On Writing History

Why do I write history?

In part, it’s because I love understanding how people are different from each other. As with all the humanities, history is a mirror that we hold up to compare ourselves with an “other,” in order to learn more about who we are. Just as the lens of, say, anthropology is the innate vs. the learned, or the lens of literature is the imagined vs. the real, the lens of history is time, then vs. now. What the mirror shows us is insightful because there are threads of similarity that link peoples and eras together, with variables of time, and events, and circumstance that change the outcomes.

When I think about the past, I find that it’s critical to attempt to immerse myself wholly in the contemporary worldview and take a 360-degree look at how people then understood their world. It’s easy to impose our own modern frameworks of understanding, such as liberalism, or morality, or hindsight, on the past. It’s much harder, but much more interesting, to be empathetic and to look at the picture as a whole. The tragedy of the study of the humanities today is in its requirement of specificity. Those who study the British Empire, for example, often fixate only on the Empire, neglecting the often more immediate connections with Europe, or within Britain. I like to think of a big map, where the parts traditionally painted red are instead illuminated, and the other areas of the globe are in darkness. This singular focus can blind us to other very real connections and priorities that were present in the eras we study.

On the “Master Narrative”

I read an article once, in a delightful tome by Philip Pomper, on approaches to World History, in which he theorized why such broad narratives are marginalized within the discipline, particularly in our increasingly interconnected world.  Perhaps, he argued, it is because historians don’t like the master narrative, and prefer to leave that to anthropologists, sociologists, and philosophers, and heckle from the sidelines about their lack of concrete sources and proper footnoting.  Indeed, perhaps world historians face such discrimination because they tend to rely a lot on secondary sources as opposed to primary ones.  Or maybe it is because world historians are often linked with thinkers like Marx and Hegel, who tied world history to a narrative of progress that was largely Eurocentric and often served as the justification for imperialism or communism, two things that are incredibly out of fashion these days.  Master narratives just aren’t very popular in these post-modern times (i.e. since the 1980s). They’re opposed by all manner of feminists, post-colonialists and other groups criticizing traditional Western power structures and those who ruled within them.

Yet. And yet.

The “master historians” (o, that I could be one of those!) are the ones who form new approaches to looking at existing history, not those who stumble upon a hidden box of documents in some archive and publish the contents without context or analysis of why they matter.  So I hold out hope that broad analysis will come back into fashion.

On Understanding

Can we ever understand what life was “really” like in the past? Of course not. Our understanding of the past is entirely coloured by our personal and societal understanding of the present, and of ourselves as individuals. That’s why history is so exciting: it’s always changing because we’re always changing. That’s not to say that the “facts” change, but that how we think and write and talk about them changes. Who, 200 years ago, would ever have thought to write about women’s history? Or how the environment has shaped human development and influenced major events? Or even the now-standard field of social history? I can only imagine the different lenses historians will apply to the past in times to come.

So why do I write history? Because I’ve always wanted to write, and writing about history means I’ll never run out of things to write about. History is inescapable: everything is history. I write about history because it’s the most interesting way I’ve ever found to explain who we are and why we’re here. Who wouldn’t want to do that?

Follow up: For more on writing history, see my post on What Is History Writing Now?

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