The news today is of course full of JFK commemorations, memories and ‘what if’ analyses. As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy has been creeping up on us, I’ve been reminded during my teaching this term – somewhat depressingly - of professional historians who have also died young, before achieving what it was anticipated they would achieve.
When I was an undergraduate at Lincoln College, Oxford, one of the very first books we were set was The English Face of Machiavelli, by Felix Raab (1962). The foreword, by Hugh Trevor Roper, explained that Raab had been a brilliant graduate student, set to transform an entire field, before he fell to his death in the Alps just before his doctoral viva. This cast something of a pall over the Machiavelli essay we had to write; among my undergraduate history friends at Lincoln, ‘Felix Raab’ became a short-hand for ‘doomed golden youth’. That haunting preface remained fresh in our minds, long after we had forgotten Raab’s actual argument.
One of the most useful books I came across when writing my doctoral thesis was Medieval Ecclesiastical Courts in the Diocese of Canterbury by Brian L. Woodcock (1952). This was a strikingly clear-headed, intelligent reconstruction of church courts in late medieval England, posthumously published – Woodcock had fallen ill while writing up his research, and the work was completed by his wife as a tribute to her husband. This term, when teaching early modern witchcraft, my students’ faces fell when I told them that the author of a landmark, feisty study of Scottish witch trials, Christina Larner (Enemies of God, 1981), had died in an accident shortly after the publication of this classic work.
Historians are obviously as mortal, as subject to accidents and illness, as anybody else, but as with politicians and celebrities who die young, it is hard to separate this fact from their work - an air of tragedy seeps into these monographs. As with JFK, even those born many years after the deaths of these scholars are left wondering what more might have been. However, as David Rundle has argued in the case of Felix Raab, in such cases an author’s life-story can overshadow their work, or make its frank critical appraisal difficult. The books written by these lost historians, which live on in the academic landscape, make for unquiet ghosts.