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Historical Truths: Changing Perspectives on Our Pasts

October 31, 2012

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.”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 31, 2012 4:30 pm

    I love EH Carr as you know Marilyn. I’m on the road at the moment so will come back to this post later but I like the way you are thinking!

  2. November 1, 2012 5:13 pm

    What an interesting essay! I’ve only ever read theory about history writing from the postmodern perspective, but it intrigues me because of course it’s all about the way stories shape our understanding. Facts are indeed facts, but to gauge their significance, we need to see them in place in a narrative (science is forced to perform the same sort of manoeuvre). That narrative is indeed influenced inevitably by a subjective mind, but narrative itself has its own natural force that shapes and organises. I love the quote you end with, but my favourite on this subject is from Janet Malcolm, although she’s discussing biography not history. Her take is that fiction is the only place where you know all the available facts. As soon as you stray into real life, you only ever have a partial view – the possibility for someone else to come along (or some new archive material to be discovered) and radically disprove or challenge all that has previously been said never goes away. So whilst the mountain may well remain stable, we may never get hold of enough perspectives on it to give us that full, 360 degree view of it that reveals its true and unchanging shape.

    I do think these are interesting questions, and I doubt we’ve heard the last word on this topic yet.

    • November 5, 2012 9:53 am

      Thanks. Historians have been influenced by post-modernists, but unlike them retain a commitment to trying to see the mountain as well.
      The date on that quote was 1961, and the lectures from which it came are already trying to find a stable point between “nihilism” and the extreme empiricism popular that the time.
      I don’t know Jane Malcolm. Should I read something of hers?

  3. November 10, 2012 7:18 am

    Back again after my week away. Good post Marilyn. And, I’m interested in litlove’s comment from Janet Malcolm of whom I have heard but not read. Her comment that “fiction is the only place where you know all the available facts” is an intriguing one. I guess I’m more likely to say that “fiction is where you get the truths” rather than the facts (but I suppose it depends a bit on definitions).

    Quite coincidentally this idea raised its head with me again today as I was reading The lieutenant (yes, I decided I really needed to read it). You may remember the scene where Silk first reads Rooke’s journal and particularly the story about Tagaran washing herself white. Rooke realises his “innocence” in documenting such a story for others to read but then considers what expurgated versions of his stories would be like. He says “like a stuffed parrot, they would be real but not true”. I think this is the challenge for historians – to find the truths in the facts/the reality – and it’s fascinating to see what’s happening now. I feel that people are more turned onto history these days and I wonder whether it is partly for this reason, that is, that historians are thinking more about the “truths” that history can tell us rather than about reciting facts that at best can be boring and at worst can be mistrusted because we never know when facts are really so (or when they are opinions, or a skewed selection of the information available, etc).

  4. November 10, 2012 12:53 pm

    Thanks, Sue. I definitely agree. In fact, I just finished reading HISTORIANS CONSCIENCE, which Yvonne recommended. I found it very good and will post a review soon. Penny Russell makes the same point that you do about the responsibility for the historians to give meanings for the acts.
    Maybe I hold so strongly to the need for facts to be part of the equation is that I live in a national culture where many including Republican leaders have tossed out the facts. After the election one commentator said that the Republicans were not only throwing out the New Deal; they were throwing out the Enlightenment. Election night Romeny and his top advisers literally could not believe they had lost. Numerous pre-election polls had said they probably would, but he and his people thought the polls were biased and wrong. He had a victory webpage ready to launch, but no concession speech written. I am very relieved not just by the presidential victory, but by the many signs that the American electorate rejected their lies.


  1. Historian’s Conscience, edited by Stuart Macintrye. « Me, you, and books

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