Professors Coase and Groenewegen
Ronald Coase with his book; John Maynard Keynes and Mary Paley Marshall flanking Keynes’s obituary for Alfred Marshall in The Economic Journal; Peter Groenewegen with his book.
YOU ARE HERE: The Wrong Marshall ► 2. Professors Coase and Groenewegen
Professor Ronald Coase’s approach
Throughout the Essays, Coase appeared to be looking for proof that Alfred Marshall came from a lower social standing and more straitened circumstances than Keynes had presented, because, he suggested, this struggle heightened Alfred’s achievements. He contended that errors and omissions by Keynes misrepresented Alfred’s upbringing and thereby enhanced Alfred’s social position, but diminished his achievements (Coase 1994, 131). It seems to me that Coase might have wanted his own struggle against class, and for a good education, to mirror that which he portrayed for Alfred Marshall. In his final summation, he said:
What is striking to me about the story I have told is the ability of Alfred Marshall to overcome very unfavourable family circumstances, and to emerge … with the power of his intellect and with that devotion to scholarship which can serve as a model to us all (Coase 1994, 149)
Coase was critical of Keynes and Keynes’s account from his opening paragraph, where he said of Keynes’s first sentence, “What makes this sentence extraordinary is that it is a masterpiece of concealment” (Coase 1994, 119). He continued [with emphasis added by me]:
The concealment of Marshall’s mother’s social origins, the error in Marshall’s birthplace, and the misstatement of his father’s position at the Bank of England all seem designed to enhance the family’s social status. Nor do I doubt that this was the intention. But I do not wish to suggest that Keynes was responsible for the concealment. It is an almost unbelievable fact that the memoir, so beautifully constructed and dealing with so many aspects of Marshall’s life and thought, was written in about two months. Marshall died on July 13, 1924, and the memoir appeared in the September 1924 issue of the Economic Journal. 1 It is therefore understandable that Keynes would not have checked all the material given to him. In the memoir, Keynes makes a generous acknowledgement of the assistance he received from Mary [Paley] Marshall. From an examination of her notes in the Keynes Memoir file, it would seem that all the information on family history (or almost all) came from Mary [Paley] Marshall, and she must have derived this information from Marshall’s relatives (on his father’s side). It seems that she was not allowed to learn anything which might damage her husband’s social position (Coase 1994, 122-23).
Coase also stated that, “The genealogical information used by Keynes in writing the memoir was compiled by Ainslie, a daughter of Uncle Henry, a brother of Alfred’s father, and it is not surprising that she only knew what the family wished her to believe.” 2
These italicised words and phrases and others in the Essays illustrate how Coase ascribed inconsistencies, errors and omissions to deliberate intent by members of the family to deceive. I do not believe that perspective is supported by the evidence. Families are not archival systems designed to preserve facts with all their players scrupulously motivated to ensure that factual integrity is maintained and passed on to succeeding generations. Oral family history must be collected from those who are alive and willing to talk and tell what they know. This may not be complete and may not be true, but the omissions and errors are due to the normal process of oral history – something akin to Chinese whispers. People see and hear things. They remember some of this. These memories fade and change. They are then passed on to other, younger, people who remember their own versions and sometimes might not understand the meaning or importance of information they receive. Some stories can be embellished, some forgotten, some misconstrued. Family histories can be incorrect without being deceitful.
It seems to me that Coase sometimes made inferences from limited evidence and by misconstruing that evidence. He admitted to this when he said:
I hope they [the correspondence and notes related to the Essays ] will be of assistance to those who wish to do further research on Alfred Marshall’s family and ancestry. Such research is clearly needed. There are gaps in the story I tell and some of my inferences are based on very scanty evidence (Coase 1994, 130).
Professor Peter Groenewegen’s approach
Coase’s material was used by other researchers, with the most notable example being Professor Peter Groenewegen for the compilation of his impressive biography of Alfred Marshall, A Soaring Eagle: Alfred Marshall (1842-1924). In his preface, he acknowledged Coase’s support in providing access to the information, and assistance in analysing it (Groenewegen 1995, xii). He also confirmed to me that he had studied this material in Chicago in the early 1990s (Groenewegen 2017). The sections of his book devoted to Alfred’s ancestry and family relied extensively on this information.
Groenewegen’s approach was analytic, scholarly, and uncombative. He tempered many of Coase’s inferences and propositions, but, in the most part, accepted them and carried them through to his own work. He presented information and drew inferences of his own. I challenge those that I feel need to be challenged and acknowledge those that my research confirms.