On Writing History

Clio by Mignard

One Thing after Another could not avoid ruminating upon the thoughts inspired by the following quote. These thoughts are especially relevant as we approach the 4th of July, a time of year, by the way, when many professors in our department are writing and therefore making history.

“None but those who have tried it can tell what is the trouble of writing an history….Tis like taking a piece of wilderness to convert into a field.  Many a hard knock and heavy loss be requisite in the one and many head-aching and brain-perplexing hours must be spent in the other.” Jeremy Belknap, 1785

Jeremy Belknap wrote American history and biography in the period after the American Revolution.  As other Americans looked forward, drafting and ratifying the Constitution that would bind the states into a nation, Belknap looked backward.  He recognized that nations need histories, and histories require sources.  As a minister in New Hampshire, Belknap began collecting documents related to the exploration, settlement, and growth of the American colonies.  He would eventually move back to his hometown of Boston where he organized prominent men around the idea that history could only be written if the primary sources, the documents, the “factual and accurate materials” were found, preserved, and shared.  That idea would become the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Belknap wrote history in an age that did not always have high expectations of historians.  The renowned biographer Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote in 1751 that, “It is natural to believe…that no writer has a more easy task than the historian.”  Johnson felt that philosophers had to deal with works of omniscience beyond their intellects, while poets had to trust to imagination and creativity.  Both were thus likely to experience hardship and errors.  However “the happy historian has no other labour than of gathering what tradition pours down before him . . . his materials are provided and put into his hands, and he is at leisure to employ all his powers in arranging and displaying them.”

Belknap’s sharp-edged answer to Johnson’s flight of fancy emphasized that history is as much method as materials.  He saw the historian’s work as locating materials, selecting those most likely to be truthful or accurate, and then arranging potentially competing facts so they made a compelling and period-appropriate explanation for people’s actions and events.  This is the historical method.  As Belknap wrote, “If [Johnson] had to write the History of a country, and to search for his materials wheresoever they were likely or not likely to be found…in the garrets and rat-holes of old houses, when not one in a hundred that he was obliged to handle and decipher would repay him for the trouble; that ‘tradition,’ whatever it might ‘pour down,’ is always to be suspected and examined, and that the means of examination are not always to be obtained, – in short, if he had to go through all the drudgery which you and I are pretty tolerably acquainted with . . . he would be fully sensible that to write an History as it should be is not so easy a work.”

Now that it is summer, many of us in the department have turned our attention from a focus on teaching to a focus on research (though some of us do teach in the summer as well).  We pull out the letters, court transcripts, shipping records, or government documents that form the “materials” of our work. We bemoan what was not saved or cannot be found, and we check out archives, libraries, on-line sites, and the occasional garret for the thrill of what we might find.   We “suspect and examine” tradition as written by other historians in journal articles and books. We agree, disagree, debate, and defend.  Perhaps most important, we ask questions– not simply about what happened, but about why.  We ask how the context of the time, the definition of what was possible or permissible, affected events and people’s choices.  We ask what was not saved, who was not heard, what people could not say.

There are moments, many of them, that are “drudgery,” and we are all very clear that history is “not so easy a work.”  This is why we sympathize with students in our classes as they write research papers!  Yet we also thrill that we get paid to ask questions about the past and to shape the answers.  We make the past not a collection of facts, but a web of explanations.   Jeremy Belknap called writing history a “public good,” something that had to be done to ensure that new and future Americans understood and valued their past.  But for historians, it is also a private pleasure, one of the best parts of summer. 

All quotations are from Louis Leonard Tucker, Clio’s Consort:  Jeremy Belknap and the Founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Boston: Published by the Society; Distributed by Northeastern University Press, 1990): 46-47.  This is one source of received wisdom Professor Salerno is reading this summer. 

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