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Why Does a Historian Write a Memoir?

The adventures of a postmodern historian

As the author of a memoir, one becomes conscious of the fact that such a work might be construed as more than a touch narcissistic. This idea did not bother me when I was involved in writing my memoir, Adventures of a Postmodern Historian; it only bothers me now that it is in print. Happily, a recent book has, like the cavalry, ridden into town to help me deal with such feelings. It is written by Jaume Aurell, a brilliant medieval historian from the University of Navarra, and published by Routledge as Theoretical Perspectives on Historians’ Autobiographies. I take it this drab title may be the publisher’s attempt to legitimize what might otherwise be considered a frivolous work. Historians’ autobiographies indeed!, you can hear some in the profession saying. Why don’t they stop navel-gazing and get on with the business of writing history? — as if our lives are not a part of history as well.

Aurell shows that professional historians have produced some 450 works of autobiography or memoir, the bulk of them in the last few decades. “It is possible,” he suggests, “that no other academic discipline can boast of such a high number of autobiographies written by its professionals.” Perhaps, then, my work is less a product of personal narcissism than of a more general professional narcissism. Or might we see it as, more simply, the return of the repressed, an interest in the dimensions of the self and subjectivity that were banned from academia for a long time. One theme in my book is the extent to which a historian’s choice of subjects and approaches to them reflect the larger social, political, and intellectual movements of the culture. Aurell gives me comfort that in writing a memoir I seem to be swimming with the tide, not against it.

I situate my book between three texts. The first is by that fine historian of early modern Europe at Johns Hopkins University, Gabrielle Spiegel, who wrote: “It is my profound conviction that what we do as historians is to write, in highly displaced, usually unconscious, but nonetheless determined ways, our inner, personal obsessions.” (These obsessions, I think, are clearer at the end of a career than at its outset.) The second is from the French poet, Paul Valery: “There is no theory that is not in fact a carefully concealed part of the theorist’s own life story.” The third is from E.H. Carr’s Cambridge lecture series that became the now classic book, What is History?:

Study the historian before you begin to study the facts. This is, after all, not very abstruse. It is what is already done by the intelligent undergraduate who, when recommended to read a work by that great scholar Jones of St. Jude’s, goes ’round to a friend at St. Jude’s to ask what sort of a chap Jones is, and what bees he has in his bonnet. When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing. (p. 26)

This metaphor is an excellent way of describing the process of doing history. It might be said that I wrote this work as a way to uncover the buzzing in my own bonnet. Those bees sting you with a topic, and it takes years to remove that stinger and come to an understanding of the lessons that were contained in the pain it gave you.

I was trained as an empiricist, or what I like to call a Dragnet historian (“just the facts, ma’am”). Yet I found, even before the onslaught of poststructural and postmodern theory, that the boundaries of traditional historical writing were unnecessarily confining, mired in literary practices that did not allow me to produce works that expressed the full range of experience and emotion found in or suggested by the sources. With my third book, this led to a search for new ways of writing history, one that resulted in the multivoice narrative, Mirror in the Shrine. This push towards new forms of writing — not for innovation’s sake but to find out what else we might learn from the past — later included investigations into film and, or as, history. Now it has spread to this memoir.

As for the question posed in my title — why does a historian write a memoir? — I can’t answer for the 450 other scholars in my profession who have done the same. For me the process was an attempt to understand, through the dark and shifting screen of memory, aided by documents and publications, if and how my own works, written over the last half century, have been shaped by and reflect not just issues of the past, but also of current social and political conditions. My goal in writing the work was to share with others the hard-won insights about the practice of doing history learned in more than a half-century of researching, thinking about, and writing the past.

Adventures of a Postmodern Historian is a story of how someone trained in the norms of the historical profession in the mid-twentieth century is moved to alter his beliefs about and practices of history over the next few decades. The reasons for these changes are obviously complicated: at the very least, a mixture of personal desire and interests; meta-changes in the social, cultural, political, and technological landscape; encounters with books, people, and places; and the impact upon academia of new theories about the relationship between language and reality, past or present. Such a mixture can hardly be precisely measured. It can, it seems to me, best be explored as part of a life story that meshes the objectivity of the historian with the subjectivity of the writer of fiction. And if the details of the story are unique, elements of the struggle to adapt history to changing social and intellectual expectations have been common enough among historians in the last half-century.

The book centers on the four sites of my historical projects and the books that have resulted: Franco’s Spain for Crusade of the Left, a history of the Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War; the Soviet Union for Romantic Revolutionary, a biography of the radical poet and journalist John Reed; Japan for Mirror in the Shrine, a work on American sojourners in nineteenth-century Japan, and Hollywood for Visions of the Past. I have tried to write it in line with director Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of drama: “Life with the boring parts left out.” The same, it seems to me, should apply to memoirs. In each of our lives and careers, there is drama, intellectual and emotional, during the processes of research and of writing. Yet two common tendencies of the memoir can detract from expressing this: one is the inclusion of so much detail, so much dutiful listing of events and people, that the overall thrust of the work disappears into a welter of disparate moments and facts; the second is an avoidance of the personal, the subjective, the intimate, and the psychological in favor of the external markers of a career. Too often this means leaving out, or marginalizing, questions that underlie our work as historians: why do we choose the topics we do? How do we decide what approach to take towards them? How do we choose to shape our narratives? And to what extent do the experiences and physicality of the research process itself mark the works we produce?

The sources I used for Adventures are the standard ones: personal memory, letters, diaries, journal entries, articles, books, and other traditional documents. But the form in which it is written is meant to challenge the boundaries of the genre and to offer suggestions for broader literary strategies to evoke the moments and events of the past. Though roughly linear in structure, the book partakes to some slight extent of collage. That is, each section does not necessarily follow directly from the previous one; it may overlap with it, or precede it, or even occur in a different time zone altogether. One of my aims was to avoid creating the past as a seamless story devoid of doubt. For it seems to me that a search for the truths of the past should allow our works to express some of the ambiguity and disconnection that marks all our lives.

Adventures of a Postmodern Historian is written in loosely connected short sections, fragments, and mini-stories around my four major scholarly books, and it includes the experiences, ideas, and social forces that — to my mind — gave birth to them. The word adventures is meant to convey my feeling that the practice of researching and writing history is always just that — an adventure, if sometimes one that only takes place in our mind. As for the now somewhat outdated word, postmodern, I use it as a way of signaling that this is not the usual third-person, distanced historical narrative, but one that draws upon some of the techniques utilized by contemporary writers of fiction.

Rather than the dry and distanced tone of conventional history, I utilize an authorial voice that is alternately passionate, humorous, ironic, and analytic; a voice that avoids the overarching solemnity of writing about the past, which haunts many memoirs. It is a voice unafraid to indulge in describing the romantic, even erotic impulses that can mark the practice — or at least the practitioners — of history.

I recreate dialogue, set in italics, for conversations that took place so long ago that nobody could possibly remember the exact words spoken. The intent is not to suggest these are accurate transcriptions of what was said, but rather to dramatize memories and make more accessible an overall sense of what transpired.

Chapters are punctuated by invented letters from people close to me (e.g. friends or lovers) who shared some of the experiences of my research life. Though fictional, they are more like composites, based on a mixture of actual letters, old documents, and personal recollection. Meant to serve as a vehicle for questioning, criticizing, and presenting alternate versions of what my main authorial voice asserts, they provide a kind of counter perspective to the narrator’s expressed memories, activities, and beliefs, and are part of an attempt to regard the historian from the outside; to catch the foibles and absurdities that mark his days as seen through the eyes of intimate friends.

Interspersed throughout the narrative are reflections on the problems of how to write a work of history, and the specific problems of how to construct a shape for the works in question, which vary from narrative history to biography to the analytic essay. The issue of form has always been important to me, and part of my quest as a historian has been to find forms appropriate to the topic at hand. Long before Hayden White began to write about the content of the form, I instinctively understood that form is never neutral but a strong shaper of the meanings of our works.

I also intersperse the personal narrative with fragments from my previously published works. These excerpts are meant to suggest how the author’s personal experience inflects the history he writes, and they are included to show connections between the process of research and the works to which the research contributed.

The structure of the work, too, partakes in the unusual. Though more or less chronological, Adventures refuses to tell a seamless story of what happened in the past. This strategy arises from my desire to leave some sort of ambiguity in the experience of the past, to not explain everything, but to leave some of the disconnection and lack of understanding that marks our lives. A narrative that smooths out the wrinkles and ignores the lacunae in the historical record is no more than a misleading literary device, for the truths of the past are also located in its ruptures and unknowns.

Finally, I refuse to conclude Adventures with some moral or universal lesson, simple or otherwise, about the “meaning” of what the author has undertaken and accomplished. Instead, I try to leave that task up to the reader (insofar as it is possible).

It is my use of these various literary strategies that compels me to label myself a postmodern historian. For some people the word postmodern is problematic. I first came upon it late in the eighties when it was applied by some critics to Mirror in the Shrine. Later I occasionally embraced it as, in essays and books, I attempted to make — not all that successfully, I fear — the contentious case for dramatic films as a vehicle of history. If its definitions can seem so multifarious and contradictory as to have become meaningless, the word still speaks to me of something real and important. This is clear when I ponder the differences between the intellectual, cultural, and historical climate of the sixties, when I was trained as a historian, and that of today, long after revolutions in both communications and research techniques, after the subjectivity of language has snuck back into our discourse, and after topics for historians have expanded to include the once unthinkable: sexual practices, gender identities, and non-human topics like codfish, garbage, trees. In its ruminations over narrative approaches and strategies, Adventures is meant to raise questions about the forms in which we tell the past, personal and social, and to suggest ways of nudging them towards the loosened sensibilities of the contemporary world.

Portions of this essay have previously appeared on the Los Angeles Review of Books Blog.

Robert A. Rosenstone, Emeritus Professor of History at Caltech, is the author of more than a dozen books, including works of history, biography, criticism, and fiction. He is the Founding Editor of the journal Rethinking History.

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