That’s the question for today: what are we historians doing, and does it matter? I wonder if it’s possible that 20 years after earning my Ph.D. that I might have chosen the wrong academic discipline. Most historians are way too methodologically conservative for me. Why has it taken me half a career to figure this out? Is it history, or is it me?
I always preferred history to literature. I always took at least one English literature course per semester in college, and toyed for a time with majoring in English, but I never got the hang of writing a literature paper. You historians can probably guess the kinds of papers I wrote for my English classes, papers that explored the historical context of whichever text or author I was supposed to be writing about instead of the text itself! I worked with loads of lit students in graduate courses in cultural theory, which were a big deal in the early 1990s at Penn. I appreciated its insights for history, but was a bit dazed at the thought of applying the ideas just to one or two “texts,” instead of loads of “primary sources.”
At the time, I never really grokked what the lit kids were up to: their methods of reading texts seemed belabored and claustrophobic, and the scope of their research and the stakes of their arguments seemed way too limited. We were all talking about Michel Foucault, but they were talking about the death of the author, while we historians were talking about power, finally! English and even Comp Lit’s interest in history also seemed old-fashioned and very focused on biography–a complaint that’s pretty ironic now, as a biographer myself frustrated by my fuddy-duddy discipline. I wish too that I had paid more attention to their different ways of reading texts–but as you may know from bitter experience yourself, education is wasted on the young.
While I was earning my Ph.D. and shortly thereafter, it seemed like literary scholars and historians were really ungenerous with one another. It was not unusual in the 1990s in interdisciplinary seminar to hear pronouncements like “you can’t say that” or “you can’t do that!,” which is weird because we clearly needed each other. This was during the rise of the “New Historicism,” after all!
I didn’t like hearing “NO” from literary scholars (or from other historians, for that matter), but I also noticed that historians were the ones who seemed likelier to make those kind of judgments and police those boundaries. Was it because deconstruction and French theory had destabilized the nature of truth and the boundaries of fiction versus nonfiction texts, and we were defensive about that? What made a text “historical” instead of “literary,” and what made us so confident that there was anything more truthful or reliable about the so-called “historical” sources we used? Historians didn’t think up these questions on our own; we needed the help of people who know how to read creatively and intensively: the scholars of literature.
In the past fifteen years, it seems like historians and literature people have enjoyed a ceasefire, mostly because after September 11, 2001 and throughout the George W. Bush years we recognized that we had far more in common than differences between us, and educational values–really, enlightenment values–seemed at risk in the 2000s as they do now again in the 2010s as we all brace to withstand the looming shadow of the Human Stain and his post-factual, post-expertise presidency.
I’m not going to resign my position, nor am I going to start writing dramatically different books–at least I don’t think so. But I’m increasingly dissatisfied with the boundary-policing and fence-riding instincts of my discipline. Now that I’ve published two books and will finally get my damn promotion, maybe my role is to continue to stand just a little bit outside, just a little bit askance of the rest of historians to keep asking “why?”
Given the masses of immigrants and refugees whose lives are on hold or in camps in South Sudan, on the outskirts of Calais, Sardinia, or in Ciuidad Juarez, it seems like the ultimate narcissism of small differences to quibble about the nature of scholarship or our “standards,” those weasely things we only evoke so as to tell someone else “NO.” Now is not the time for nibbles or equivocation. Is it important to have independent-minded scholars in our universities and cultural institutions? Do historians matter–and by historians, I mean not just college and uni professors but everyone working professionally in history–in archives, museums, and government agencies?
It’s time to stop saying “NO,” and start saying “Yes, and this is what we bring to the table.” Tomorrow, I’ll lay out a few ideas for what that is.
UPDATE, March 17, 9:30 MDT: See part II of this two-part series, “Does history matter part II: what historians bring to the table.”