How Do You Define History?

28 02 2008

 

I don’t know how I’ve missed this for so long, but it’s from the play The History Boys, by Beyond the Fringe alum Alan Bennett:

Mrs. Lintott: And you, Rudge?  How do you define history?

Rudge: Can I speak freely without being hit?

Mrs. Lintott: You have my protection.

Rudge: How do I define history?  Well, it’s just one f—ing thing after another.

Perfect.





A Rose by Any Other Name

23 01 2008

I have in my life taken aspirin when I’ve had a headache.  I have installed new copper plumbing throughout a two story house.  I have offered opinions on the legality of certain actions when asked.  However, I’m not a doctor.  I’m not a plumber.  And I’m not a lawyer.

You may have noticed that on this blog I’ve referred to individuals as historians.  I’ve referred to some as “historians”.  I’ve referred to others as herodotus.jpgwriters, and to others as chroniclers.  There’s a reason for that.  I have a rule.  It’s my rule, and not necessarily yours.  But since you’re reading my blog, you should know what my rules are.

In order for someone to be referred to as a (yes, for the 100 millionth time, it’s “a”, check your style manual!) historian by me, they must have earned an advanced degree – at least a master’s degree – in history.  That’s pretty simple.  There are no exceptions.  None.  Nada.

Whether or not I refer to someone as a historian has nothing to do with the quality or quantity of his or her work in the field of history.  It’s simply recognition of their membership in the profession: a profession that, like others, has requirements for membership (educational requirements, peer review requirements, ethical requirements).  It’s out of respect for the profession and for those individuals who have satisfied the minimum requirements for membership – requirements that I, at this late stage, will never satisfy – that I don’t throw the word historian around loosely.  There are good and bad doctors, plumbers, lawyers, and historians out there, but that does not change the fact that they are who and what they are.  And I yam what I yam, whatever that is.

Don’t get upset if I don’t refer to you or to someone you admire as a historian when you or they don’t meet my requirements.  If it makes you feel any better, the guy in the picture doesn’t meet them either.  But feel free to let me know when I make a mistake. 

I got the picture of Herodotus from this site - no, I can’t read a word of it.

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History as Narrative

29 09 2007

 

kennoe.jpgHow accurate really is what we write?  Are historians’ minds too orderly?  Do we instinctively tidy up the chaos for the sake of a clear narrative that moves easily from point A to point B?  In so doing, do we not distort the reality of the battle, inserting a ‘sensible pattern’ that never existed?  Does the omniscient narrative voice actually obscure the reality of the battle experience?  If it does, how can we produce a readable account that catches the fear, the confusion, the chance, and the sick smell?  In short, can we ever grasp, much less communicate, the truth of what it was like to be there? – Ken Noe, Jigsaw Puzzles, Mosaics, and Civil War Battle Narratives, Civil War History Vol.53, #3

ellroy.jpgMass market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed.  Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight.  Our continuing narrative line is blurred past truth and hindsight.  Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight – James Ellroy, American Tabloid

johnhuston.jpgMaybe this isn’t the way it was, but it’s the way it should have been – John Huston (Director), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

I’ve been struggling with this post ever since I read the essays on military history in the most recent issue of Civil War History (see here), but the trouble in my noggin has been brewing for a long time.  In a Carlos Castaneda magic mushroom kind of way, I’ve been having problems with my perception of reality, at least in my reading.  The three quotes above beg the question: is the ordering and analysis of events in a narrative form clarifying history, or simply creating another fiction, a past that never existed as Noe and Ellroy say, the telling of a story the way it should have been as suggested at the beginning of Huston’s movie?  While the problems with the narrative form may be particularly severe in the case of chaotic events like military conflict, they are certainly not exclusive to those events.  The same can be said of gender and race studies, biographies, political analysis – of history in general.

Every narrative needs a narrator.  And therein lies a problem.  The order of events, their significance, their codependencies, are all ultimately determined by the writers.  Those analyses and presentations are the result of some historical methodology, sometimes good, other times not so good.  But regardless of the method, the fact that the result is simply an individual’s intepretation of what happened and of its significance can’t be denied.  We need to put events in an order that connects them in an understandable way – that’s how our brains work.  The process consists of picking and choosing, by evaluating relevance, from piles of facts, events, and opinions.  But it also consists of arranging the chosen bits to produce a story.

I think the process is surely history.  And as history, the narative produced can surely be judged qualitatively.  But, is history what happened?  Do or would participants in historical events recognize these narratives as representative of their personal experiences?  Are these stories the best way, or the only way, to understand these events?  Can web projects, perhaps, be something more than alternatives to traditional print narratives: can they somehow be more illustrative of the fragmented, chaotic nature of events, military or otherwise, and so provide a better understanding of what happened than traditional narrative?

Anyway, these are some of the things that have been bouncing around in my head lately.  I can’t say everything is fully formed.  If you have any thoughts along similar lines, or if you think I’m off my rocker, leave a comment.

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Civil War History – Broadening Horizons?

31 08 2007

 

cwh1.jpgYesterday I received in the mail my copy of Volume 53, Number 3 of Civil War History.  I’ve been a subscriber for the last seven or eight years.  Over that time, the journal’s focus has shifted considerably away from military history, and now features essays primarily on race and gender issues, mirroring a similar trend in the academy.  In fact, over the past five years I think I can count the number of military history essays that have appeared in its pages on one hand and have a few fingers left over.  But I’ve continued to subscribe, even though the current focus is not what I “signed on for”, because I like the book reviews and because I realize these things are cyclical, and pendulums tend to swing like England do.  Even so, I’ve been considering letting my subscription expire without renewal.

Imagine my surprise upon receiving this issue which features not one, not two, but three essays on military history – specifically, battle history.  The collection is edited by Frank Wetta, and consists of Ken Noe’s Jigsaw Puzzles, Mosaics, and Civil War Battle Narratives; George Rable’s The Battlefield and Beyond; and Carol Reardon’s Writing Battle History: The Challenge of Memory.  Could it be that CWH is putting the War back in Civil War?

The essays of Noe and Reardon address issues discussed here in the past.  Noe writes on the problems of the narrative form, among other things, and Reardon looks at (and defines) memory and its sometimes detrimental effects on history.  Rable’s essay is interesting to me primarily because he uses First Bull Run as a backdrop for his discussion of the role of religion on the battlefield.

I’ll post separate articles on each essay in the days ahead, so check back if I’ve piqued your interest.





History – What Is It?

20 08 2007

 

kostova.jpgI’ve been working my way through Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon (described here).  It’s slow going.  Sometimes when I find myself stalling out in a book, I break it up with a novel.  While I move ponderously through non-fiction, I can usually blow though a novel pretty quickly.  I was intrigued by a snippet posted on Kevin Levin’s blog from Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.  On a whim, I went to Barnes & Noble and bought a copy – paperback, for $15.99.  Very odd for me, since I rarely pay retail for any book, let alone a novel.  (A few days later I saw that B&N had the hardcover edition on sale for $8.50, which really hacked me off.)  Even though a 700 page novel is not the ideal break from a 1,100 page history, I’ve been pleased with my choice here.  

kostova2.jpgWhile Ms. Kostova is a novelist, it seems to me that if she is not also a professionally trained historian (and I don’t know that she isn’t), she has a good grasp of the process of historical research.  But more important, it’s clear she “gets it.”  At one point one of her characters realizes, while reading some 16th century documents:

This corner of history was as real as the tiled floor under our feet or the wooden tabletop under our fingers.  The people to whom it happened had actually lived and breathed and felt and thought and then died, as we did – as we would.

You can read an interview with Ms. Kostova here.  The Historian is her first novel.





‘Splain it to me, Lucy!

18 12 2006

I’m mortified to find that I have not made a new posting here in nearly a week, and can only fall back on the upcoming Christmas holiday as a partial excuse.  And I realize that the last couple of posts may have been a little confusing, particularly the title of one of them.  The best way to handle this may be to make a few posts on the cryptic topic that began with Monster in a Box.  Now, I’m painfully aware of the fact that I’m just some guy – I hold no degree in history, I’m not an “expert” on the Civil War in general or on one battle or personality in particular, and my published (print) work consists of one long letter to the editor of North & South magazine and an article of similar length in an upcoming issue of America’s Civil War magazine.  But I do have some thoughts on how historians and authors have presented the “stories” of the Civil War, and this is my blog and nobody can stop me from writing about them. 

The “distraction” I experienced as a result of reading Gary Wills’ Henry Adams and the Making of America had nothing to do with the fact that the book covers events not directly associated with the campaign and battle of First Bull Run but rather with a part of the book’s thesis, that historians have misinterpreted and misrepresented Adams’ work.  In this respect, Wills’ book is directly associated not only with the study of First Bull Run but with the study of any subject of history.

So here’s how these next few posts will go.  In short, I’ll explain the title to the post Camelot, Harsh, Littlefield, Reardon, Paired Sales Analysis, Wills, and Henry Adams. All of those people and things help in describing these disorganized thoughts on how history is sometimes presented.  Hopefully through this process I’ll be able to straighten all this out in my head.  For now, and in no particular order, the points I hope to cover are:

1.                  Evaluating decisions based on available data as opposed to results.

2.                  The importance of chronology.

3.                  The problems with biography – the failure of biographers to front load.

4.                  The effects of memory, and what is meant by memory.

5.                  Evaluating sources.

6.                  Uncritical acceptance.

7.                  Working backwards from a diagnosis.

Check back in later – I hope to put this behind me soon!





More on Wills

12 12 2006

Reader Will Keene does not buy what he sees as Garry Wills’ thesis that Adams’ History was “secretly” written to praise Jefferson.

My reading so far of Wills (I have not read the 9 volumes of Adams in question) says nothing of any “secret” writing, rather it states that the character of the histories is plain. In addition, Wills does not say that Adams is uncritical of Jefferson so much as he was very critical of the Federalists and judged the Jeffersonians a success, and his other writings seem to support this. Wills argues that what he sees as a misrepresentation of the histories is due to three factors:

Historian Richard Hofstadter, the most influential of the interpreters of the History, had only read the first six chapters of Volume I of the History and “accepted that as a description of the whole work”, and this interpetation is refuted by the final four chapters of the last volume;

Historians have accepted Hofstadter’s thesis that Adams was a defender of the legacy of his great grandfather John, while Adams’ writings in general do not defend the Federalists, nor the Adams family – “It is true that he criticizes some of Jefferson’s acts in the History; but he is never as scathing on them as he is on the Federalists, including his forbears. He thought the Jeffersonians’ presidencies highly successful (though in an unintended way) and the Adams presidencies a failure. Yet it is an article of faith in most who read the History that it is an expression of family animus”;

The pessimism of The Education of Henry Adams is thought to be characteristic of his whole life, while his earlier writings are clear that it is not. “Scholars have such a heavy investment in the pessimism of Henry Adams that, for them, an optimistic Adams cannot be the ‘real’ Adams”. “The theme of failure that runs through the Education bolsters an assumption that Adams is telling the story of a failure when he writes of the Jeffersonians. If the work itself says something else, people are unprepared to hear it. They know what Adams ought to be saying, and they make him say it.” But this is the quote that hit me hardest: “The principal work on Adams was written by…Ernest Samuels, whose three-volume biography traces a rising arc to the summit of a “Major Phase” in the final volume. All else is preparatory to that. All else is read backward from that [emphasis added]”.

Will has presented a divergent, if brief, view of the History. Not having read it myself, I’ll have to rely on the arguments of those who have. I invite anyone to comment.  Again, that’s what the comments feature is for.





Camelot, Harsh, Littlefield, Reardon, Paired Sales Analysis, Wills, and Henry Adams

11 12 2006

The title of this post is a mouthful, and makes sense to no one but me.  And I’m not really sure it makes sense to me yet, either.  All of the above have something to do with one of the first posts I wanted to make on this blog, and also with why I have yet to make it.  Basically I want to lay out what motivates me in my study of history in general and the American Civil War in particular, and what I see as problems with the approaches taken by some historians, authors, and students in analyzing actions taken and decisions made.  Keep in mind that I am not a trained historian: my undergraduate and post-graduate degrees are in business, and I earn my living as a real estate appraiser and teacher.  So this “philosophy”, as it were, is mine and mine alone.

wills.jpgBut I’m having a real problem putting these thoughts together in a way that will be accurate and meaningful.  And every couple of days something happens or I read or hear something that I think would be appropriate for inclusion.  Everything in the title of this post has caused me to pause, the most recent distraction being Garry Wills’ Henry Adams and the Making of America.  In this book, Wills reveals how the uncritical acceptance of prior historians’ evaluations and characterizations of Adams’ multi-volume history of early 19th Century America has resulted in a widespread misunderstanding and misrepresentation of that work.  I’ve only read about 100 pages (I’m a very slow reader), but so far I have to say this is one fine book, very well researched, written, and argued.

So the long and the short of it is that I have yet to finish the post in question, but I’m previewing it here to spur myself on.  I’m still influenced by traditional print in that I feel my post should be fully formed and self contained, and I think this wastes some of what makes this medium unique and valuable.  Bear with me.





Our Continuing Narrative of a Past that Never Existed

20 11 2006

I’ll be on the road much of today.  The list in my little notebook of post topics is getting longer and longer (I’ve got at least a month’s worth in there now), and I hope to weigh in on the plagiarism issue this evening.  Right now, I’d like to share a ellroy.jpgquote from the preface to James Ellroy’s American Tabloid.  I don’t read much fiction, but when I have over the last couple of years it’s been Ellroy more often than not.  He’s the author of L. A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia, which were turned into motion pictures of which you may have heard.  Ellroy’s novels are like train wrecks – you don’t want to look, but you can’t help yourself.  Really good stuff about really bad people.  Anyway, this little quote sums up how I feel (at times) when reading about the American Civil War or watching films like Gods and Generals:

Mass market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed.  Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight.  Our continuing narrative line is blurred past truth and hindsight.  Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight.








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