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.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.