to the way names may signify movements and personify traditions, he wrote, “Names are crystallized history; they stir the blood like trumpet calls and bugle blasts; they are pregnant with significance and challenge”.[9]

Geoff Pound

Image: Human-Centred history

[1] Boreham, Mercury, 1 October 1949.
[2] Thomas Carlyle makes a similar endorsement about the writings of Walter Scott, saying Scott’s world was “actually filled by living men… not abstraction”. Thomas Carlyle, ‘Sir Walter Scott’, Thomas Carlyle's collected works, Vol. 5 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1869) 275.
[3] Boreham, Mercury, 1 October 1949.
[4] Boreham, Age, 4 January 1947; Age, 1 October 1949.
[5] Boreham, Mercury, 8 September 1956.
[6] This was a popular historical and literary device employed by essayists and historians. Emerson, in many of his essays, focused on such representative men in articles entitled, ‘Plato, or the philosopher’, Swedenborg, or the mystic’, ‘Montaigne, or the sceptic’ and ‘Shakespeare, or the poet’. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson comprising his essays, lectures, poems, and orations vol. 1 (London: Bell and Daldy, 1866), 288-311, 311-335, 335-352, 352-365.
[7] Levin, History as romantic art: Bancroft, Motley, and Parkman, 51.
[8] Boreham, Mercury, 8 September 1956.
[9] Boreham, Mercury, 24 September 1927.