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: 1 2

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: 3

“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.

Continue reading History Does Not Repeat Itself. The Historians Repeat One Another

Notes:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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