Robert Rosenstone asks why historians write memoirs

Historians in the News
tags: memoirs, Robert Rosenstone

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. ...

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