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Gombrich, L. (2016). History Lessons. Am. Imago, 73(2):165-180.

(2016). American Imago, 73(2):165-180

History Lessons

Leonie Gombrich


“Once you were so small that, even standing on tiptoes, you could barely reach your mother's hand…Your father and mother were also small once, and so was your grandfather, and your grandmother…But they too had grandfathers and grandmothers, and they, too, could say, ‘Once upon a time…’”

So wrote my own grandfather, E. H. Gombrich, when he was 26 years old and living in Vienna. The quotation is taken from the opening passages of his Little History of the World, first published in German in 1936 and now available worldwide in more than thirty languages (Gombrich, 2005, p. 1). Indeed, as his literary executor, one of my most important jobs after he died in 2001 was to oversee the translation and publication of this, his earliest full-length work, in English for the first time. It was this job, the job of carrying out my well-known forebear's wishes, that made me consider more intently the universal question: Who am I in relation to my history? And to what extent is my history our history—indeed, can there be a history in which we all have, to some degree, a share?

I am not a historian—certainly not an art historian—nor indeed an academic of any kind. I believe it was largely because I was working in arts administration and had briefly been an assistant literary agent that my grandfather and father agreed I should inherit the role of executor to the E. H. Gombrich literary estate. In my family—academics and musicians all—such forays into the world of budgets, contract negotiations, and production teams were considered signs of great worldliness and practicality.

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