The Role Of The Historian

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It’s early Saturday morning and I’m driving through history on my way to history. Like the hills I’m traveling through, the rain ebbs and flows in calm undulating waves.

“Calm” and “undulating” might not go together at first glance but think of sinusoidal waves. They move up and down with precise regularity. That regularity equates to calmness. The “up and down” represents “undulation” defined.

Such is the role of the historian, who commands the log of the human ship through waves of foible fads, ever trying to keep it calm and undamaged, despite its erratic and often misguided crew.

“Memory, thy name be frailty.” The metaphor of this butchered Shakespearian quote suggests the theme of this essay. It also represents the burden of the historian.

Just what is the role of the historian?

And by “historian” I refer to the traditional “chronicler” of history definition, not the definition provided by New York State as it pertains to publicly appointed historians. This legal definition was provided in a previous Commentary (“The History of Local Historians,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, September 14, 2023). New York State law treats publicly appointed historians as those who support the research of others, not necessarily as those who conduct primary research (although many do).

If we are to go to what many consider the primary source for definitions (the Oxford English Dictionary), we see “historian” defined as “A writer of history, esp. one who analyses events critically, as opposed to a chronicler or compiler; an expert in or student of history.”

But the OED ain’t what it used to be, and its definition of historian may betray a modernist view that lacks the purity of the original intent of what a historian does.

Its rival reference guide, the Cambridge Dictionary, defines historian more succinctly as “someone who writes about or studies history.” As brief as this definition is, it leaves open the question as to whether the proper historian duties are one of providing a raw chronicle of primary sources or one of analytical interpretation.

Face it, interpreting the actions of others can be a fun parlor game. Reporters have an advantage over historians here. A good reporter might interpret a news story, but that interpretation doesn’t find itself in the original article unless it can be confirmed through interviews of at least two independent primary sources.

Alas, for historians, the primary sources died years, decades, even centuries ago. Unfortunately, modern historians who “reenvision” history are mere speculators. Speculation represents the dividing line between art and science, faith and reason, hearsay and scholarship.

Ouch. Especially that last one.

If anything, historians ought to view themselves and their occupation as one of academic integrity. The rigors of good scholarship does allow for speculative interpretation, but only if it is qualified as such and only as a suggestion for the direction of future research.

Here’s an example. Actually, two very similar examples.

We know that George Washington crossed the Delaware and that Gaius Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Their later actions confirm why each general crossed these rivers. Those represent facts to chronicle.

What we don’t know is how they felt as they made the crossing. If we were a contemporary reporter, we would have asked them. This query then removes any need for interpretation.

But we can’t go back in time. As a historian curious about writing of these crossings from the personal perspective of Washington or Caesar, what should we do?

We have two choices.

We can imagine what they must have felt given the facts and circumstances known to us. This permits us to provide an interpretation of their feelings. This is what a good story-teller does.

Alternatively, we can find a journal or diary entry they might have made to describe their feelings. This is what a good reporter does.

Is one better than the other? From the point of view of a historian, as Jack Webb’s character Sergeant Joe Friday religiously said on Dragnet, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Think about it like this. As eloquent as the prose may be, a fanciful interpretation is not the facts. If a historian writes this, there’s a risk some future historian will then reference it. Granted, that future historian makes the mistake of not relying on primary sources, but, after a few generations, that false story becomes the official record.

That’s not good history.

This dichotomy of “historian as chronicler” vs. “historian as interpreter” is as old as, well, history itself.

Many scholars agree with Cicero, who dubbed Herodotus as “the father of history.” His volume Histories chronicles detailed events of the Greco-Persian Wars. A newsman might refer to him as “the father of journalism” because his reporting relies exclusively in interviews with primary sources. Herodotus refrains from injecting his own interpretation of events. He tells us the “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” and “how.” However, unless told to him by one of the people he spoke with, there’s very little of the “why” in his work.

For this, Thucydides derided Herodotus. Born a generation after Herodotus, scholars often refer to Thucydides as “the father of modern history.” In writing his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides employed what has been called “scientific history.” This allowed him to accept a broader array of sources and to interpret what he found, including criticizing those sources.

Thucydides accused Herodotus of making up stories for the sake of entertainment and for blindly accepting what his primary sources told him. Herodotus justified the former by agreeing with the latter. It wasn’t his entertaining story, it was his source’s entertaining story.

Here’s the irony. By sticking to the facts (i.e., retelling – not reinterpreting – what the primary source told him), Herodotus gave future researchers clues to dig up.

And they did. Modern historians and archeologists have confirmed most of what Herodotus wrote.

We can describe the two Greek historians thusly: Herodotus was news. Thucydides was news and analysis.

Herodotus was a good historian. Thucydides was also a good historian, but you might need to work harder to strip away the facts from the interpretation.

Interpretation isn’t bad, but that’s not the essential job of the historian. The historian, first and foremost, must chronicle and preserve primary source information. This is so future historians have access to critical data.

Hmm, in retrospect, maybe the New York State definition of the duties of a public historian is spot on.

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  1. […] focus on recording history or interpreting history? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “The Role Of The Historian,” to see why this question is as old as history […]

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