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Edward Thompson was by common agreement the greatest English-speaking social historian of his age, the presiding genius of an entire generation of historians of the 1960s and after who determined to write history "from the bottom up," through the eyes of people who had been crushed under the wheels of history, especially the wheels of economic "progress." It was Thompson more than anyone else who rescued the lower orders from "the enormous condescension of posterity," from their reputation as a dumb, illiterate, and violence-prone mob-Burke's "swinish multitude," or less pejoratively but almost as anonymously, Marx and Engels' faceless, mutely suffering "proletariat"-and who showed the New Social Historians how to perform patient, exhaustive archival excavations; whose work gradually revealed a whole underground world of articulate, thoughtful laboring men and women, architects of their own consciousness, active agents who well understood and fiercely resisted the catastrophic changes that were carelessly sweeping them onto history's scrapheap. It was Thompson whose slashing and passionate, while surprisingly precise and delicate, narrative style could make any reader feel-and resolved many to act on the feeling-that writing social history to recruit the understanding of past struggles to present-day social understanding and political action was one of the most important things one could do with one's life.
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