Writing History as It Happens
Back in grad school, I wrote about early modern Europe. Personalities only occasionally shone through the fragile archival materials. When they did, I had a blast. Some 17th-century Puritans were vain, some petulant, some playful, some quick to anger. I wrote them as I found them. Those pages of my dissertation were the most fun to write, and to read.
Years later, writing a short history of a local church, I encountered a new constraint. True, the sources were more abundant, the personalities easier to reconstruct. Yet writing them as I found them demanded a different quality of care. This wasn’t investigative journalism of public figures, but an honest narrative of well-meaning, imperfect individuals, likely to be read by those same people or their widows and children. I struggled for diplomatic wordings such as, “His greatest strength was not in preaching but in pastoral care.” Had the beloved pastor in question died three hundred years earlier, I’d have felt free to say all sources agreed he was a lousy preacher.
In my current history-as-it-happens writing about polio eradication, fortunately, treating personalities with respect comes easily. The players are doing important and valuable work, policy or strategy disagreements are just that, and differences in temperament or style don’t tempt me to mockery. Debate may arise about who gets credit or which events merit coverage, but that’s a subject for another post.
10/15/2018 02:27:21 pm
So very true. I found the same problem in writing about dancers that are still alive -- how to be both honest and diplomatic at the same time. It is a thorny problem
Beth, at some point I'd love to have some conversation (perhaps not in a public forum) about how you've handled this. Our integrity as historians requires truth as we see it. But these aren't high-level politicians who have put themselves out there as public figures. They're figures in the arts or other spheres of life, sometimes even people we know. We have to take advantage of some of the other demands of writing history: to select, to arrange, to decide what to highlight. And then take advantage of our humanity to speak/write the truth with respect. It's probably a useful skill to develop for many spheres of life beyond writing.
I'd love to provide some, Rebecca. Unfortunately it was a long time ago, 456 typewritten pages long (yes, as long ago as typewriters!), and doesn't have any index, much less one with "snarky personality profiles" as an index entry.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.