Publication Date

January 3, 2009

AHA President Gabrielle Spiegel presided over last night’s “Opening of the 123rd Annual Meeting,” starting off with a quick welcome to participants and audience members, then moving on to the night’s events. First off was the presentation of the sixth Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Public Service Award to Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost. Spiegel explained that the Roosevelt-Wilson award is given “to honor a public figure or other civil servant who has made extraordinary contributions to the study, teaching, and public understanding of history.” Hochschild embodies this, with work that has “focused on topics of important moral and political urgency, with a special emphasis on social and political injustices,” and that has “had an extraordinary impact, attracting readers the world over, altering the teaching and writing of history and affecting politics and culture at national and international levels.”

Hochschild graciously accepted the award, thanking those who have made his achievements possible: his wife, his editor, and the numerous historians with whom he’s consulted over the years. He went on to emphasize that history belongs to us all, and that we should be grateful for the freedom we have in this country to delve into the past. He explained, and gave examples, of the many parts of the world where studying and teaching history is a dangerous business.

The award presentation was followed by the plenary session: “Pleasures of the Imagination.” Gabrielle Spiegel chaired the roundtable discussion and began it with a look back at past AHA presidential addresses that mention the imagination in relation to the field of history. She noted that Albert Bushnell Hart was quite against imagination in history in his 1909 address, “Imagination in History,” calling it a “corroder of exactness.” But then went on to mention that past AHA presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Carl Bridenbaugh felt differently, seeing imagination as an important tool of the historian.

The plenary session continued on with the imagination theme, first with Linda Colley, Princeton University, who explained the “indispensability of the imagination” in recreating trauma. She explained that since most historians don’t directly experience plague, war, genocide, and other traumas like these they must draw on their imaginations in conjunction with their judgement to explain and reconstruct these events in their writing. She was followed by John Demos, Yale University, who spoke on the importance of historical objects and how the emotion they elicit can be fuel for the imaginative process.

Next up was Jane Kamensky, Brandeis University, who examined not only how portraits require the use of the imagination but also how historians themselves are in some sense painters, creating images of past places and people. Jill Lepore, Harvard University, went on to discuss novels and the imagination, starting off with a story of a colleague who declared a personal “daytime ban of reading novels.” Lepore argued that “historians ought to read fiction by the light of day,” and recognize the novel’s place in the study of history.

Robert A. Rosenstone, California Institute of Technology, touched on how narration affects the interpretation of history. He explained that by gravitating away from the third person past tense that so many historians embrace and experimenting with voice and narrative can lead to new insights in interpreting historical events. Past AHA president Jonathan D. Spence, Yale University, spoke on the place of imagination in understanding transcripts and official documents. And how what is both said and left unsaid in these formal texts can reveal much about the feelings and motivations of historical players.

The roundtable was concluded with Natalie Zemon Davis, University of Toronto, and also a past president of the AHA, who also spoke about reading into silences. She said that, “we as historians all face silence at some point in our research,” when gaps in sources dry up and disappear.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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