Obituary: E. P. Thompson
Saturday 02 October 1993
A few months before his death, an ailing Thompson gave a lecture - his last, and a tour de force it was - on India. It concerned a slim study he published in May this year, Alien Homage, a book as striking, for its insight into British-
Indian relations under the Raj (and even today), as EM Forster's A Passage to India.
The homage in guestion was that of his father, EJ (Edward) Thompson, poet and literary critic, missionary in Bengal, lecturer in Bengali at Oxford University, and friend of distinguished Indians including Nehru, who is still remembered for his histories and novels about imperial India. The subject of his special devotion was Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel prizewinning poet whose biography EJ Thompson wrote during the 1920s. The fascinating and revealing relationship between EJ Thompson and Tagore lasted for nearly three decades from 1913 - when they met, by chance, on the very day the Nobel Prize news reached Tagore - until Tagore's death in 1941.
When EJ Thompson died in 1946, he left a mass of papers and books (deposited in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, last year), many concerning India, which his son did not know what to do with. Forty years later, their time came when I prodded him into rummaging through his attic and speaking on Tagore for the first time.
Thompson always knew that his father's friendship had been a troubled one. In fact, when the biography appeared in 1926 (to acclaim both in India and in England), Tagore published his own furious, scorching review in Bengali under a pseudonym. Whether or not EJ Thompson read this review, and knew who its writer was, his son could never detect for certain in his papers, but Thompson senior was painfully aware of the political and cultural chasm into which his years of labouring at Bengali had disappeared.
EP Thompson, working half a century later in a post-imperial age, was able to see both sides of the argument and tease out its nuances. Sharing his father's feeling of homage to Tagore, but tempering it with love for his father, he brought to life both human beings: rescued them (in his own telling phrase) from 'the enormous condescension of posterity'.
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