That historians should give their own country a break, I grant you; but not so as to state things contrary to fact. . . . Readers should be very attentive to and critical of historians, and they in turn should be constantly on their guard.
—Polybius, History (Book XVI)

The writing of our literary history is in serious trouble. Partly this is a consequence of the uncertain status of the discipline of history itself, where arguments proliferate about whether the writing of history is a social science on an empirical base or a branch of the narrative art. But partly the crisis reflects the impact of recent theories of writing itself which call into question the very capacity of historical prose to tell the truth about what happened in the past. Some, like Paul de Man in Blindness and Insight, claim that “considerations of the actual and...


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