Publication Date

February 1, 2011

Why is the history we write so serious? The dismal science of the 19th century may have been political economy, but history has to rank right up there as one of our own era’s more doleful disciplines. Granted, we often deal with pretty depressing subjects—war, imperialism, genocide, slavery, famine—oh, how the list of depredations and disasters goes on. But in recent decades we have given a lot of attention to happier topics as well—sports, shopping, sex, drugs, and, yes, even rock-and-roll. One might expect these subjects to inspire a lighter tone, but more often than not we approach them with the same high seriousness as the grimmest stories we tell.

It isn’t as if historians as human beings lack all sense of humor. In fact, I can testify that some of my colleagues are exceptionally funny. They are quick with quips in personal conversations; their classrooms often echo with laughter; their wit even manages to lighten the mood in department meetings, which is saying something. Some of us find amusement in the malapropisms and other bloopers we read in student exams and papers (as when euthanasia is miraculously transformed into “youth in Asia”). We’re even capable of laughing at ourselves and our professional tribulations, especially after we’ve had a few beers. We read academic satires with relish, and although it is our colleagues in English who usually get mocked by Kingsley Amis, David Lodge, James Hynes, and other masters of the genre, it’s easy enough to see ourselves in their spot-on satires. Yet we can’t seem to see the humor in those peoples, events, and processes of the past that we ourselves write about.

Let me stress that I’m not urging us to direct our energies to the kinds of publications that range from that old favorite 1066 and All That to the countless compilations of historical trivia with titles like Presidential Anecdotes and The Wit and Wisdom of the Founding Fathers. I’m talking about serious historical scholarship. And there’s the rub—we find it hard to describe the sort of history we are trained to do without resorting to the adjective “serious.” We are prisoners of our professional pretentions. How can we persuade one another that our work is important if we don’t insist on its seriousness? How can we stay in good standing in that exclusive club of academic historians if we intentionally elicit laughter? (The fact that we all too often unintentionally do so is another matter entirely, of course.) Thomas Babington Macaulay, who didn’t have to worry about these sorts of professional prohibitions, wrote a wickedly witty account of British society in chapter three of his History of England, which is surely the most widely read and best loved portion of that five-volume tome. But if Macaulay has any modern counterparts, I haven’t come across them. 

Sure, humor’s hard to pull off. But sometimes the evidence we come across is ready-made for comedy. I recently wrote an intellectual biography of the famed Victorian explorer and translator Sir Richard Burton, some of whose ideas were so wacky that the sensible response was to hoot with laughter. How could anyone take seriously his claims that homosexuality was caused by the hot climate in places like Greece, India, and, you guessed it, California, or that some African peoples had physiognomies that could be classified as “semitic” from the eyes up and “negroid” from the nose down? Yet I discussed this nonsense in a responsible academic fashion, doing what we historians are taught to do—contextualize, interpret, explain. More recently, I was doing research in the National Library of Scotland, where I came across some entertaining letters by Christopher Rigby, a British consul in mid-19th-century Zanzibar. It turns out this fearless empire-builder was utterly unmanned by the terrifying task of finding an English wife. “A friend of mine,” he reported at one stage in his search for a spouse, “discovered after his marriage that his wife had a glass eye; and some time back I was at a dinner party… when a young lady at table fainted & was carried out. Whilst they were rubbing her feet to restore animation, it was suddenly discovered that she had a cork leg! And really what with false hair & false eyes and cork legs and false calves and Madame Rachel painting the eyebrows & enamelling the cheeks, no one can tell what he is marrying.” Here was someone who could have been a character in one of Oscar Wilde’s plays. By the time I’d finished reading Rigby’s correspondence, my inadequately stifled laughter had drawn more than a few angry glares from the dour Scots who shared the reading room with me.

Recovering the humor in history isn’t merely a matter of finding funny material, of course. It’s also a function of the tone we take in discussing that material. As professional historians, we’re supposed to adopt an objective, balanced stance toward our subjects.  That’s all well and good, but it isn’t terribly conducive to the comedic touch. And how many of us actually abide by that ideal anyway? We’re more likely to adopt one of two subjective approaches. One is stern and prosecutorial, exposing the crimes and criminals of the past. It’s hard to see any humor in someone like Hitler, I’ll grant you. But rather than always resorting to the censorious rhetoric of history’s high court, there’s something to be said for the occasional use of ironic understatement. Hitler’s problem, one of my mentors once wryly remarked, was that he lacked flexibility and good will.

The other form of subjectivity that often creeps into our scholarship is the redemption narrative, which is equally at odds with amusement. We’ve all taken too much to heart E. P. Thompson’s famous injunction that we must rescue our subjects from the condescension of history. Maybe, just maybe, a little condescension is in order. After all, what’s the point of having the benefit of hindsight if we can’t condescend to those who lacked our privileged position toward the past? A lot of humor—parody, caricature, farce, satire—actually hinges on condescension. It’s what makes poor Rigby’s plight funny. Unfortunately, it’s also why we so often leave stories like his on the cutting-room floor of our scholarship.

The question I’ve been asking myself of late is whether there isn’t some way to bring stories of this sort back into our histories, or, to put it more precisely, to rethink the way we write our histories in light of these stories. The fact that I’m working on a book about British explorers in Africa and Australia may have made me more susceptible than usual to how preposterous the past can seem on occasion. I’ve found it increasingly difficult to take those oh-so-earnest, suicidally brave, self-deluded explorers entirely seriously. The great anthropologist Johannes Fabian got it right, I think, with the title of his book on German and Belgian explorers in Africa—Out of Our Minds. If we acknowledge that these men were indeed in some sense out of their minds, then the challenge is to write a history of exploration that is attentive to the ways it was a black comedy.

So how can we bring a bit of humor back into history? Not having actually accomplished this feat in my own work, I’m hardly one to offer advice to others. Nor am I aware of any especially compelling models to recommend. But a few observations seem obvious enough to offer up as points of departure for those daring souls who might be tempted to take up this call for comedy. First, start small. Let’s face it, if you try to knock the ball out of the park with your first at-bat, you’ll probably strike out. On the other hand, the occasional waggish aside or droll character sketch can work wonders, causing your reader to perk up and take notice. Second, don’t discount the mundane. Just as comedians’ best riffs often come from their everyday experiences, your most promising sources might seem commonplace or insignificant at first glance. To find the humor in this material is in turn to alert us to its significance, to tell us something illuminating about the human condition or, alternatively, about the past as a different and very strange place. Rigby’s anxieties reveal a bit of both. Finally, don’t try this until you have tenure! Some of your senior colleagues, alas, may not have a sense of humor.

The point, then, is this: just because the people we study tended to take themselves and their dilemmas seriously doesn’t mean we too always have to do the same. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to read a latter-day Macaulay, someone who wasn’t afraid to wield wit and satire when writing history?  True, it may be a tall order to expect another Macaulay any day soon. But at least the rest of us can lighten up a little.

is the Elmer Louis Kayser Professor of History at George Washington University. He is currently holding a resident fellowship at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle, North Carolina. His publications include The Magic Mountains: Hill Stations and The British Rajand The Highly Civilized Man: Richard Burton and the Victorian World.

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