02 March 2007

Personal Histories: What Use?

I read the Globe & Mail yesterday. I try to read the paper, any paper, whenever I can, but find it difficult with all the reading I have for school. Regardless, the back page of the Globe's front section, or rather, the "Facts & Arguments" section, contains an article by Chana Thau called "The Tale of a Lifetime." [1] It is about the growth of personal histories and historians and the (arguable) importance of that specific branch of history.

Thau herself is a personal historian (the author of two biographies), and thinks that personal histories are important and worthwhile. I like her use of Mark Twain's claim that "There was never yet an uninteresting life...Inside the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy."

The key in what Twain said, though, lies in audience and presentation. I can agree that history is life, and life is interesting. And the everyday things that make up a life are ever so important. But do these personal stories really matter?

Of course they matter. Especially for those whose stories they are. And, as I will get to in a moment, they will matter to future historians.

First, though, it comes as no surprise to me that the demographic group who make up the majority of personal historians ("The demographics are interesting. Most of us [at the 12th annual conference of the Association of Personal Historians] were in our fifties, sixties and seventies") are of the same generation who grew up in the heyday of social history [2], where the small story is paramount.

Beginning in the 1960s, many historians (though certainly not all; see Jack Granatstein for a stellar Canadian example) in western societies turned their backs on "big" histories that focus on "white men in suits," histories about politicians and other powerful figures. Instead, social historians often sought (and still seek) to uncover some aspect of the past via a relative unknown, some dark corner of history that was previously ignored. Women's history does this to great effect, as do other histories of marginalized or otherwise ignored groups or individuals.

So personal historians are doing what they do as a logical extension of what their history teachers no doubt told them. If the story of a relatively unknown nineteenth century Ukrainian-Canadian Manitoba housewife is important to know and understand, it follows that the personal historians' own stories, and the stories of their families do - and should - matter. As Carling points out, however, history is often only interesting to us when we can see its connection to our own lives. So while I agree that it is all well and good for personal historians to keep doing what they are doing, don't - and I do not think for a second that they do - expect me to read, or want to read, anyone's personal history.

I liken personal histories (personal historians, it seems, are just biographers with a new name) to the oil paintings that once hung (perhaps still hang?) in the houses of wealthy élites depicting their family heritage ("Here is great-great grandfather Jeremy, Earl of Haffordshire"; "Here we see my great uncle Bertram, Archduke of Brandenburg").

That these personal historians are themselves the legatees of the social historians who so despised big political histories, then - the histories of great men and their great accomplishments - is to my mind a funny paradox. Because to me, personal historians engage in the very same kind of history as the wealthy people of the past: they paint pictures of themselves, often in a flattering light, so that their families and others may look upon them in the future and remember their greatness.

The idea of personal history is inherently selfish (and I mean that in the most favourable way possible). As Thau points out in the conclusion to her article, by writing personal histories, "you can create a priceless legacy for current and future generations." And, as Bill Turkel might argue, a rich well for future historians to plumb. I think personal histories will better serve as primary source documents for future historians, rather than tales to be told today. By documenting (or archiving, if you will), your personal story, you are leaving it, with all its historical flaws, for future historians to examine and interpret.

Again, though, don't expect me to read it. I am happy that people are doing this. I think it is valuable. I may even write a few myself. But as a commercial product, and in my opinion as a public historian, personal histories are worthless. I don't particularly enjoy archival research; I can do it, and I can do it well, but it is not what I like most about historical work. And since, as I already said, the best place for these personal histories is in archives, they offer me very little interest.

Just as the bulk of written history from the nineteenth century and backward that a historian can access today is mostly only that of élites, by having people write personal histories now, future historians will be able to get a broader, richer look at our world and the people who inhabited it. To be sure, historians like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich have developed novel ways to examine non-élite life in earlier periods (See for example her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Midwife's Tale, in which she examines the everyday life of an eighteenth century New England midwife. She even manages to make it interesting.). And the written word is certainly not the be-all and end-all of sources for historians. But by leaving for future generations some clues, some hints of ourselves through these written histories, I think we will serve them well. And for bringing this to mind, I thank Chana Thau.


[1]: Like Lauren, the Globe's (and other publications') unwillingness to allow readers to see their content online frustrates me. If I want to, I can stroll down to my local library and read old papers on the shelf or on microfilm, anyway, so why make life so hard for us online visitors? They should be happy we are reading their newspapers at all.

[2]: I would have included the wikipedia entry for social history (There. I gave it to you. Are you happy?), but I do not like the definition it gives. So I present it in this footnote with a qualifier. Humph.

No comments: