The most notable characteristic of Barker's history of historians is its extreme selectivity. "Where is Gibbon?" the tradition-minded reader is likely to wonder while reading the chapters devoted to such seemingly peripheral historians as Sir Walter Scott and Karl Marx. The answer is that Gibbon is there, compressed into a single paragraph hidden away in the chapter on Voltaire. This treatment is generous compared with the handling of some other respected historians.
Nobody is apt to complain much about the dismissal of such figures as Polybius and Orosius, who were hardly super although they were historians and contributed significantly to modern knowledge of bygone times. But what about Livy and Tacitus, two superb stylists and highly distinctive literary figures, still readable today for epic vision or for titillating details about the growth of Rome's power and the beginning of its fall? What about the noble-minded Froissart and the crabbed but readably detailed Saint-Simon? What about Francis Parkman, who told unforgettably the story of how our continent was won? If these masters of the art and science of history are given any attention at all in Barker's survey, it is the most cursory of passing mentions.
The reason soon becomes evident as one reads through Barker's comments on the writers he has chosen as the focus of his study, from Herodotus and Thucydides to Toynbee and H.G. Wells. This is not a book about those who have written history beautifully, vividly, memorably or those who have made it an increasingly scientific discipline. This is a survey of the history of ideas about history, and if that fact is not made very clear in the title (where it would require complex wording and probably discourage sales), it is cheerfully set forth in the preface. His subjects are "men who, when old versions of the past ceased to fit new realities, put fundamental questions to the human record and developed new interpretations . . . answering a leading historical problem other historians had been unable, or unwilling to solve. Each in turn enlarged society's sense of itself, giving it a different perspective. To the extent that each changed beliefs about the past, he became a 'maker' of that past."
The author delivers fairly well on his promise to present the key figures who fit this description. His survey includes W.E.B. Du Bois, who began the still unfinished work of setting down the true history of Africans and their descendants in the New World. As a result of his work, Barker observes, a new view of history, particularly of American history, has begun to emerge, "in which Columbus' landfall becomes the death-knell for the red man, the Indian Mutiny, a thwarted war of independence, and the sufferings in the Black Hole of Calcutta insignificant compared to the parade of misery at the slave market in New Orleans . . . American history appears no longer as the preeminent Anglo-Saxon success story, but as the account of national plurality and at times a tale of horror." It dwells on Karl Marx, who "chose to study man as he went about his most fundamental activity -- the attempt simply to stay alive." It encompasses Voltaire, the apostle of enlightened despotism as the vehicle of human progress, and Machiavelli, who questioned the idea of progress (except in cycles) but tried in his own way to enlighten the despots of his time. It even extends to Sir Walter Scott and H.G. Wells, who embodied their views of history most notably in works of fiction. Not exactly a standard list of historians, although he does also devote significant space to such standard names as Herodotus, Thucydides, Ranke and Toynbee. On the whole, "The Superhistorians" seems to focus more on people who made history more than those who merely wrote it.
To simplify slightly, it could be said that much of the book is a study of the tension between two basic ideas of history: that it moves in circles (which it is considered more elegant to call cycles) or that it moves more or less upward in a straight line broken by occasional lapses. The straight-line view seems to be essentially a Christian innovation, elaborated by Saint Augustine in response to the cyclical views of earlier philosphers of history, but later adapted by such vigorously anti-Christian writers as Voltaire and Marx. In the case of Marx, there was a sort of harmonization between the two views -- history as a straight line moving toward the perfect socialist society, when history (like the state) may be expected to wither away and life will assume a circular pattern. The straight-line view predominated in America -- was, indeed, almost the core of the American mystique--while we still had frontiers to conquer, but now it has been severely shaken.
Barker's treatment of these and related topics reads rather like a textbook, although it is not published as such. He writes lucidly (sometimes, perhaps, a shade more simply than he should), repeats his key points occasionally, varying the form of the statement, and arranges his material in logical segments that are easy to grasp. Its weakness is also its strength: concentration on a few key figures who most readily fit the patterns that interest the author while ignoring the rich if bewildering complexity that lies just outside this restricted field of vision. It might be a useful introductory or collateral text for readers interested in the philosophy of history, but it hardly tells the whole story.