The historian’s routine

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

What is the day-to-day life of a historian conducting research? As a professional historian who has spent years shuttling back and forth between early modern Europe and the present day, I’m devoting this post to talk about the craft.

The best place to start is a provocative article, published almost 60 years ago, by the historian J. H. Hexter, entitled “The Historian and His Day.” The staid, quaint life he describes certainly conforms closely to the popular stereotype of the out-of-touch, tweed-jacketed scholar more at ease in the distant past than in his (always his) own day. At least that’s how I always imagined history professors, and how popular culture, even today, regularly portrays them. But is it still true, if it ever was?

Upon rereading the piece, there were many aspects of his self-confessed “dreary journal” that struck me as intimately familiar, while others seemed jarringly alien. Virtually every practicing historian today, for instance, would concede Hexter’s larger point that we all invariably begin with our own experiences and work backwards.

The positivist, “scientific” notion of some unalterable human past out there waiting to be discovered — which was common into the 1970s — has itself become a relic of the past. This may alarm some non-practitioners, but every historian I know would agree with Hexter that “the best thing for us to do is to recognize that every generation interprets the past in terms of the exigencies of its own days.”

That said, there are still some rules that all serious historians are all expected to follow. Here too, those professional norms have remained astonishingly consistent, even as the historical profession and American society itself have undergone some significant transformations over the past two generations. Some of the changes—most notably the decline of white male dominance—took place across professions in the U.S. The simultaneous diversification of historical topics is another obvious and salutatory transformation. At the same time, not all developments have been incontestable improvements. Whether historical research and writing is in a healthier state today depends on the eye of the beholder.

And here we return to the smaller, second sense of Hexter’s intentionally ambiguous title: the quotidian life of a university history professor. His overriding argument was that “the day” (immediate experience) of the historian influences his or her own writing as much or more as “the Day” (contemporary era) of that life. In other word, my own encounters with students, peers, and others shape the subjects I choose and the questions I ask as much as the larger issues and events of our day.

Over the next week, I will examine that argument, comparing “the historian’s life” that Hexter described in 1954 with my own experience of the past 25 years. It’s been a fun way for me to look at current trends—positive and negative—and to reflect on what seems to be the current direction of history writing. I hope that it’s worthwhile for readers as well.

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