Reading, Writing, and the Art of History
David Harlan, November 2010
Most of the essays published in the “Art of History” series have been about writing history. But we spend a lot more time reading history than we do writing it. Moreover, the way we read shapes and forms the way we write. We are readers first and writers second.
But ways of reading come and go, like everything else in this temporal and transient world. A way of reading history that’s popular with one generation can fall out of favor with the next one. And indeed, something like that seems to be happening right now: a practiced and developed way of reading seems to be falling out of fashion, tumbling into the past. And when it goes it may take a particular way of writing and thinking about history along with it.
For us historians, reading often takes the form of listening—for the voice of a worried midwife, a runaway slave, an angry mill worker, an unknown diary writer. It was the hope of hearing these dead people speak that drew many of us to history in the first place, and it is that same hope that drives much of our reading today. The literary historian Stephen Greenblatt has put this as eloquently as anyone:
The dream of an intense, directly personal contact [with the dead] is…what drew us in the first place to the books we chose to read, the subjects we chose to study, the work we chose to pursue, the lives we chose to live…. And from this dream, at once unique and shared, flows the energy that courses through our classrooms and our books and our articles.1
This is a remarkable statement, not least because it’s written in the first person plural. Greenblatt includes all of us (at least all of us in the humanities) when he says that listening to the dead, longing to create a conversation with them, is the great imaginative force that flows through all our classrooms, all our books and articles, everything we value, even the way we live. Indeed, this is the original incitement and primal energy that drives all our scholarly efforts—“And thus invites us,” as Descartes once put it, “to attempt what is beyond our powers and to hope for what is beyond our fate.”
But for all our longing and listening, we historians are wary of invitations like this—certainly more wary than our colleagues in other parts of the humanities. We are, after all, a rather cautious lot; we like to keep our noses close to the ground, like hunting dogs. While the anthropologists, the ethnographers, and the literary historians are busy inserting themselves into their narratives, bleeding themselves into their subjects, blurring the differences between present and past, we insist on drawing a bright line between them. If the dead can be made to speak with the living it is only across a yawning chasm of time. This sense of a fundamental division between past and present is imperative for us, a central and crucial part of what defines us as a discipline. We proceed on the assumption of an absolute distinction between past and present, a kind of primal rupture that turns the dead not into conversational partners so much as ever-elusive objects of desire. What we offer the dead is not a form of reincarnation but a kind of scriptural entombment.
All of which is to say that for us historians, writing history is first and foremost about the past and only secondarily about the present. It isn’t about us; it’s about them. What worries us about the way our colleagues throw themselves into their own narratives isn’t the fear of self-revelation (though there is that), but the fear that we will silence the dead by domesticating them, that we will force them to speak in our voices rather than their own. “I began with the desire to speak with the dead,” Greenblatt writes, with the hope “that I could re-create a conversation with them.” But at the end of the day even he has to admit that for all his careful reading, for all his concentrated listening, “all I could hear was my own voice.”2
And yet and yet and yet… for all our levelheadedness about this matter, we may be turning our faces away from a form of reading—and a way doing history—that has served us well for a very long time now. Our colleagues in literary history seem to have thought about this issue more deeply than we social and cultural historians have. And historical novelists have thought about it even more deeply. Indeed, recovering the voices of the dead seems to have become the latter’s fixed and constant purpose, their North Star, the brightly burning beacon that guides them through all their labors—and the promise that keeps their readers reading their books. It is the voice of Edgar Watson that keeps us reading Peter Matthiesson’s Shadow Country, the voice of Grace Marks that keeps us reading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, the voice of Henry James that keeps us reading Colm Toibin’s The Master. Voice is primary for historical novelists; everything else follows from and is driven by the voices they hear in the sources they read. And notice: this is the only truth to which the best of them ever lays claim. As Russell Banks says of Cloudsplitter, his fictional biography of Owen Brown, son of the abolitionist John Brown, “any reader who went there for anything other than that voice and the story it told would be either disappointed or seriously misled….”3 And there is Don DeLillo, hunched over his table in the Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library, poring over the Warren Commission Report. He isn’t looking for the facts of Lee Harvey Oswald’s often grubby life; he’s listening for his voice—“and by voice I mean not just the way he spoke to people but… the sound of his thinking.” Once he found the distinctive idiom of Oswald’s voice—his oddball rhythms and curious cadences, the routine rumble of his rambling monologues—he was convinced that he had the prose counterpart of his inner life. It’s quite a claim, but one that is absolutely central to the historical novelists’ project.
“Canst thou draw out Leviathan with an hook? Or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?” Maybe not, but hearken back to Stephen Greenblatt for a moment: after all those years spent circling around the textual traces left by the dead, straining to hear their voices but hearing only the noisy clamor of his own voice, Greenblatt—not unlike Bunyan’s Christian locked deep in the dungeon of Doubting Castle—is granted an epiphany, is made to realize that he himself has had the key all along, right there in his own breast: “I had dreamed of speaking with the dead,” Greenblatt writes. “The mistake was to imagine that I would hear a single voice, the voice of the other…. [But] if I wanted to hear the voice of the other, I had to hear my own voice.” He had to hear his own voice because, like Don DeLillo, he had come to realize that “the dead leave textual traces of themselves…and…those traces make themselves heard in the voices of the living.”4
We are all readers; we all know this experience. Over the years you simply find that a voice from the past with which you have spent a great deal of time, a voice you have come to know—a particular way of speaking, thinking, grabbing hold of life that has intrigued you, a sensibility you have come to admire—has not only stayed with you but has worked its way into your own internal patterns of perception and reflection. As we read Frederick Douglass’s account of his self-wrought transformation from bondsman to freeman, as we listen to the voice that speaks to us through his formal speeches and everyday talk, through his essays and autobiographies, we gradually discover that strains of that voice, and the modes of attention and inquiry, perception and understanding that underlay, informed and shaped it, have bled into our own interior world, have become part of our own mental and emotional repertoire. If Greenblatt and DeLillo are right about this—and I think they are—it is in just this way that the dead are not only loosed from their scriptural crypts but are invited and enabled to take up new lives among the living—indeed, to literally inhabit the living.
And it was in just this way of reading and listening that we historians used to go about what was once, for many of us, the central point of it all: the long slow work of gathering our own circle of sages about us, of creating our own company of predecessors. Trying to figure out what all these assiduously acquired ancestors may or may not have in common, trying to perceive affinities and attractions between them, trying to arrange them in chronological order so we could think of ourselves as simply the latest in a long line of such figures—and trying to recognize and live up to the obligations and responsibilities such a self-chosen inheritance imposes upon us—this is what we used to talk about when we talked about “acquiring a sense of the past” and “placing ourselves in time.” This is what “doing history” used to mean for many of us.
We don’t do history that way anymore, of course; and we certainly don’t teach our students to read history that way. The rise of social history in the 1970s, and now the rise of the new cultural history, have made it seem hopelessly old-fashioned, out-of-date—“so yesterday,” as Carly Fiorina might say. It remains to be seen whether its passing will enrich or diminish the art of history, whether it will augment or deplete our meager store of disciplinary wisdom and grace. And it remains to be seen whether teaching history will continue to mean what it used to mean: encouraging and enabling each one of our students to create her or his own sense of the past, a past that is personally sustaining, socially engaging, and politically relevant.
David Harlan teaches in the history department at California State University, San Luis Obispo.
3. Russell Banks “In Response to James McPherson’s reading of Cloudsplitter” in Mark C. Carnes (ed.), Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America’s Past (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001), 75.