Historical Truths: Changing Perspectives on Our Pasts
Historical Truths: Changing Perspectives about Our Pasts
(Books titles are linked to my reviews.)
Once upon a time facts and fictions were different, sharply defined categories. Facts, including historical facts, were objective and authoritative. Fiction was imaginative, true only in some funny aesthetic way. Over the last thirty years or so, that distinction has become blurred and broken. Some books are still written in one or the other category, of course, but we are slowly grappling with the understanding that even the most factual account is shaded by the subjective identity of the person who created it.
Historians have remained among those most committed to some facts being possible and important to prove, to document and footnote. They hold fast to the belief that objects and events exist outside our minds and can be known, at least in part. They still follow the old rules about how many facts can be established beyond a reasonable doubt. The cliff outside my window and World War II exist (or existed) and shape our lives, no matter what perspective I and others have of them. Facts exist outside our minds and attention to them introduces a reality check on unfettered ideas and emotions. Even historians, however, are realizing that we must be forthcoming about our own points of view as well as those we study, as we surrender our traditional omniscient stance.
In recent years, faith in objective knowledge has died off for a variety of reasons. Too often we have come to see its claims as being authoritative disproved. We have too often seen political leaders govern by lying to their people, even leading them to war on the basis of lies. As we become more knowledgeable about others we see that we have been brought up on lies about them. In the larger world we realize that the superiority claimed by the dominant colonizing powers was simply wrong.
Meanwhile, in universities “postmodernists” have challenged old assumptions of truths. Focusing on how subjective such assumptions were, they “deconstructed” them into the values of their advocates and revealed how individuals’ assumption profited them. Historians have opposed such views at their most extreme, but have also learned that they contain an element of truth.
Additional reasons why historians have changed have resulted from changes in who became historians. In the United States, historians had traditionally been white men with enough resources to have the luxury of studying the past. When I returned to grad school in the 1970s, I was part of a different group of would-be historians. Women and men from a variety of racial and social backgrounds were flooding in, and our perspective on the past differed from those of the white men who came before us. And we weren’t willing to simply add-and-stir women and blacks and all the others into the traditional narratives. We asked new questions, some of them uncomfortable. Did women have a Renaissance? How were they affected by the Industrial Revolution? How did slaves view slavery? What sources can we use to find the answers to such questions?
At first those of us asking new questions followed all the old rules. Looking closely at documents like legal papers, birth records, and census data, we added a great deal to the historical record. From the number of children women bore, we speculated about what their lives were like. From mobility data we traced the importance of kin networks in migration patterns. We have also seen that records like these need to be interpreted and that reasonable historians may disagree about what they say. Increasingly, we have to recognize our own responsibility as historians to be up front about what values we bring to the sources we study. Often this means introducing a personal element into our work, perhaps in an introduction or afterward if not in the body of the text.
As we have given up clear objective truth as an attainable goal, however, we are inching toward what we have long somewhat disparagingly regarded as “only subjective.” Historians argue about how much speculation is too much. Some historians are deliberately playing with the old distinction between fact and fiction.
Women’s history with its deliberate attention to personal and family life often brings with it the personal involvement of a scholar. I don’t see a distinction here between the level of subjectivity that women and men bring to the writing of history, however. Perhaps that is simply because these days I choose what history I read on the basis on my own curiosity and interests, no longer attempting to keep up with my field as a whole. And I most often choose to read history by and about women. What I do see is that as historians research formerly ignored groups in the past, they are also exploring the ways in which they tell their stories in the present.
Several of the histories I have read since starting my blog last January are examples of new approaches to writing history and introduce the question of incorporating the personal and subjective. In writing the history of women in San Francisco’s Chinatown in her Unbound Feet, Judy Yung is writing about the community where she and her family have long lived. Yung is an extremely careful scholar providing abundant, traditional documentation, but her account is more personal than historians have traditionally written. She includes stories of her own family and their friends in the oral histories she collected. They give an unusual immediacy and life to the points she makes.
Another more extreme example is Susan Mann’s The Talented Women of the Zhang Family about women in nineteenth-century China. She writes two versions of the lives of each of the women. One version is narrative and is full of descriptions of places and objects that her subjects would have known. In these sections, Mann draws on her immersion in the documents of the period rather than on any particular source. She says that this version resembles traditional Chinese accounts. Then she writes a more analytical and documented account about the same subjects. Here she places her subjects in the context of other historians’ work and raises questions about topics like sexuality and emotional bonds which the sources she is using do not discuss.
History is also being written as a graphic account. Last winter Oxford University Press published Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History, by Trevor R. Getz. Told in graphic form, this is the story of a young Asante women who appeared in a British court seeking her freedom from slavery. The accompanying text lays out guidance for evaluating different interpretations and new questions to consider when reading history.
Such histories are based in the assumption that multiple accounts of an event or time may each contain “truths” that can be seen as co-existing even when they differ. If we believe this, we can begin to assemble a larger picture from various narratives rather than engaging in polarized debates or what is true or false. But for historians subjectivity is never to be valued at the expense of what can be established beyond a reasonable doubt as factually true. One of my favorite quotes is from Natalie Zemon Davis, who said that “History is imagination, held in check by the facts.”
While professional historians are carefully exploring ways of incorporating subjective elements into their writings, the line between fact and fiction for those who write memoirs and autobiographies has always been blurred and has become more so. Historian Inga Clendinnen deliberately explores the differences between factual and fictional writing in her memoir, Tiger’s Eye, deciding in the end to retain the limitations which history imposes. Her Dancing with Strangers is an example of how she re-examines familiar sources of the Australian First Fleet to come to new insights about the relationship of British and Indigenous peoples. Francesa Rendel-Short also blends fiction with actual historical documentation in her memoir of her relationship with her mother in her Bite Your Tongue. Using a different approach, Drusilla Modjeska first assembled all the documentation she could find about her mother and then immersed herself in the materials to recreate her as Poppy in a fictionalized account of her life.
Of course, questions of fact and fiction are not just the concern of historians, novelists, and biographers. All of us have to make judgments about what to belief in a world where “truth” is seldom authoritative. Cynicism about science and other verifiable claims is rampant, even playing a role in the current national political contests. National leaders who were once committed to factual accuracy have been replaced by those who attack evidence of global warning and claim Barack Obama was not born in United States and is not president. Such views are no longer isolated to a few conspiracy theorists, but may affect the outcome of the upcoming elections.
Historians, with their faith that the past really happened, are moving in a direction all of us need to consider. When do we trust and whom do we trust? Perhaps we can follow their example and develop a new understanding of truth that allows for the humility of accepting that other perspectives may also have validity. Such an understanding has no room for lies or deliberate ignorance, but it can assist us in seeing a larger picture. I like the quote from the eminent British historian, E. H. Carr, which Kate Grenville uses as an epigram, “It does not follow that, because a mountain takes on different shapes from different angles of vision, that it has objectively no shape at all or an infinity number of shapes.”