Tuesday, July 3, 2007

"The English National Character"

Peter Mandler is Reader in modern history, University of Cambridge, and fellow of Gonville and Caius College.

He applied the "page 69 test" to his most recent book, The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair, and reported the following:
Page 69 addresses one of the first moments at which the very *idea* of a 'national character' - the idea that all the people of a nation might have in common some basic psychological characteristics - became conceivable. Before the mid-19th century, it seemed a nonsense to almost everyone that the duke and the dustman could be considered so intimately alike. But with the rise of democracy in the 19th century, even basically elitist thinkers - Thomas Carlyle, Charles Kingsley and Alfred Tennyson all feature on page 69 - came to re-evaluate the common people and to see in them characteristics like courage, tenacity and independence. 'Even between different classes living in the same age', James Fitzjames Stephen is quoted as saying on page 69, 'the moral identity is more important than the intellectual disparity.' This was the kind of insight that made democracy - though it also made nationalism.

Once democracy has been made, however, the idea of national character may no longer seem so powerful. The rest of the book tells a story not only of the rise but also of the unravelling of the idea of national character. Today, when we all like to think of ourselves as unique individuals, we are less prone to consider ourselves *psychologically* similar to our fellow nationals. We might still, though, see ourselves as sharing common values or common loyalties. One of the things I try to show in this book is that there are lots of different ways of feeling 'national' - 'national character' is only one.
Read more about The English National Character at the Yale University Press website, and visit Peter Mandler's faculty webpage at the Cambridge University website.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue