Friday, June 6, 2008

General Orders Eighteen

Victor Davis Hanson is a splendid historian. I have read his political commentaries for the last four years. Recently, he wrote about the role of the historian and, more specifically, the guidelines a historian should follow when writing their books. In the article, he gives the following three points:

1) All source materials should be presented in an analytical rather than a prejudicial manner.

One would think this should always be the case, but it is not. One of the seminars I took in the quest for my master’s degree was on historiography. The professor’s primary objective was too teach us budding historians just how manipulative scholars can be and usually are. The use of a half a quote here, or of one source over another there, or the overuse of a source period can skew the “story.”

This class made a real impact on me. As I start my own career as a Civil War historian, it is important that I present the material not to shore up or to destroy, but to reveal to the best of my ability, what happened during the event I am writing about.

2) Draw together a lot of sources and provide engaging narration.

On the second part of the point, just let me say, Amen! During the last two years, I have been forced to read articles from academic journals that made me want to gouge out my eyes. I know that academia has its own style, but please… why can’t the author invest some time in trying to present his material in an engaging manner. Does the author get points for being boring or pedantic?

On the first part, it is important to realize that most sources are eyewitness accounts told years after the event. Human memory is unreliable at best, and most authors have “agendas.” Not all agendas are bad, but an agenda still skews the story. So, I get a little nervous when one source is touted as the final or only authority. I find this happens in the historiography more than it should.

3) Speak in terms of a philosophy beyond just the particular history or period or era.

This one is probably the hardest for me to define. What is my philosophy in writing about these times? What is it that draws me to the men of the Army of Northern Virginia? What could I possibly add to the discourse? Since I have read Hanson’s article, I realize I don’t have a firm handle on my philosophy. I know I want to write on topics that will contribute to the understanding of the war, but just what that contribution is, well, I seem to have some more thinking to do.

As I take the first steps in researching my very first topic and writing my very first "history", I will keep these guidelines in mind, while at the same time, making sure that whatever I produce will add positively to the discourse and historiography.