A Short History of A Historian
And other parallax views...
Does history repeat itself—the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce? No, that’s too grand, too considered a process. History just burps, and we taste again that raw-onion sandwich it swallowed centuries ago.
Scholars and pundits have been arguing about history—how it’s written, why it’s written, and if events repeat themselves—ever since Cain took a rock to Abel’s noggin. No one’s satisfied with any version of it; that’s why there’s so many “histories” of this event and that one and all those over there.
Events and people are the stuff that history is about.
This concept might be hard to swallow, but history is the record of events and people; history is not the events themselves. When commentators decry the “rewriting of history” it’s generally because someone’s providing a different interpretation of the events or the people. The past cannot change… at least, not without some kind of intervention that only Rod Serling could come up with.
History repeats itself: historians repeat each other.
This bit of wisdom covers a great deal of ground in six words. Yes, events often seem eerily similar, but the historical profession often repeats what other scholars already wrote. That, in fact, was the historical profession until the 18th century. It’s what the earliest scholars had to work with, for the most part, because of what they were writing about.
The earliest historians worked for patrons who paid handsomely… sometimes.
History was not written for the masses until the 19th century, by and large, because the scholars doing the writing were making their patrons look good. These patrons were usually princes or ecclesiastics desiring to enhance their image or cement their rights in the positions they held. More “popular” histories—those written for their own sake—were usually manuscripts passed down to other scholars or scribes, who were often monks.
History brings us together; memory divides us
I’ve used this quote before and it’s apt here. This for-the-patrons history was all there was for a long time because those wealthy and important patrons controlled access to the sources: the documents that the histories were based on. Historians writing about those important people who were not working for those patrons only had those other scribes’s material to work with. What was worse, some sources that the patron’s scribes had to use were not as authentic as they should have been; some source documents were out-and-out forgeries.
Then there are those speeches…
The written word can be forged; the spoken word can be misremembered or completely made up. Before mechanical and then electrical/electronic media in the late 19th century, people used to write what the great orators held forth about. Often they were the early correspondents of the mass media (which became a profession in the 18th century), but just as often they worked for the speakers themselves… or their enemies. We have ancient speeches that historians today rely on as sources of historical truth. I wouldn’t, but that’s me. However, many did in the past, and as an example of how history is written, we have the story of Herodotus.
Herodotus is called the Father of History by some; a great story-teller by others.
Herodotus wrote about the Greco-Persian wars (460-454 BC), producing The Histories after 430 BC. Like any praise-singing captive historian, The Histories primarily cover the lives of prominent kings and their battles. It also provides a cultural, ethnographical, geographical, and historiographical background. That said, scholars and other historians have criticized Herodotus for his inclusion of legends. Thucydides accused him of making up stories for entertainment. Herodotus said that he reported what he saw and what someone else told to him. Modern historians and archaeologists have confirmed parts of The Histories.
Today we’d call Herodotus an independent scholar… and just about as reliable as any other who worked with the past.
His challenges included not having a model to work from, nor a mentor to guide him, nor, that we know of, a wealthy patron—we don’t know how he supported himself or his travels. As a Greek living in the shadow of Persia, both probably carefully scrutinized his work. While the period isn’t my area, I’ve read The Histories and find it incredible that anyone could have documented some parts of it at all. Herodotus was working with human memory—his and those of others—and with precious few relatively stationary documents, or even artifacts. His title, The Father of History, originated with the Roman orator Cicero, who was born a good three centuries after Herodotus passed.
How would Cicero have known how accurate Herodotus was?
And here we have the problem of the parallax view in history: where does the legend begin and the fact end? How much of what we “know” is just a repeated legend? Scholars who can no more verify his claims than anyone else often quote Herodotus without questioning him. Why? They wouldn’t have too much else to say if they didn’t. Thus, historians repeating each other, again. Not that all history is a repeat of every other, even if it seems that way sometimes. Historians who are working scholars—especially in the 20th century and after—spend a great deal of their time doing non-scholarly stuff, like staff meetings, marketing tours for their last books, tenure committee meetings, and on and on. All historians have had to deal with the same issues; issues that seem to stack one on another until we lost the core work somewhere under the rubble of what was once a career/profession.
So we repeat the history of history in every scholar and every history.
Since Herodotus, there have been hundreds—thousands—of historical writers who worked with what they could get their hands on, but often that was human memory, second-hand documents, other historian’s work, handed-down tales and that old standby of the historical record: traditional accounts. Who can refute them? Some have tried to break the mold and write something completely different from the traditional accounts. But history, like every other endeavor, depends on the market: someone has to want to buy it. To do that, historians have often pandered to the market, fudging this fact, leaving that one out… you know that drill, just like the patrons of old didn’t like to read that their ancestor was a rat. They still do it, which is how we ended up with the 1619 Project. While it is another version of the founding of the United States, it is so blatantly wrong and biased that its endurance is questionable even if its polemical purpose is clear.
The “winners” do not write history; it’s written by those who control the narrative for the audience and want to get compensated.
You’ve seen this argument from me before. The old saw—as this very brief history of history shows—declares that smug “victors” are the ones who write the history books. While many do, so do many “losers” who write contrary versions. Often the contra-histories have some validity, but just as often they don’t. When the “profession” of history started at universities in the 19th century—the first “historians” being university trained in the 18th—it was because there was a market for it: the growing need to train young citizens. Popular historians—myself included—are frequently school-trained but just as often self-taught, coming from education or journalism and sometimes the law. All have biases of one sort or another. All do what they can to counterweight those biases with analysis. We’ve been doing it for a long time. And we can’t know if we get it right without perfecting that time machine.
The Past Not Taken: Three Novellas is a brief take on the mechanics of how history is written. A young scholar works with an obscure but important archive that has material in it that, frankly, is questionable in its authenticity. He is bold enough to question it, but is he smart enough to defend the questions?
The Past Not Taken takes place in the 1980s, before Cancel Culture took over many campuses, topics and faculty departments. Some subjects that are broached in the stories are now hot-button issues; some are so obscure as to be irrelevant. But as I talked about earlier, they are all part of a working scholar’s life. The Past Not Taken is available in paperback and ebook, autographed if you’re so inclined.
CK ‘73 Update
Some activity worth reporting:
There’s a germ of an idea for a class gift afoot: a professional digital recording of a professional chorus singing our school songs. The school would get the masters from the class to sell from behind a paywall, on DVD/CD or whatever they choose. Proceeds would go where they were most needed. Bill Colosimo is investigating.
A website is in process by yours truly. Be patient because I just don’t do it well and my time is limited.
Watch this space for updates.
Guy Fawkes Day Reconsidered
Remember, Remember The Fifth of November
On 29 October:
1929: Black Tuesday on Wall Street, when they traded an unprecedented sixteen million shares. The market had been tottering since mid-September, but by mid-November, the selloff was spent and the New York Stock Exchange was in an advanced state of collapse. Some say this event enabled the Great Depression in the 1930s. While today that many shares could move in a minute—modern trading is two to four billion a day—a century ago, sixteen million was a lot.
1956: The Huntley-Brinkley Report began its fourteen-year run on the NBC network, replacing John Cameron Swayze’s Camel News Caravan. In direct competition with Walter Cronkite’s program on CBS, the somehow reassuring “Goodnight, Chet; Good night, David” was last heard on 31 July 1970. Chet Huntley passed away in 1974; David Brinkley in 2003.
And today is NATIONAL CAT DAY. Give your tabby an extra scratch on the head, staff member… you know you are their staff, right?