Before I was a regular blogger here — before I had even left my first faltering comment as the far-more-mysterious-than-I-intended-to-be “LD” — I started a personal blog about the process of becoming a historian. My blogospheric venture was hardly unique. Lots of PhD students blog — it can be a way of finding your footing, getting your bearings, training your voice. That’s how it worked for me, anyhow.
The very first post I wrote on that blog was a meditation on the uncanny experience of reading the scholarship of a now-deceased historian named, delightfully, Rising Lake Morrow. I considered how it is possible that I as a reader can be “in conversation” with this author.
The term “conversation,” though, implies some degree of mutuality and perhaps intentionality. So is it fair to apply it to my reading of Morrow? After all, I can choose Morrow as a partner in dialogue; he cannot choose me. Eighty years after his article was published, I doubt that he is around to make any more choices — just as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison were unavailable for comment when Morrow drew upon their writings for his article of 1936.
But even when those men were writing for the exigencies of the present, they knew they were writing for the future too. And when Morrow published his article about their thinking, he was writing not only for his contemporaries but also for the generations of scholars who he expected to succeed him, as scholars do. In a way, then, Morrow did choose to converse with me. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, “By faith he, though dead, yet speaketh.”
This is the faith of scholarship: believing that our work might speak not only to the questions of the moment but also to those questioners whose time is yet to come. And upon this faith is built the secular ekklesia of the academy — not the communion of saints, but the communion of sages. We converse with each other, and with scholars of generations past, for the benefit not only of ourselves but for all the scholars who will follow us. We respond to living texts and dead authors, not to pass the time or fill the world with words, but to say something worth our own and others’ time right now that might still have value later.
I have been thinking a great deal lately about the value of history, the value of being — or becoming — a historian.
As I mentioned in a comment on Andrew’s post of earlier this week, I have spent the past several days working through the historiography/theory section of my exam list for U.S. Intellectual and Cultural History.
Yes, I’m overly concerned that I must master this material well enough to give a good account of myself during my written and oral qualifying exams. Yes, I’m unreasonably annoyed with myself for not having acquired such mastery yet. How can I be so patient with my students, yet so impatient with myself? (Don’t answer that! It’s a rhetorical question, not an invitation for armchair analysis.) Yet despite my angst about my (in)sufficient command of these texts after a whole week of reading (!), despite the impostor syndrome that flares up every time I come across an untranslated German phrase (“How can I be a Real Historian unless I read German?!”) — despite all that, beneath all that, runs a deep, broad current of contentment.
As I read these historians, as I try to understand the sense they have made of the work and worth and wisdom of history, I am filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I am thankful for them, for their life’s work, thankful that they have written what I am reading. Whatever ideas or insights or arguments I take from their pages, I am at the last simply grateful for their company.
So far I have read Lovejoy, Collingwood, Mink, Fritz Stern’s marvelous anthology of historical writing from Voltaire to C. Vann Woodward, the proceedings of the Wingspread Conference, Joan Scott, and Hayden White. Right now I’m making my way (again) through Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream, and enjoying every word of it.
I know, I know. I’m not expected to read every word of every text on my list — this is what my profs tell me, this is what my colleagues who have already passed their exams tell me. Practically speaking, I just need to read enough to sound like I know what I’m talking about. There are some texts I will need to read more closely than others; there are some texts I would do well to skim.
But when it comes to this section of my list, I must confess to intransigent impracticality. I will do no skimming here; I don’t want to miss a word. For me, reading what historians have had to say about what it means to think about history or write history, what it means to be a historian, is an absolute delight. And if I cannot take delight in my work — well, then why the hell bother?
Now and then as I have made my way through this reading, I have tweeted a snippet of a sentence or a part of a phrase that struck me as wise or funny or challenging. But it is rare indeed to come across a historical aphorism of 140 characters or less. It takes Hayden White twice that long to get to his first comma. So I have been able to quote only sparingly from texts that are anything but spare. Rich, bracing, brilliant, daunting, deep — that’s what this reading has been so far.
Allow me, reader, to share some of these delights with you, before returning to the question of the value of studying history.
“It is the beliefs which are so much a matter of course that they are rather tacitly presupposed than formally expressed and argued for, the ways of thinking which seem so natural and inevitable that they are not scrutinized with the eye of logical self-consciousness, that often are most decisive of the character of a philosopher’s doctrine.” (7)
“The adequate record of even the confusions of our forebears, may help, not only to clarify those confusions, but to engender a salutary doubt whether we are wholly immune from different but equally great confusions.” (23)
“The historian’s business is to know the past, not to know the future, and whenever historians claim to be able to determine the future in advance of its happening, we may know with certainty that something has gone wrong with their fundamental conception of history.” (49)
“Passion and ignorance have certainly done their work, and an important work, in past history, but they have never been mere passion and mere ignorance; they have been rather a blind and blundering will for good and a dim and deluded wisdom.” (104)
“History is thus the self-knowledge of the living mind. For even when the events which the historian studies are events that happened in the distant past, the condition of their being historically known is that they should ‘vibrate in the historian’s mind’, that is to say, that the evidence for them should be here and now before him and intelligible to him. For history is not contained in books or documents; it lives only, as a present interest and pursuit, in the mind of the historian when he criticizes and interprets those documents, and by so doing relives for himself the states of mind into which he inquires.” (202)
“All history is the history of thought: and when an historian says that a man is in a certain situation this is the same as saying that he thinks he is in this situation….The historian thinks it a wrong way; but wrong ways of thinking are just as much historical facts as right ones, and, no less than they, determine the situation (always a thought-situation) in which the man who shares them is placed.” (317)
“The historian himself cannot escape this pressure for synthesis and meaning; it is heard within the profession as well as outside….The historian cannot escape these challenges; he broods, alone or in groups, over the presuppositions of his discipline, the logic and the method of his work, the place it should occupy among other, newer pursuits.” (23)
“…the writing of history inflicts on every historian choices for which neither his method nor his material provides a ready answer. Some answers only the historian himself can give, and this has kept history a live, changing pursuit….History springs from a live concern, deals with life, serves life. A discipline so close to life cannot remain fixed; it changes with time, with the impact of new hopes, thoughts, and fears. The history of historiography records the interaction between the fixed elements in history–the critical, systematic method and the sources — and the time-bound elements embodied in the historian.” (24)
“As I said at the beginning, the historian must serve two masters, the past and the present. And while his obligation to the past, his complete, unassailable fidelity to it, must always claim his first loyalty, he must accept the fact that the choices he makes as a historian are not of consequence to him alone, but will affect the moral sense, perhaps the wisdom, of his generation. And since he knows that his own being, his intellectual capabilities and his critical faculties as well as his deeper sense of righteousness and love, are engaged in the writing of history, he knows that his work, too, is a moral act.” (32)
From Niebuhr (in Stern):
“What Pyrrhus said to his Epirots — ye are my wings — expresses the feelings of the zealous teacher towards his listeners, whom he loves and who take part in his lectures with all their hearts. His own work is promoted not only by the desire to be clear, to present nothing as a truth which might admit of a doubt, but the sight of his audience and his immediate relation to it awaken a thousand thoughts while he is speaking.” (53)
“When a historian is reviving former times, his interest in them and sympathy with them will be the deeper, the greater the events he has witnessed with a bleeding or a rejoicing heart.” (53)
From Macaulay (in Stern):
“The effect of historical reading is analogous, in many respects, to that produced by foreign travel…But men may travel far, and return with minds as contracted as if they had never stirred from their own market-town. In the same manner, men may know the dates of many battles and the genealogies of many royal houses, and yet be no wiser.” (85)
From Michelet (in Stern):
“Teaching did me good service. The fierce trial at colleges had altered my character…Those young people, amiable and confiding, who believed in me, reconciled me to mankind….They had done me, without knowing it, an immense service. If I had, as an historian, any special merit to sustain me on a level with my illustrious predecessors, I should owe it to teaching, which for me was friendship. Those great historians have been brilliant, judicious, and profound; as for me, I have loved more.” (115)
“Let it be my part in the future to have not attained, but marked, the aim of history, to have called it by a name that nobody had given it. Thierry called it narration, and M. Guizot analysis. I have named it resurrection, and this name will remain.” (117)
From Droysen (in Stern):
“History is Humanity’s knowledge of itself, its certainty about itself. It is not ‘the light and the truth,’ but a search therefor, a sermon thereupon, a consecration thereto. It is like John the Baptist, ‘not that Light but sent to bear witness of that Light.'” (144)
From Trevelyan (in Stern):
“What is easy to read has been difficult to write. The labour of writing and rewriting, correcting and recorrecting, is the due exacted by every good book from its author, even if he knows from the beginning exactly what he wants to say. A limpid style is invariably the result of hard labour, and the easily flowing connection of sentence with sentence and paragraph with paragraph has always been won by the sweat of the brow.” (240)
From Hayden White:
“If one is going to ‘go to history,’ one had better have an address in mind rather than go wandering around the streets of the past like a flaneur. Historical flaneurisme is undeniably enjoyable, but the history we are living today is no place for tourists. If you are going to ‘go to history,’ you had better have a clear idea of which history, and you had better have a pretty good notion as to whether it is hospitable to the values you carry into it.” (164)
This whole blog post may be an exercise in flaneurisme. But I hope it testifies not only to the values I carry to history, but to the value I find in it — although, if I have understood Hayden White correctly, perhaps there is no difference.
Nevertheless, the value of history is not exhausted by the uses we can make of it. There is value (and perhaps not a little danger, not a little risk) in what history makes of us, how the study of history can shape us, how the company we keep as historians might help to make us more fit company for those who walk along with us, and for those who follow after.