This Thing Called History
I apologize for the lack of substantive posts of late. The school year is now in full swing and I have very little time to think about anything other than my classes. I did find time to read a bit in Erskine Clarke’s new book, By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey. Thanks to Basic Books for sending along a review copy. It’s a fascinating story, but rather than try to explain it, I recommend reading the website’s description. Clarke has a really nice description that beautifully sums up what it is that we do as historians and what many of us try to impress upon our students.
To be sure, any persuasive reconstruction of the past must demonstrate careful research and faithful attention to details. But the historian’s task is not primarily to present a catalog of discovered “facts.” Rather, the historian attempts to enter as deeply as possible into the lives and into the social and cultural contexts of those lives in order to interpret and re-create for the present a past world. The study of history is, finally, an exploration of mysteries, the continuing exploration of–and arguments about–the lives of particular people, and about the dynamics and forces that influence the course of human life. The writing of history is plunging into other times and other places and into the story and stories of other people and then emerging with the historian’s account of what has been seen and heard even in the empty places and silences of the past.
I may have my students think about this description as they begin to synthesize a selection of primary and secondary sources related to the establishment and development of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.