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Interpretation, Imagination, and the Art of Historical Writing
02 / 28 / 11 | By: Camille Regis
We are a society that distrusts historical writing. Preoccupation with the past is a weakness — rugged individualists look to the future. “Revisionism” invites contempt. The past is behind us and should stay put: how can there be a “new” interpretation? But we delight in a good story nonetheless. Whether in conversation or on the analyst’s couch, when asked for an explanation, we usually proffer a story with a point. As anniversaries approach, the most forward-looking corporations consider backward-looking histories.
This ambivalence stems from misunderstanding. History is not an inanimate inheritance that transcends time — it is a human creation that changes as we do. Unfortunately, histories intended for the general reader are often written by well-intentioned amateurs who miss this point.
For example, there are the venerable chroniclers, admirably devoted to “capturing the history” which they assume to mean nailing down every obtainable fact and anecdote (shorn of context and in scrupulous order) as if everything was equally important. A telltale sign of this “history by the yard” approach is the concern that “there may not be enough history for a book.”
Equally problematic is what might be called the “colorful ramble through the past.” Some practitioners assume that readers are not interested in the challenges faced by real people and their institutions, and how both change over time. Others, lacking either research material or inspiration — or both — employ the sources closest at hand, whether they are appropriate or not. Anecdotal digressions at great length, long biographical sketches for even the paltriest players, and passages that never get to the point are hallmarks of this approach.
General readers know the differences between chronicles, rambles, and historical writing even if they cannot explain them. A good historian begins with chronology, crafts biographies, and delights in anecdote, but subordinates them all to a purpose. The best historians are known for exhaustive library, archival, and oral history research, but perhaps their toughest task is deciding what to leave out.
Least understood about the practice of historical writing is how creative a process it is. It takes understanding, empathy, and especially imagination to put the flesh of causality, contingency, and human motivation on the dry bones of fact, and only the scholar who has mastered his material can do it. Historians do not “cut and paste” with their hands — they synthesize with their minds.
In the end, writers of histories must decide what it all means — they must develop an interpretation. Friedrich Nietzsche identified three basic approaches. A monumental interpretation holds up individual events — and individuals themselves — for attention and admiration. The antiquarian highlights curiosities that, if nothing else, underscore just how different the past was. Academics and journalists earn tenure and sell books with the critical accounts familiar to modern readers. The best interpretations will blend these approaches, because our past, after all, is no less complex than our present.
“The past is not dead,” wrote William Faulkner, “it’s not even past.” We all carry an individual and collective memory, its meaning changing as we do, on the journey along the thin edge of existence between yesterday and tomorrow. Whether we carry our history with grace or with a grudge depends on interpretation and imagination.
Originally published in our HAIpoints newsletter. View newsletter page.
Categories: Company Histories