History Does Not Repeat Itself. The Historians Repeat One Another

Max Beerbohm? Rupert Brooke? Philip Guedalla? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have heard two distinct, humorous, and antithetical sayings about the composition of history:

1) History repeats itself, and the historians repeat each other
2) History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat each other.

Statements of this type have been attributed to two famously witty individuals: Oscar Wilde and Max Beerbohm. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in an article from 1868 in the Louisville Journal which was reprinted by newspapers in Atlanta, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. The phrasing was somewhat different, but the meaning matched the first expression listed above. The unnamed author was greatly impressed by the number and diversity of books that had already been published and wondered what type of book might appear in the future. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1868 June 30, The Constitution (Atlanta Constitution), A Live Newspaper (From the Louisville Journal), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Atlanta, Georgia. (Digital newspaper image shows degraded text. Hence the text was determined by simultaneously examining the article copies in the Atlanta Constitution and The Charleston Daily News) (NewspaperArchive)[/ref][ref] 1868 June 30, The Charleston Daily News, A Live Newspaper (From the Louisville Journal), Quote Page 1, Column 2 and 3, Charleston, South Carolina. (Chronicling America)[/ref]

For taking into account the vast library of standard history, philosophy, fiction, poetry, which the genius of every language, ancient and modern, has furnished us, what else remains to be written? History will, of course, go on repeating itself, and the historians repeating each other.

In 1896 the illustrator and humorist Max Beerbohm wrote an essay titled “1880”. Some confusion is inevitable when a year is used as a title, so please note that the essay was written 16 years after 1880. Beerbohm employed the second expression listed above, but he did not claim coinage. The phrase “it has been said” indicated that the saying was already in circulation:[ref] 1896, The Works of Max Beerbohm by Sir Max Beerbohm, Essay: 1800, (Date and location given for the composition at the end of the essay: London, 1894), Start Page 41, Quote Page 41, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

“History,” it has been said, “does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.” Now, there are still some periods with which no historian has grappled, and, strangely enough, the period that most greatly fascinates me is one of them.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Top quotation expert Nigel Rees writing in “Brewer’s Famous Quotations” pointed out that a letter written by the poet Rupert Brooke in 1906 included an instance of the first saying:[ref] 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section Philip Guedalla, Page 224, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Rupert Brooke stated in a letter from Rugby (4 June 1906), ‘As a motto I made up a little epigram “History repeats itself; Historians repeat one another.”

In 1908 the historian Emil Reich published “Nights with the Gods” which included the following satiric passage which straddled the two sayings:[ref] 1908, Nights with the Gods by Emil Reich, Quote Page 8, T.W. Laurie, London, UK. (HathiTrust) link link [/ref]

The vulgar constantly ask me whether or no history repeats itself. What, for goodness’ sake, does that matter to me? It is sufficient for all purposes that historians repeat each other, for it is in that way that historical truth is established.

In 1912 the Irish essayist Robert Lynd published a book review in a London periodical called “The Nation”. He included an instance of the second saying with an uncertain dual ascription. This passage provided the earliest attachment to Oscar Wilde known to QI:[ref] 1912 June 29, The Nation, Volume 11, Number 13, Mrs J. R. Green as Historian by Robert Lynd, (Book Review of “The Old Irish World”), Start Page 480, Quote Page 480, Column 1, (Printed for the Proprietors by The National Press Agency Limited, London), Published by The Nation Publishing Company Limited, London, (Verified with scans; great thanks to Stephen Goranson and the Duke University library system)[/ref]

“History does not repeat itself,” said either Wilde or Mr. Max Beerbohm; “historians repeat each other.” And the witticism is seriously true of most of the Irish history that has been written.

In 1914 the British writer Philip Guedalla published an article in “The New Statesman” that contained a version of the first saying, but he did not claim credit. Guedalla presented two possible ascriptions: the ancient Roman Quintilian and the modern wit Max Beerbohm. As noted previously, Max Beerbohm did write a version of the second saying in 1896 and not the first saying. Also, Beerbohm disclaimed credit for crafting the expression:[ref] 1914 December 12, The New Statesman, “Miscellany: Historians’ English” by Philip Guedalla, Start Page 246, Quote Page 246, Column 2, The Statesman Publishing Company, Ltd., London. (HathiTrust) link link [/ref]

It was Quintilian or Mr. Max Beerbohm who said, “History repeats itself: historians repeat each other.” The saying is full of the mellow wisdom of either writer, and stamped with the peculiar veracity of the Silver Age of Roman or British epigram. One might have added, if the aphorist had stayed for an answer, that history is rather interesting when it repeats itself: historians are not.

In 1914 the Navy Records Society in London released a set of tracts written by Sir William Monson who died in 1643. The editor M. Oppenheim mentioned the second saying in an introduction, and he attributed the words to Max Beerbohm:[ref] 1914, The Naval Tracts of Sir William Monson in Six Books, Edited by M. Oppenheim, Volume 5, Quote Page 204, Printed for the Navy Records Society, London. (HathiTrust) link link [/ref]

…in fact a study of fishery literature goes far to impress one with the truth of the mot ascribed to Mr. Max Beerbohm—‘History does not repeat itself; historians repeat each other.’

In 1915 the journalist and editor Edwin E. Slosson wrote a variant of the first saying in “The Independent” magazine published in New York:[ref] 1915 February 22, The Independent, Volume 81, A Number of Things by Edwin E. Slosson, Start Page 300, Quote Page 300, Column 2, Publisher S. W. Benedict, New York and Boston. (ProQuest American Periodicals Series II)[/ref]

History repeats itself—or perhaps we should say, historians repeat themselves.

The sayings achieved further dissemination when reviews and essays were reprinted. The 1912 book review by Robert Lynd was reprinted in the 1919 collection titled “Ireland a Nation”.[ref] 1919, Ireland a Nation by Robert Lynd, Chapter XIX: Voices of the New Ireland, Start Page 190, Quote Page 190, Grant Richards Ltd., London. (HathiTrust)[/ref] The 1914 essay by Philip Guedalla was reprinted in the 1921 collection “Supers & Supermen: Studies in Politics, History and Letters”.[ref] 1921, Supers & Supermen: Studies in Politics, History and Letters by Philip Guedalla, Essay: Some Historians, Start Page 20, Quote Page 20, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

In 1923 the New York Times referred to the second saying as an axiom and provided no attribution:[ref] 1923 May 13, New York Times, Section: New York Times Magazine, Erratic Epigraphic Errata, Quote Page SM9, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

It appears that there is something wrong with the axiom, “History does not repeat itself: the historians repeat one another.” It would be nearer the truth—without playing for mere epigram—to say that history does repeat itself, and that historians, in repeating each other, make grievous errors.

In 1931 a newspaper in Canton, Ohio printed a variant and attributed the words to an unidentified English person:[ref] 1931 May 23, Canton Repository (Repository), “Minnesotan Uses Wagon, Modernly Equipped, To Invade West Coast” Quote Page 7, Column 1, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

Some English gentleman once remarked that “it isn’t history repeating itself so much as it is historians repeating each other.”

In 1988 Richard Ellmann released his major biography of Oscar Wilde, and in a footnote Ellmann attributed a version of the second saying to Wilde. However, he did not give a supporting citation, and other researchers have been unable to find the expression in Wilde’s oeuvre:[ref] 1988, Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann, (Asterisk footnote), Quote Page 106, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Footnote: In ‘The Decay of Lying’ he declares, ‘The ancient historian gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.’ Elsewhere he said, ‘History never repeats itself. The historians repeat each other. There is a wide difference.’

In conclusion, both of these sayings are proverbial and no precise ascription is currently known. It is reasonable to make weaker claims, e.g., Max Beerbohm popularized the adage:

History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.

One may also say Philip Guedalla helped popularize the maxim:

History repeats itself: historians repeat each other.

But both of these individuals disclaimed originating the expressions.

(Special thanks to Stephen Goranson for scans of the June 1912 citation.)

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