New Histories of Emotion

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was a growing sense that historians had neglected the emotions and failed to think seriously about them. Since then, there has been explosive interest in the history of emotions. What precipitated this development? What has this focus on emotion added to our historical understanding, and what does a historical perspective contribute to research on emotion? Two recent books help us think about these questions. In The History of Emotions, Jan Plamper offers the first book-length introduction to this field available in English; in Emotional Lexicons, Ute Frevert and a group of fellow historians trace continuities and change in the vocabulary of feeling from the beginning of the eighteenth century to the end of the millennium. At stake, in both books, is the idea that emotions are historically contingent—that history has the ability to shape and transform even the most basic features of human experience. This review essay engages with the central arguments of these books, and offers a somewhat different interpretation of the history of emotions. What is called for, the essay suggests, is not first and foremost a separate history of emotions nor the adding of emotion to existing histories, but new histories that systematically incorporate emotions into their analyses. Historians should seek to demonstrate how emotions are an integral part of history and historiography in a more general sense. Systematic attention to emotions not only adds nuance to a historical narrative, the essay concludes, but also fundamentally affects our ideas about how history actually happens.