Opinion as Historical Fact

30 01 2009

The problem with the elliptical trainer is that over the course of 50-60 minutes my mind starts to wander. Yesterday I had my iPod on and was watching CNN’s close-captioned coverage of the Illinois governor’s closing statement at his impeachment hearing – no, you can’t comment on the proceedings here, I’ll delete it. Afterwards, two CNN talking heads were discussing what was going on, when one said to the other that the reason the Governor chose to boycott all but this portion of the trial was that he could not be challenged in his closing statement. The other head said yes, that was exactly the reason.  Now, it might very well be the reason, but unless someone can point me to some statement by the Governor that such was his reasoning, this was nothing more than a guess.  This kind of stuff happens all the time in Civil War literature. Take for instance the opinion, long stated as fact, that McDowell’s advance on Manassas was slow due to a fear of masked batteries. Or that Oliver Otis Howard deliberately tried to sabotage the reputation of Abner Doubleday at Gettysburg (I wrote about it on Dmitri’s blog here and here). An article by a “big shot”  perpetuating that old saw compelled me to write a very long letter to the editor of a magazine criticizing the author-in-question’s practice of presenting opinion – in the case of Howard, completely unsupported opinion – as fact.  And also in that case, citing as support another of his own works in which he presented the same unsupported opinion as fact.

Damn that elliptical machine.





McPherson’s “New” Book on Lincoln

31 10 2008

Check out this review of the new James McPherson book, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, by James Durney on TOCWOC.  Astute and valid criticism, I think.  McPherson is a fine writer, a synthesizer by reputation, but his choices of what to synthesize seem somewhat pedestrian.  While on that subject, here are some thoughts on synthesis from an earlier Robert Bateman article I linked to in this post:

At the outset, a historian examines the available evidence about a historical event or period. He or she looks at the primary sources, be they eyewitness accounts or relevant contemporary documents, and from these develops an understanding of the basic outlines. But what follows next is at the core of the difference between journalism and history. The historian is then expected to interpret these sources to create a framework for a new understanding of the events, which goes beyond a recitation of who, what, when, where and why. This first interpretation, therefore, is the first thesis.

Let us assume for a moment that the historian was the first to address a given topic, and therefore his thesis is widely accepted as it is also the only one available. Time passes. We circle the sun. Children are born, raised, go to high school and learn the thesis (albeit usually in a synopsized version) as a part of their general education. Eventually one of them is masochistic enough to go to graduate school with the intent of pursuing a degree in history.

For the youngster, there are only two real routes available when selecting a dissertation topic. The budding historian might attempt to find a brand new area of study that has never been written about (fat chance there, but sometimes it happens), or he or she can read deeply of the already extant body of historical literature on a topic or period, re-examine the foundational materials underpinning the dominant thesis, perhaps uncover some additional material not noticed before. Then the new graduate student will proceed to offer a new interpretation, different and disagreeing with the original thesis in large ways and small, thus creating the anti-thesis. Obviously, if the author of the original thesis is still around, this might not go over swimmingly. Presuming the young historian has done a good job, his becomes the new “accepted version,” and the pendulum swings.

Skip forward a few more years, and the third phase comes into effect. This time, however, it is usually an older, more experienced and already established historian who completes the cycle. Age and experience have given the older historian some ability to read across multiple interpretations as well as the wisdom to craft his ideas carefully. The senior scholar, recognizing that there are some positive elements in both competing ideas, also brings to bear a much broader understanding of the field overall, and he has time on his side. (He is not living the life of penury, eating macaroni and cheese meals, that young grad student had been.) To this person is left the task of melding thesis and antithesis into a new and greater whole, the synthesis. This, then, becomes the new narrative, necessarily upsetting both the adherents of the thesis and the anti-thesis, but accepted by the larger field as superior to both.

Thus does one cycle of history end. It may have taken five years, or perhaps as many as 50, but at every step there was dispute and criticism flowing from one historian against another. (It’s a dynamic not usually seen within journalism except in the case of egregious acts of ethical violation such as Jayson Blair’s.) The arguing among historians, you see, is very much a part of what makes history.

What is it called when the senior scholar only considers the thesis in his synthesis?

Please take time to read Lt. Col. Bateman’s article.  I’ve pointed people to it before, but they can’t seem to get past the historian vs. journalist part of the piece.  Particularly at this time of year, what he has to say about historians’ personal biases affecting their analysis of current events is well worth considering.





Everyone Has an Angle

15 07 2008

 

A friend passed on this article by Lt. Col. Robert Bateman.  A good look at what historians do, how their job differs from that of a journalist (ideally, anyway), and how their opinions are just as biased as anyone else’s.  In summary:

In other words, while journalists may write the first draft of history, among historians there is no such thing as a “last draft.” There is only the most current, and the one certain thing within history is that it will change again soon enough. – R. Bateman

Check it out.





Assume the Position – Robert Wuhl

21 05 2008

Robert Wuhl

It’s not brand new, but it’s funny and interesting.  Newbomb Turk gives a lesson on history using PowerPoint.  If it takes awhile to load, try hitting refresh.  Warning – not for the prudish.  Strong language, occasionaly racy content.

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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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