Publication Date

December 1, 1992

Perspectives Section


A few years ago, after struggling for some time with the problems involved in trying to write a new kind of historical narrative—one both multi-voiced and self-reflexive—I sent a chapter off to a new, innovative journal that dealt with historical topics. With my piece went a cover letter explaining that this was in no way a regular scholarly article but, rather, part of a longer narrative work meant to raise new issues for historians. Back came a form letter thanking me for submitting an “article.” I countered with a note expressing hope that my work would be evaluated not as an “article” but as a piece of an experiment in narrative. A return letter thanked me for the follow-up about my “article,” No surprise then that some months later this same “article” was rejected as “the kind of thing we rarely publish.” Nor that I wrote a testy reply: “You mean the kind of thing you never publish.”

I begin with this series of incidents not simply to berate hard-working editors and not to complain over being rejected; my full manuscript has long since appeared in print (Mirror in the Shrine: American Encounters in Meiji Japan, Cambridge. MA, 1988) to more than generous reviews. My aim is, rather, to underscore the issue to which that rejection points—namely, that there seems to be almost no (overt) interest among scholars in new forms of historical writing and no (apparent) publications in which any works that experiment with historical form can appear.

How odd this is, how conservative we historians remain! Consider: in 1966 Hayden White, in “The Burden of History” (reprinted in Tropics of Discourse. Baltimore. 1978) pointed to the “art” of historical narrative as based upon nineteenth-century models and lamented that historians had never undertaken to write works incorporating the techniques of the Modernist literary movements of the twentieth century. A quarter of a century later, the challenge in White’s observation has barely begun to be answered. This reticence toward experimentation has not been due to any new justifications for the old forms of historical representation. Quite the reverse. The intervening years have seen history, and particularly traditional narrative, come under increasing fire from armies of theorists—post-structuralist, post-colonial. Postmodern, and feminist—who have challenged its empirical premises, modes of representation, and truthclaims.

Most historians don’t read such theorists; or if they do, they shrug off their arguments as intellectual exercises that have nothing to do with the actual writing of history. Nor do they pickup on developments in collateral fields, such as anthropology, where a struggle over how to “write culture” has been raging through conferences, journals, and books for some time. Over a decade ago, a ”revival of narrative” debate did flourish briefly among historians, but this controversy lacked any reference to the insights of theorists, the worries of anthropologists, or the literary innovations of fiction. More recently, Simon Schama in Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (New York. 1989), has displayed a kind of antipathy to both theory and literary innovation as he feverishly—and brilliantly—refurbishes the techniques of nineteenth-century narrative historians.

Certainly there is no inherent reason for historians to listen to theorists or take their advice. Even those most aware of the critique are reluctant to do so. As intellectual and/or cultural historians, they for the most part focus their own efforts on literary or intellectual texts rather than political or social events, and do so within the framework of the traditional article. [One of the delicious paradoxes of the Whole discourse on postmodernism—some of it by intellectual historians—is how scholars happily proclaim the death of outworn modes of argument and representation and hail the advent of paradox, fragmentation, and contestatory voices, but do so the most traditional sorts of linear prose.]

A sense of dissatisfaction with traditional historical writing hardly has to rely on the arguments of theorists. Trained as a Dragnet historian (“Just the facts, m’am”), I did not encounter “The Burden of History” or any other critique of historical practice until “Mirror in the Shrine” was two-thirds of the way towards completion. My impulse to search for new ways of writing history grew out of two personal imperatives: an increasing boredom with the overly familiar literary qualities of most historical writing and a deep feeling that the given conventions—always writing in the third person voice or constructing a narrative that too easily papers over small fissures in evidence and gaping holes in time—were too often keeping me from expressing a full and appropriate relationship to the historical materials with which I worked; were keeping me, you might say, from seeing the past afresh and putting that vision into forms and language that could render the meaning of that freshness.

My contributions (if any) to historical narrative must be judged by others. But I want to be clear about one major point: in no way was my purpose to write fiction; that is, to make up evidence about the past. Dragnet training evidently leaves its mark, for I was (and am) eager to deal with the factual traces of a vanished past. The aim in Mirror in the Shrine was, rather, to revision data, to see and utilize it in new ways and to tell it in new voices. Such a strategy does not change facts but, rather, the ground for constituting facts and the meanings one can draw from them. I also wished, by using a self-reflexive mode, to give a sense that behind the smooth flow of history (a flow that is smooth even if the text stresses discontinuities or ruptures) is a historian who has had to make a lot of choices—aesthetic political, and moral—in order to present the reader with any meaningful historical representation. The purpose: to show the written page not as a site where wisdom is handed down from author to reader, but as one where author and reader meet to make sense of the past.

[The problem of publishing historical works that experiment with form does not apply to narrative. Just a couple of years ago, a graduate student who has written a brilliant article that was at once analytical in content and innovative in style turned to me for help in getting it published. I personally phoned the editors of a number of possible journals, explaining that the piece was unusual in, among other things, its self-reflexiveness. The single person who expressed interest in the piece phoned me a few days after receiving it and said in a shocked tone: “We can’t consider this; the author keeps speaking about himself.”]

Lack of interest from those in the discipline, lack of outlets for short pieces, lack of professional rewards—despite such strong disincentives, a few people have in recent years published historical works that test the formal boundaries of the discipline. Five examples undertaken in the United States come to mind: Elinor Langer, Josephine Herbst (Boston, 1984), in which the author wrestles in the first person with the shifting meaning of Herbst’s life not just over her subject’s span of time but also over the time during which the biography is itself being researched and composed; David Farber, Chicago 6B (Chicago, 1988), which portrays the upheaval surrounding that year’s Democratic Convention from three distinct and clashing points of view Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces (Cambridge, MA 1989), an attempt to understand the punk group, the Sex Pistols, that leads to an excavation of the “secret history” of the twentieth century, a story of art and revolution shaped not by chronology but by “ricochet and surprise”; Richard Price Alabi’s World (Baltimore, 1990), where four distinct voices, including one from an oral tradition that blends “fact” and “fantasy,” contest the telling of the history of the runaway slave colonies of Guiana in the seventeenth century; and Simon Schama, “The Many Deaths of General Wolfe” (Dead Certainties, New York, 1991, 3-70), its shifting temporal sense that portrays the historica1 past as not linear but circular.

One might add a couple of French works to this list—say Roland Barthes’ now venerable Michelet (Paris, 1954), an intellectual biography that opens with a discussion of that nineteenth-century historian’s migraine, or the recent collection, Alter Histoire: Essais d’ histoire experimentale (Paris. 1991). in which a group of scholars prove more adept at publicizing experimental history than at actually doing such history—but this is the point at which to stop and ask you, Dear Reader, for suggestions, advice, and help. The major purpose of this article, you see, is to sound out fellow historians, to see how many of you are interested in reading or writing new forms of history. If enough readers express an interest in innovative ways of writing the past, then perhaps we can join together to push for the acceptance of such work by those who edit journals or plan conventions and conferences.

Attempting to figure out what experiments in history can actually do for the discipline will not be easy. The books mentioned above add up neither to a “movement,” nor even to a “tendency,” but they can serve as a beginning, as possible models or guides for historians restive with traditional forms or as examples by which we can learn to judge the potential payoffs of formal innovations in history. For that has to be the question: how does history—and how do we as writers and readers—benefit from such experiments? Any answer must include the notion that you cannot know the full payoff of an experiment until the work has been completed. What Jean-Francois Lyotard has written in The Postmodern Condition (Minneapolis, 1984. 81) about artists and writers is also true of historians-innovative works cannot be judged by applying familiar rules and categories, for “the artist and the writer are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done”—the rules, that is, by which their works can eventually be judged. We historians, in short, must create new kinds of historical works before we can know what such works contribute to our understanding of the relationship between past and present

Any of you interested in the search for new ways of writing history, please let me hear from you.

[Of course I was tempted to write this in an experimental form, but I was afraid Perspectives would refuse to publish it!]

Robert A. Rosenstone may be reached at the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, California Institute of Technology.