Some newer history books shun simplicity





History is a story. We read the story to learn who we are as humans -- to learn how we've acted in the past so that we can better understand how we should act in the future.

But it's not that simple.

Academics routinely complain that popular historians oversimplify the story of history to make it more palatable for a general audience. Do the life stories of a handful of well-to-do, middle-age men really explain the American Revolution? The retort is that university scholars have gotten so focused on the minutiae of past days -- the baptismal records in rural British hamlets, for instance -- that they've lost the ability to tell the story of what happened and to explain the broader meaning.

In recent years, though, a new sort of book has begun appearing on bookstore shelves, one that works knee-deep in the nitty-gritty facts of history but also fits those facts into a tale that makes clear their importance.

Consider "Facing East From Indian Country: A Native History of Early America" by Daniel K. Richter (Harvard University Press, 336 pages, $17.50), originally published in 2001. It's a history of colonial America and the American Revolution -- but it's told from the vantage point of the people who were here when Europeans began arriving.

Early on, Richter, a University of Pennsylvania historian, describes his method as trying "to peer eastward over the shoulder of a Wampanoag woman hoeing her corn." It's a difficult task, he admits, because of the scarcity of documentation. So, he brings to bear his imagination -- never fictionalizing, but, like a detective, looking at the context (details on the religion, eating habits, housing and other aspects of Indian culture) and teasing out an understanding of how the European incursion would have changed and ultimately shattered the Native American way of life.

Often, books of this growing genre are interdisciplinary in approach. Some may not even seem, at first blush, to be about history at all, such as the delightfully odd "Rembrandt's Nose: Of Flesh & Spirit in the Master's Portraits" by Michael Taylor, just now arriving in bookstores (D.A.P., 168 pages, $27.50).

The nose? What could be sillier? Yet, Taylor shows the eloquence that Rembrandt brought to his depiction of his own nose in self-portraits and to the noses of his other sitters, and he taps into that eloquence to tell the story of the artist's life and his inner joys and turmoil....

[Reardon goes on to note several other historians including Richard White.]

... White, a professional historian at the University of Washington, has an even deeper purpose in telling this story of his mother's birth in Ireland and immigration to the Southwest Side of Chicago. He wants to examine the interplay of memory and history, to see how the stories his mother told him of her upbringing and life travels mesh with the documents and records that are a historian's stock in trade.

In some cases, the documents and records help spark further memories in his mother. In others, they seem to show that the scenes she recalls from the past are distorted. Yet, however inexact those recollections are at times, they have their own weight, their own validity as an expression of how his mother felt and thought....


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