Reading The Historian's Craft in the Age of Trump

I wrote this essay in the summer of 2016, and spent the ensuing year revising it. Yet I never hit publish. Partly, I felt (and feel) like an imposter; neither Bloch’s work nor WWII are within the purview of my own historical research. Additionally, I’m not sure I entirely agree with my conclusions about the role historians must play in this current moment.

However, I just read the following piece (“The Medievalist Who Fought Nazis with History”) on Forbes.com, and I decided to share this because I do believe that Bloch was telling us more than “the point of history [is] to have something to say about the present.” So I offer my own thoughts for debate.

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Recently, I found myself reaching for my well-worn copy of Marc Bloch's The Historian's Craft, a 200-page meditation on the meaning and value of history and a primer on how to do it well. The book has a tragic backstory. Marc Bloch was a French Jewish historian who was well known and respected for his scholarship on medieval and early-modern French feudal society. After Nazi troops invaded France in 1940, Bloch went underground and began to work on two manuscripts. He wrote the first, Strange Defeat, during the summer of 1940 to chronicle how and why France failed to rout the German invasion. Bloch then began writing The Historian's Craft. In late 1942, while working on the manuscript, he became active in the French Resistance. Vichy police eventually captured him in March of 1944 and he was turned over to the Gestapo for interrogation. He was tortured, imprisoned, and then murdered by a firing squad in June 1944. Bloch's colleague, historian Lucien Febvre, took up the task after the war of assembling the unfinished text into a draft for publication. 

Why did Bloch choose to write a book on historiography and methods, of all possible topics, while a war raged around him? The introduction to The Historian’s Craft provides some indication of his motives. Bloch wrote that because Western civilization “has always been extremely attentive to its past,” it was only natural that “whenever our exacting Western society, in the continuing crisis of growth, begins to doubt itself, it asks itself whether it has done well in trying to learn from the past, and whether it has learned rightly.” [i]

The Historian's Craft thus begins with a quote from Bloch's son, who as a young boy asked of his father, "Tell me, Daddy. What is the use of history?" Bloch explained that buried in this simple question posed by his child lay a deeper question, "no less that of the legitimacy of history.” [ii] From the outset, then, Bloch devoted The Historian's Craft to explaining the "usefulness" of history as an intellectual discipline devoted to understanding human lives. Bloch emphasized that “useful” history portrays people, events, and decisions in the past as complex and dynamic, the product of coincidences and contradictions just as often as of logical choices. 

Bloch emphasized, however, that "this question of use must always come second in the order of things, for, to act reasonably, it is first necessary to understand.” [iii] He believed that explanation was paramount—interpretation and judgment were by necessity secondary. "If the judgment only followed the explanation,” he wrote, “the reader could simply skip it. Unfortunately the habit of passing judgments leads to a loss of taste for explanations.” In the context in which Bloch was writing, when the “loss of taste for explanations” had allowed European fascists to persecute Jews and other minorities whom history had judged unfavorably, Bloch’s appeal was not for objectivity. Rather, he desired for historians to write history that was so rich and penetrating that politicians could not easily flatten it for their use as evidence of a group’s defectiveness or as a justification for action against a group. Indeed, Bloch continued, “When the passions of the past blend with the prejudices of the present, human reality is reduced to a picture in black and white.”[iv]

Bloch thus concluded the introduction to The Historian’s Craft by describing it as “the memorandum of a craftsman who has always liked to reflect over his daily task.” [v] Indeed, “reflective” perfectly describes the book. It is quiet and wise. In a time of chaos, Bloch bored down to examine the nature of history and the essential mechanics of historical research. And yet by focusing on the foundations, Bloch also challenged historians to think more broadly about the judgments they built atop it. 

Are historians to blame for the ease with which politicians flatten history? We must ask ourselves how and why history is so easily dismantled and rewritten by politicians, while our scholarship is dismissed. Have our attempts to prove our contemporary relevance led us to pass too many judgments and ironically led us to undermine our own legitimacy? 

If so, the consequent question is not whether or not to be an activist historian. I still believe the answer to that question is yes. The question is how we can be activist historians without cutting our legs out from underneath us. Bloch would be the last person to say that this means ignoring the needs and interests of the present. Rather, he urged historians to be more understanding. “Even in action,” he wrote, “we are far too prone to judge. ... A little more understanding of people would be necessary merely for guidance, in the conflicts which are unavoidable; all the more to prevent them while there is yet time.” [vi]

I think there is another reason, however, that Bloch wrote this book in the midst of the war, and it’s for the same reason that I turned to his book in the midst of this political moment. The rigorous evaluation of methodology grounds the historian in the present without effacing the infinitude of history and the constant evolution of historiography. There is an inertia created when these contradictory forces are balanced against one another, providing a moment for the scholar to pause, catch their breath, and “ask himself with a sudden qualm whether he has spent his life wisely?” [vii]

These moments of inertia are when it’s most tempting to assert our usefulness by putting judgment before explanation. Bloch urges us to look inwards at our own methodological practices. Not because it will challenge the new regime, or instantly make American society more empathetic, but because it is a balance against the loud, the chaotic. It’s a forceful assertion of the importance of reflection and humility. 

 

[i]Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It (New York: Vintage Books, 1953), 4-6.

[ii]Bloch, Historian’s Craft, 3-4.

[iii]Ibid., 11.

[iv]Ibid., 140.


[v]Ibid., 19.

[vi]Ibid., 143-4.

[vii]Ibid., 4.

My Smash + Grab Research Trip to New Orleans

Last week I had the pleasure, for the first time in months, of spending a day in the archives. With the financial support of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, I was able to travel to New Orleans and conduct research Tulane’s Louisiana Research Collection.

I prepared for my visit using the DEVONthink for Historians Smash and Grab Checklist, a template that Ada and I designed and included in Super User guide (we also have a Low and Slow Checklist for longer-term archival visits). We created these checklists because our philosophy is that database maintenance is as important as database mining. It’s like a car—you can’t drive it if you don’t change the oil regularly.

The Day Before

I began by creating a new folder for the Tulane Louisiana Research Collection. Withinn that folder I created a new Smash and Grab Checklist (by clicking Actions > New from Template) and reviewed the three tasks listed under “Before the Archive.”

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Per step one, I created a new plain text file within the same folder and labeled it “Archival Notes LaRC Tulane September 27 2018.” I added contact information for the archivists I had corresponded with, the address of the archive, and then listed the collections, boxes, and folders I planned to view during my visit. And then I headed for the airport!

The Day Of

I woke up early so I would have time to double-check that my database, scanner app, and walking directions to the archive were set and that I was ready to go.

I arrived at the archive a few minutes after it opened, delayed by a deluge of rain that slowed my pace. By the time I reached Tulane I was soaked! But between 10:30 AM and 3 PM, I diligently combed through boxes and folders.

As instructed in the “In the Archive” section of the checklist, I kept a dutiful record of the materials I viewed. In my archival notes, I wrote down the contents of each folder (in the aggregate, unless particular documents were of interest) and indicated if I had scanned a particular document.

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I used the CamScanner app to create PDFs of each document. I like CamScanner because it has a batch feature that allows you to capture a multi-page document in one PDF (other apps might do this as well, but this was the first one I found). From the app, I transfered the PDFs to my laptop via email. This could also be done with a cloud storage service.

Before I left, I downloaded and opened each file to check that the PDF was readable and complete. When you can’t necessarily get back to an archive, it’s essential to do the job right the first time. It’s hard when you’re mentally drained and your eyes are itchy and tired and all you want is to go eat a big lunch and nurse a beer. But I forced myself to do it!

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After the Archive

My first post-archive task, per the checklist, was to transfer all of the PDFs into the database and move them into their appropriate folders. I ended up only scanning 10 documents, and so I had time to do this before the archive closed. With so few documents, I decided that box and folder sub-folders were not necessary and I simply stored the documents by collection.

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After a few days of enjoying the Big Easy, I sat down to finish the checklist. I added tags to each document, which varied; I did tag all with the year they were written and “New Orleans” so that I could easily aggregate all my documents from the Crescent City regardless of which archive they I found them in. Once the document was tagged I created a SuperAnnotation and filled in the citation information. The final step was to label both the document and SuperAnnotation with the red dot, which I’ve assigned to mean “To Do”—it’s a reminder to come back and take notes about the document’s contents.

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Conclusion

The Smash and Grab Checklist kept me organized on this whirlwind research trip by spreading out the work across three days. It kept me accountable and on-track with my database maintenance, and relieved the decision fatigue that often sets in during work travel. I just did what the steps instructed, and when I finished all of my new documents were in my database, tagged and together with their citation information. On past trips this has not always been the case! I feel like I’ve earned my Super User bona fides.

If this nine-point, step-by-step checklist seems like it could be useful to you during your archival trips, become a DEVONthink for Historians Super User. The guide includes 100 minutes of video lessons, the SuperAnnotation template, and a script that transfers your citation information to Bookends, a reference management software.

The Week of Getting Back to Reading

Work has been busy this month, and I've struggled to find energy to read in the evenings. It has even been difficult to stay awake long enough to watch a TV show. But yesterday I was finally able to take a day off and relax enough that I could immerse myself in a good book. I slept in, read for a bit, ran a few errands, read some more, saw friends, and continued reading after Kevin made me a delicious dinner. So finally, after four weeks, I have a recommendation to share.

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Here's what captured my attention this week...

I'm reading: Part of the motivation for getting back to reading was that this morning I attended a book club discussion of Yaa Gyasi's novel Homegoing. The novel follows two branches of a Ghanaian family for seven generations, alternating back and forth between the descendants of two sisters. One sister (Effia) and her descendants remain in Ghana, and while the other sister (Esi) is captured in her village and and sold into slavery in the United States. The lineage of Effia traces the history of African and British slave trading, British colonialism, and Ghanaian independence, while Esi's lineage experiences the indignities of enslavement in the cotton fields of the American South, the chain gangs sent into the coal mines of Alabama, and the discrimination and segregation of northern cities after the Great Migration.

Homegoing excels in four ways:

1) By evoking empathy for the intergenerational trauma that Africans and African Americans have experienced (and continue to experience) as a result of slavery, colonialism, and racism. 

2) By covering 300 years of history on two continents in a way that, while not comprehensive--how could it be, in only 300 pages?--is broadly representative of each generation's particular social norms, legal freedoms, and motivating interests. It's quite a feat. The nearest comparison I can think of, Chimamande Ngozi Adiche's Americanah, manages to cover two continents but is mostly set in the twenty-first century. 

3) By challenging the binary of edenic, righteous, genuine Africa and the corrupted diaspora. Mostly notably, in addition to addressing Africans' complicity in capturing and selling their enemies into slavery--and thus profiting from the transatlantic slave trade--Gyasi manages to weave into this family drama an acknowledgment that even in the nineteenth century the world was small enough that the Asante and Fante tribes knew exactly what was happening to slaves once they reached the Americas.

4) Finally, the form of the novel is interesting to dissect. Despite following fourteen different characters with minimal overlap between their stories, each chapter shares a fundamental core: the marriage plot. Each must end with a man meeting a woman and--through love or, too often, through violence--conceiving the next generation. In this way, they are all love stories, be it love between two partners or between parent and child. 

Despite these merits, at times I felt that the balance between trauma and agency tipped towards the former to an extent that undermined the book's ultimate emphasis on resilience. There is also a motif of fire vs. water that runs unevenly throughout the book, and I'm unsure whether it needed to be highlighted more or pared back. But overall, this book will leave you marveling at how many stories and how much history can be packed into 300 pages without it ever feeling clunky or bloated.

I'm listening to: An old favorite.

I'm watching: "Nanette," Hannah Gadsby's Netflix stand-up special. This is one of those recommendations where the less I say, the more you will enjoy it. It's truly one of the most radical pieces of art I have ever experienced, and I strongly urge you to drop everything and watch it now. You will not regret it. Between Homegoing and Nanette, you'll be left with a lot of thoughts about the power and politics of storytelling. 

Enjoy posts like this one? Check out Brisket to read more about what's on my mind--just bring some bread to go with the meal! If you're interested in sampling a bite, I currently have a public post up that introduces the theme for July: Cityzenship.

The Week of Lambapalooza

Yesterday was the best day of the year. Our close friends have an annual tradition of throwing a big party for their wide circle of friends and colleagues; the centerpiece of the celebration is a roast lamb (and in recent years a pig as well). For the past five years I have helped with the preparation and roasting of the lamb. We start prepping early in the morning and, after we get the fires going, sit in the sunshine and read and jam to classic rock. And then people begin arriving around 3 PM and the party gets going and the drinks start flowing. 

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Here's what captured my attention this week...

I'm reading: Rebecca Traister's All The Single Ladies, which I'm racing to finish before the Feminist Book Club meets on Tuesday evening at White Whale Bookstore to discuss it (plus I want to return my copy to its owner when I visit her next weekend in Atlanta). This morning I finally finished Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen. Petersen devotes each chapter to a prominent woman, from Serena Williams (Too Strong) to Lena Dunham (Too Naked). With each celebrity, Petersen identifies how the controversial aspects of their fame reveals a boundary line between what contemporary American society considers feminine and what it considers unruly. Rather than delivering a single thesis about how misogyny currently operates and what its affect is on women, these case studies show that there are multiple ongoing challenges to the norms and conventions of femininity:

  • What a woman's body should look like (Too Strong; Too Fat; Too Old; Too Pregnant)
  • What a woman's voice, both literal and figurative, should sound like (Too Gross; Too Shrill; Too Loud)
  • How a woman should behave (Too Slutty; Too Queer; Too Naked)

For example, in the chapter on too-pregnant Kim Kardashian, Petersen describes how magazines like Us Weekly and People broke the taboo of printing pictures of pregnant celebrities after their advertisers realized that there was a lot of money to be made by selling products to pregnant women. The way the magazines portrayed pregnancy, however, was as an easy, natural, and transcendent experience in every woman's life. When Kim had preeclampsia, rapid weight gain, and pain during her first pregnancy, Peterson argues she shattered the myth of this "beautiful" life-cycle experience and faced immense public ridicule for not having the typical "cute" baby bump; furthermore, Peterson reminds readers that despite her discomfort Kim refused to wear dowdy maternity clothing and instead walked the Met Gala red carpet in a form-fitting Givenchy gown (albeit one with a bold floral pattern that overwhelmed and obscured her). Kim, in spite of (and because of) being known for her glam put-togetherness, challenged the social conventions of what a woman should look like while gestating a baby. As Petersen argues in the book's conclusion, Kim and the rest of the celebrities she writes about are fundamentally normative--they could not be deviant or unruly otherwise--but that does not minimize the significance of their challenges to the particular standards of femininity that they encounter. 

The case studies are the book's greatest strength and also its primary weakness. Despite insightful analysis of media portrayals of Hillary Clinton as "too shrill," that chapter seemed to drag and I just wanted to move on to another topic. And my favorite chapters, on Nicki Minaj and Jennifer Weiner, ended too quickly and left me wanting a book-length investigation of the topics they explore. Yet the book succeeds, even in the moments you find yourself disengaged, because Peterson consistently reveals fractures in the ways that men and women think about, discuss, perform, and value gender that you had never noticed or questioned before.

I'm listening to: Kanye West's new album, out of curiosity.

I'm watching: "Hard Knock Wife," the new comedy special from Ali Wong. If you enjoyed "Baby Cobra," Wong's first stand-up special on Netflix, you're sure to enjoy this one. The storytelling is less tight--there's no big reveal or punchline at the end of this one--but Wong is more explicitly feminist, calling for policies that protect and benefit new parents.

Enjoy posts like this one? Check out Brisket to read more about what's on my mind--just bring some bread to go with the meal! Right now I have a new video up where I introduce the theme for June: feminist entrepreneurship. I've made the post public, so you do not have to be a patron to view it.