Ask the Historian: #1 – Introduction Q&A

Hi friends! This is the first in a series of articles in which I (with the help of my sister) am going to be exploring history, historical controversies, the way we look back on history, and more!

Check out the link here to learn about our training and credentials (or in my case, lack thereof!).

We are very excited to share this series with you. We have put a lot of thought and work into the project and hope you walk away feeling a little lighter and more at ease with the more difficult aspects of the study of history. We thought it would be good to open with a little Q&A on some of the topics we’re going to be exploring, so without further ado, here we go…

The following is a conversation, so to speak, between the participants in the Ask the Historian Series, Tara Cowan and Hannah Cowan Jones, to introduce you to some of the themes we are going to be discussing in this new blog series.  We have put the conversation into a Question & Answer format to enhance readability.  You can think of it as a dialogue involving questions we ask each other, questions we have received from others, and thoughts we have pondered for a long time.

Q: What is your approach to the study of history?

A:  (Tara) I have certain boundaries of what I consider “responsible history”: let history speak for itself, state the facts, don’t use any of it as a vehicle for modern ideology… Approaching history with detachment is a good start to not swerving outside any boundaries.  Inevitably, we come at anything with biases and preferences that sway us.  But history speaks for itself.  It doesn’t need a champion or a modern spin.  And once you truly immerse yourself into anything, historically speaking, it’s a lot easier to lay your biases aside.  When you’re looking at cold, hard facts, the picture becomes a lot more complicated and complex, and the picture is usually messy.

I am not a proponent of pushing any sort of agenda through history or exalting any person or events. I’m sensitive to the fact that history is still emotionally charged and that it still means something to people across the broad spectrum of historical memory.  But if I could suggest one thing that has changed my study of history, changed my writing, and helped me get down to the gritty truth, it would be: just love history for the history.  Its truths will shine brighter than any point you could make about it.  Take yourself out of it.  Don’t demonize. Don’t glorify.  Don’t sanitize.  Call it like it is.

Note: Hannah has her own approach to the study of history, which will be in an audio on a subsequent blog post.

Q: What is historiography?

A: Historiography is the history of historical studies. It’s the basis of all history. It follows the approaches, shifting attitudes, and lenses of historians throughout the years. The first person to address a topic is the beginning point, and you move forward through the people and decades which have continued to address the topic, recording the shifting approaches as a sort of history in and of itself.

Q: What is historical memory?

A:  (Hannah) As with all memory studies, historical memory can be grounds for contention between what is popularly believed and what the historical record holds. The idea of collective memory comes into play from this idea. For instance, I have worked at an historical site in South Carolina where the collective memory tells that the Massachusetts 55th Infantry Regiment stayed onsite for more than a month, helped distribute medical care to newly freed African Americans returning to the Sea Islands to claim lands from the United States government, and served as a key transition of power from the United States military to the Freedmen’s Bureau in the months leading up to the end and following the Civil War. The local community has powerful oral histories that they cling to still surrounding this event, yet the historical record indicates that The Massachusetts 55th perhaps only passed through briefly on their way to the upstate, perhaps not even staying at this site. Historical memories should be acknowledged for the power that communities place in them. Triangulating them with other sources provides a richer context for getting to what actually happened. Allessandro Portelli, an Italian scholar of American culture and oral history, is a great place to start if you are interested in reading examples of where “truth” and “memory” collide. 

Q: What is hagiographic history?

A:  Oh, what fun hagiographies can be! Modern understanding of hagiographic histories tends to mean history which seeks to venerate a person, a cause, or a group. It is a one-sided telling which tends to spin everything in a positive light and assign almost heroic traits to the subject without providing a balanced prospective of true humanity or differing points of view. One modern example is often found in early biographies of historic generals. The term originated here – From about the 2nd Century on, hagiographies have been used to venerate the lives of Christian saints. Often packed with gruesome accounts of martyrdom, intense fasting, terrifying dreams, and profound miracles, hagiographers often *expanded* the truth to better embrace the fullness of the incredible lives of the saints they studied. Hagiographers examined the lives of these saints, typically knowing them very personally, and their records provide an important avenue for interpreting early Catholicism, beliefs about men and women, daily lives and customs, and much more during periods of time when the historical record can feel limited.  

Q: What is revisionist history?

A:  When you find a topic in history that interests you and you delve into its historiography, it doesn’t take long for a revisionist historian to pop up with a reinterpretation of the subject or even a bold criticism for the long-held interpretation of the subject. He or she might present new evidence that directly contradicts orthodox conceptions of the topic. More often, though, a revisionist historian will present a revised reading of historical events by challenging the moral perspective or interpretation of events with new academic theories (you commonly see this surrounding topics of race, gender, etc). These conversations can be so productive for the academic community to regard “mainstream” history through new, relevant lenses. The downside to revisionist history is that is can go too far and attribute modern morals or feelings on historic people and events—and it’s always dangerous territory to presume the motivations of people not here to speak for themselves. 

Q: Do you have any “least favorite” historical figures?

A:  A lot of people did a lot of harmful things throughout history.  Naturally, there are people who, when I am studying them, give me a sort of aversion.  If I don’t like a historical figure, I try to study him or her more.  Writing someone off based on limited knowledge, or because he or she has come to symbolize something in popular memory, isn’t historically honest or sound.  Everyone has motivations for the things they do.  Sometimes, you come out still not liking them very much, but at least you can understand them.

Q: What do you think of the phrase, “He was a man of his time?”

A:  I’m not a huge fan of the phrase. It doesn’t seem to acknowledge the humanity in all of us across history. It makes it sound as if we are no more than the cultural conditioning we have received in the world in which we were raised. But we all have an enormous capacity for good, for transcending the workaday practices in our world. Stamping that on someone is to deny that he/she had that capacity, which is to put them in a “history” box.  But he or she was a fully formed, living, breathing person. That’s not to say we become judgmental once we acknowledge that the person had the capacity to have gone beyond the influences of their day.  But just acknowledge that they could have done so first.

I think the better approach is, after acknowledging that the figure had the human capacity to “rise above,” to take a look at why they didn’t.  Then it’s perfectly appropriate to talk about what the pressures of that person’s time looked like. Sometimes we can’t answer these questions, sometimes we can.  Either way, our knowledge is the richer for having the full story.

Q:  I’ve noticed in your writing that, while you present both sides, you rarely, or never, tell the reader how to feel or wholesale condemn anyone.  Why is that?

A:  (Tara) Passing judgment from a twenty-first century perspective just doesn’t seem helpful.  Those who have lived before us had experiences, training, constraints, and pressures very different from our own.  To paraphrase several historians, we’ve had the advantage of decades or centuries to consider our problems, to try to ‘get it right.’  We have the benefit of standing on the shoulders of giants who have, in their own generations, brought us to a greater awareness of the need for equality, freedom, fairness, kindness, etc…  We are the beneficiaries of that, not the authors.  To condemn would be to deny my own need for grace and the problems in our own world today, some of which I actively try to address and others which I do not.  Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said, “Self-righteousness in retrospect is easy—also cheap.”  It’s easy to heap coals from our throne of self-congratulation, and it’s cheap to seize the moral high ground at history’s expense in making it seem as though the world was two-dimensional and clear-cut in a way it (almost) never is.

Q:  Should we condemn historical figures for the things they have done to cause harm to others?

A:  Acknowledging what has happened is perhaps most important.  This consists of stating the unvarnished truth.  Brushing anything under the rug is inappropriate when addressing history because it paints a falsehood.  Uncovering what happened is absolutely vital to understanding the past, and nothing should be covered up in an effort to protect any reputations or ideologies.

But acknowledging is different from condemning.  For events in our modern world, it’s appropriate for people who feel called to do so to denounce things which cause harm.  But people get confused when a historical figure gets brought into the debate.  The historical figure is not a participant in whatever modern debate is happening and becomes merely a vehicle for modern ideology. This causes more harm than good because it misses the nuances of history and character, building a narrative to be used for action which may not be grounded in the full story. (This can equally be true when attempting to put a historical figure on a pedestal to make a modern political point.)

It’s so hard not to get emotional when reading history because it does feel personal.  History is only compelling, after all, because humans are similar in their desires, drives, loves, and sins through the ages.  And every group—national, religious, racial, sectional, ethnic, etc.—can point to a person or multiple people who caused their ancestors great grief, hardship, and pain.  I have an example of this in my own life, which I won’t name because I imagine everyone has one, so we’ll keep this universal.  With the best will in the world to view all historical figures and peoples with detachment, this historical event and the person who perpetrated it are continual stumbling blocks for me, and I want to condemn everyone involved.  I say this to let you know that I understand the feeling.

But I know, even in the grip of my emotional responses to that subject, that this is not the right way to think.  Because no matter the event or person in history we might be discussing, there is probably someone who feels just as vehemently as I do about my stumbling block in relation to that person or event.  And where would we be if all we could do in history is sit around, a bundle of anger and emotions?  After all, no matter the legacies of the past that we are forced to live with today, shouldn’t our goal while studying history be to build a better tomorrow in our own world?  And how can we do that if we don’t view historical events or figures honestly and unemotionally?

In the words of Jon Meacham, “We learn more, not when we look up adoringly, or down condescendingly; we learn more when we look them in the eye.  Because then we might be able to see what we can do when we turn around and look at our own world.”

Photo Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art