18 February 2009

Another Passing: Victor Kiernan

British Marxist historian Victor Kiernan has passed. Friend and comrade Eric Hobsbawm writes a remembrance in the Guardian:

Victor Kiernan, who has died aged 95, was a man of unselfconscious charm and staggeringly wide range of learning. He was also one of the last survivors of the generation of British Marxist historians of the 1930s and 1940s. If this generation has been seen by the leading German scholar HU Wehler as the main factor behind "the global impact of English historiography since the 1960s", it was largely due to Victor's influence. He brought to the debates of the Communist party historians' group between 1946 and 1956 a persistent, if always courteous, determination to think out problems of class culture and tradition for himself, whatever the orthodox position. He continued to remain loyal to the flexible, open-minded Marxism of the group to which he had contributed so much.

Most influential through his works on the imperialist era, he was also, almost certainly, the only historian who also translated 20th-century Urdu poets and wrote a book on the Latin poet Horace.
I can personally speak to Kiernan's warmth, though I only experienced it from afar. Two years ago, I wrote to him to inquire about an obscure scholar who was involved with the exilic work of the Indian Progressive Writers Association (IPWA) in 1930s London; Kiernan was one of the few people who might have remembered the man.

A month later, I received a two-page letter penned in an unsteady, tiny script. Kiernan confessed that he didn't recall the man I asked about, but went on to detail some of his memories of Indians in interwar Britain and his work of smuggling Comintern directives--typed up on onion-skin paper and concealed in his luggage--from Britain to the subcontinent. Apparently, he thought--based on my dissertation subject--that I would be interested in these facts and took the time to write them out.

An amazing man.

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