Conversing with the past

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites authors to guest-blog. This week’s featured blogger is Joel F. Harrington, author of The Changing Face of Violence.

Until now, I’ve focused on how the daily life of an academic historian has changed since J.H. Hexter wrote about it in 1954. The pattern I’ve identified is an intellectual life shaped less by one’s own students and colleagues than by various online communities and distant friends. Admittedly, this characterization is far from universal and perhaps a bit exaggerated, but it does relate to my larger question of how personal experiences shape a historian’s work.

Today I’d like to shift the focus to the fundamental element of the historian’s life that I believe has changed the least in 60 years: the close connection to primary historical sources. Whatever the nature of my interactions with contemporaries, the most important personal relationship for my scholarship is with the written documents themselves.

This sounds like a bizarre kind of fetishism, but what I mean is that all historians are regularly involved in conversations with people in the past. (Even though I think I have managed to make us sound still weirder, I’ll continue.) This doesn’t mean that most historians are nostalgic traditionalists (in fact, I suspect the opposite is true), but it does mean that we are always moving back and forth between our own “Day” and the past.

For most of the twentieth century, this inevitable intellectual commuting resulted in a widespread fear of historical “presentism,” with modern historians injecting their own social norms and assumptions into analyses and descriptions of past societies. This type of anachronism certainly continues to be a problem, but striving for accuracy and keeping modern prejudices to a minimum is not quite the hopeless project that some previous “scientific” thinkers lamented.

One of the great insights of Hexter’s essay is to go still further and question how much any of the events of a historian’s era really affect his or her scholarship:

“As I write, portentous and momentous things are no doubt being done in Peiping, Teheran, Bonn, and Lost Nation, Iowa. But these things are not part of my day; they are outside my experience. Although one or two of them may faintly impinge on my consciousness tomorrow via the headlines in the morning paper, that is probably as far as they will get. At best, they are likely to remain fluttering fragments on the fringe of my experience, not well-ordered parts of it.”

This is a bold, and for some, disheartening, statement. Yet I have also wondered how much all of my much greater access to “events of the day” has affected my understanding of history. To modernize an example from Hexter, I am intimately familiar with various sixteenth-century poverty laws and criminal codes, yet I have never read the text of the Affordable Care Act or other important laws that have much more of an impact on my own daily life.

Indeed, Hexter concludes that the intellectual influences in the historian’s bifurcated existence might just as easily go in the opposite direction: “Instead of the passions, prejudices, assumptions and prepossessions, the events, crises, and tensions of the present dominating my view of the past, it is the other way about.”

This is a sentiment that I believe many of my colleagues would share. The extra voices in our head from the past (oops, I did it again) make conversations about the present richer in our view—or at least different. In my final blog post, I’ll focus on this issue of historians and public engagement.

Share This