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Writing History: This Time It’s Personal
Storytellers Shape Our Stories. Reviewing Richard Cohen’s ‘Making History’
“When did historians stop relating facts and start all this revising of interpretations of the past?” The question was posed to Columbia University historian Eric Foner by “an eager young reporter” several years back. Foner’s answer? “Around the time of Thucydides.”
Interpretation and revision have occupied historiography since the start. Indeed, a 2009 study uncovered blatant biases in Thucydides, inadvertently validating Foner’s gibe. The ancient historian “was a passionate man trying to write soberly, torn between what he wanted to believe and what he knew had taken place,” says Richard Cohen in Making History; “yet his respect for the evidence means that one can see where his judgments go astray, by using the very accounts that he himself provides.”
A common conception insists that history simply tells the past. It’s what happened. You can see this view in the question posed by the reporter—history is little more than “relating facts.” You can also see it gently mocked in Foner’s description of the questioner as “eager” and “young.” But what’s wrong with such a view?
This: It fails to differentiate between what happened and what we say about what happened. Discovering what happened requires establishing facts by finding and weighing evidence. For the historian that can mean sifting through gobs of conflicting reports or, at the other extreme, scrutinizing paltry but precious scraps.
Developing something worth saying about that evidence compounds the challenge. Linking other relevant data, establishing context, proposing causal relationships, drawing conclusions, and presenting the whole package in a compelling, cohesive narrative: It’s tougher than it looks on YouTube.
And of course the entire enterprise is influenced by the individual skills, background, training, interests, purposes, perspectives, convictions, limitations, and presuppositions that each historian brings to this difficult job of finding relevant facts and arranging them into meaningful accounts of the past.
As a result, history unavoidably assumes the character of the particular historian who crafts it. Thucydides, for instance, spun a different yarn than Herodotus. Polybius focused on patriotism, while Livy emphasized moralism over accuracy and even admitted as much.
Given the unique impress of the individual historian on the history we receive, wouldn’t their lives make for an interesting story? Historians shaping history as history? Cohen’s Making History: The Storytellers Who Shaped the Past answers with a resounding yes and offers a singular synthesis of biography, criticism, and historiography.
From one relentlessly readable chapter to the next, Cohen walks through time profiling those who have told us what its passage meant for them and means for us. Along the way, he surveys the Greco-Roman writers, ancient Hebrew scribes and New Testament evangelists, medieval monks and scholars, and early modern writers such as Machiavelli and Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was not a historian, of course, nor ever claimed to be one. But one of the virtues of Making History is that Cohen scribbles outside the usual lines. Walter Scott, Jane Austen, and countless other novelists down to the present have shaped our historical imagination; Cohen shows how and to what effect. The same should be said for television documentarians such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Ken Burns. My personal interest in jazz began while working at Borders Books and Music, but my obsession began with Burns’s multipart documentary; I’ve seen Jazz five or six times.
If we’re concerned that such contributions play too loose with accuracy and convention, it’s worth pointing out our conventions are rather new. The first university degree in history wasn’t awarded until 1776 at Göttingen. Yale’s history doctorate only goes back to 1861, Cambridge’s to 1920. Thinking of history as a unique discipline—rather than, say, a branch of literature—is just a couple hundred years old. We can credit the nineteenth-century German scholar Leopold von Ranke and his emphasis on source documents for the development.
Development is the word, too, because the conventions evolve. Imagine a modern historian saying the following:
Perhaps in the future there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none, or very little: there is only the history of Europe in Africa. The rest is largely darkness . . . and darkness is not a subject for history.
So mouthed Hugh Trevor-Roper when discussing the challenge of understanding Africa without the same documentary evidence available to historians of Europe. Today we’d dismiss that as blinkered prejudice and extend our investigations, consulting archeologists, linguists, and other specialists to help us fill out the picture.
Unearthing new evidence and our evolving sentiments and methods explain why “all this revising of interpretations of the past” is unavoidable. As long as we keep making humans they will develop and share new ideas about the past, some of which will conflict with ideas held only moments before.
Cohen explores the evolution of the discipline through the stories of people like Trevor-Roper, his academic nemesis A. J. P. Taylor, and others. He examines the rise of social history and its pioneer, Marc Bloch, who was machine-gunned by Nazis for his work in the French Resistance. He looks at the role partisan affiliation played in recounting conflict, including the American Civil War. He takes readers inside Winston Churchill’s literary production machine and gives welcome attention to the voice of women and minority historians such as Mary Beard and Ibram X. Kendi.
The rivalry between Trevor-Roper and Taylor makes for amusing reading (as do many other moments in the book). Unbeknownst to either man, a newspaper commissioned them to write obituaries of each other. And they both used book reviews as vehicles to blast each other’s work. The feud drew international attention as the pair traded barbs and eventually squared off for debate on television.
“However rich the archive material or the testaments of witnesses,” says Cohen, “all writing about the past has an element of conjecture.” That is, it includes a real flesh-and-blood human trying to make sense of this and that. And all those historians making their conjectures do so from different vantages with different emphases.
The naive view treats historians like a channel transmitting the past to the present, like a garden hose moving water from point A to point B. But, as Cohen shows, historians are more like garden soil, both filtering the water and imparting their unique character in the process.
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