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Archive for September, 2016

Writing History

From Edmund Wilson, “To the Finland Station.”

Writing history is an imaginative act. Few people would deny this, but not everyone agrees on what it means. It doesn’t mean, obviously, that historians may alter or suppress the facts, because that is not being imaginative; it’s being dishonest. The role of imagination in writing history isn’t to make up things that aren’t there; it’s to make sensible the things that are there. When you undertake historical research, two truths that once sounded banal come to seem profound. The first is that your knowledge of the past apart, occasionally, from a limited visual record and the odd unreliable survivor comes entirely from written documents. You are almost completely cut off, by a wall of print, from the life you have set out to represent. You can’t observe historical events; you can’t question historical actors; you can’t even know most of what has not been written
about. Whatever has been written about therefore takes on an importance which may be spurious. A few lines in a memoir, a snatch of recorded conversation, a letter fortuitously preserved, an event noted in a diary: all become luminous with significance even though these are just the bits that have floated to the surface. The historian clings to them, while somewhere below, the huge submerged wreck of the past sinks silently out of sight.

The second realization that strikes you is, in a way, the opposite of the first: the more material you dredge up, the more bits and pieces you recover, the more elusive the subject becomes. In the case of a historical figure, there is usually a standard biographical interpretation, constructed around a small number of details: diary entries, letters, secondhand anecdotes, putatively autobiographical passages in the published work. Out of these details, a psychological profile is constructed, which, in the circular process that characterizes most biographical enterprise, is then used to interpret the details. It is almost always possible, though, by ranging a little more widely or digging a little deeper, to find details that are inconsistent with the standard interpretation, or that seem to point to a different interpretation, or that have been ignored because they are fragments that don’t support any coherent interpretation. And usually there’s a level of detail below that, and on and on. One instinct you need in doing historical research is knowing when to keep dredging stuff up; another is knowing when to stop.

You stop when you feel that you’ve got it, and this is where imagination matters. The test for a successful history is the same as the test for a successful novel: integrity in motion. It’s not the facts, snapshots of the past, that make a history; it’s the story, the facts run by the eye at the correct speed. Novelists sometimes explain their work by saying that they invent a character, put the character in a situation, and then wait to see what the character will do. History is not different. The historian’s character has to do what the real person has done, of course, but there is an uncanny way in which this can seem to happen almost spontaneously. The “Marx” that the historian has imagined keeps behaving, in every new set of conditions, like Marx. This gives the description of the conditions a plausibility, too: the person fits the time. The world turns beneath the character’s marching feet. The figures and the landscape come to life together, and the chart of their movements makes a continuous motion, a narrative. The past reveals itself to have a plot.

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